The National Trust has always been more radical than its somewhat staid reputation suggests. Octavia Hill, one of the conservation charity’s three founders, came from a family of thinkers and social reformers, and used her formidable steeliness to turn London’s slums into liveable spaces and protect its green belt from development.
Her passion for open, natural landscapes and belief that these were crucial to people’s welfare, particularly those living in poverty, drove Hill to set up the organisation in 1895 along with two others. Her legacy was discussed earlier this year at the trust’s first annual Octavia Hill Lecture, which was delivered by Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum and National Gallery.
One imagines that if Hill were alive today, she might not be celebrated by the trust’s detractors, who fervently believe the organisation has moved away from its core purpose.
The Conservative MP Andrew Murrison – one of the trust’s chief critics – defined this purpose as offering visitors a “mansion experience” and providing “succour for the soul and a welcome break from remorseless hectoring”. It seems likely that he and Hill would have disagreed on many political matters.
Leading an organisation that holds within it so many opposing viewpoints is a careful balancing act for its director-general, Hilary McGrady. But McGrady, who has been with the organisation for 17 years and has led it since 2018, grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and is a firm believer in the power of culture and heritage to overcome division and build bridges.
“Culture can be a very divisive issue, but I personally believe it has the power to be a healing thing and a uniting thing – a mechanism to help people understand each other’s points of view,” she says.
This mindset was crucial to navigating the trust through one of the rockiest periods in its history in 2020 when, instead of celebrating its 125th birthday as planned, it was forced to make 1,300 redundancies in its largest-ever restructure, before finding itself at the centre of a fierce culture war.
This followed the publication of a report on connections to slavery and empire at National Trust properties, and eventually led to parliamentary scrutiny, a Charity Commission inquiry and an attempt by the breakaway members’ group, Restore Trust, to install its own trustees on the organisation’s governing body.
The backlash initially took McGrady by surprise. “Ninety per cent of my focus was on the implications of Covid and trying to deal with that from an organisational point of view,” McGrady says. “I have to confess, I just did not expect the whole culture-war thing. It definitely came from left field. We certainly weren’t prepared for it because we didn’t see it coming, and it took us a while to really get to a place of confidence on it.”
The reaction from most National Trust members was reassuring she says. “We did have people on both sides cross and upset and angry, and I really try hard to listen and understand that and either reassure them or potentially reassess whether we have got this right or wrong. But the response of the majority was that membership continued to rise, I continued to get huge numbers of supportive letters, and visitors kept coming. That is the endorsement that I look for.”
Ironically, the intense scrutiny helped the National Trust to clarify its mission. “I feel crystal-clear on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she says. “It forced us to really examine that closely and we’ve ended up in a more confident place. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but it has been a useful exercise.”
A dual mission
For McGrady, that purpose is to build on Hill’s original vision. Although the organisation has no intention of stepping back from the work started by the slavery report, McGrady says she’s thinking deeply about the organisation’s dual mission to protect and preserve not just built heritage but landscapes and the natural environment, and what this means in the era of climate and ecological breakdown.
“When we were formed, it was all around nature, landscape,” says McGrady. The trust’s attentions expanded after the second world war, when it acquired many of the country houses it is most well known for today. “We didn’t stop looking after natural landscapes when we moved to country houses as being a priority,” she says.
“But now, we’ve almost come full circle back to land and nature again. “The whole area of focus, and our role in climate change and nature protection, feels profoundly different to what it was even five years ago. It’s the sense of us being an active player in that world.”
With such a diverse portfolio of sites, the organisation is a first-hand witness to the environmental emergency. Last year, millions of birds died at its properties due to the devastating bird flu pandemic.
“It’s been horrendous actually, because our own teams have had to do a lot of the cleaning and sorting, which has been very traumatic for them,” says McGrady.
The trust has intensified its focus on restoring ecology, inspiring visitors to reconnect with nature, and becoming sustainable. As part of this, it is spearheading several initiatives, including the People’s Plan for Nature (see feature), which launched in March, and rewilding projects across its sites.
“Humans see themselves as something separate to nature. But trying to work with nature has got to be the way for recovery here,” she says. “That’s a very fundamental shift of thinking that we’ve got to embrace.”
This dual focus on heritage and nature is what drew McGrady to the National Trust in the first place. A love of culture and the outdoors were “two twin pillars of my entire upbringing”, she says.
Intending to study law, she had a last-minute change of heart and went to art college instead – “much to my parents’ dismay”, she laughs. From there, McGrady worked as a graphic designer before taking on a marketing role in the drinks industry.
“It was brilliant, and I got a very good business grounding, but my heart was driven by wanting to make a difference more than wanting to sell stocks,” she says. After 10 years, McGrady moved to the charitable sector, where she became involved in Belfast’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to become the European Capital of Culture.
Born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, McGrady studied graphic design at art college. She worked as a brand manager for the drinks corporation Diageo before moving into the third sector to lead the charity Arts & Business.
In 2002, she was seconded to become chief executive of Belfast’s bid to become European Capital of Culture.
In 2006, McGrady joined the National Trust as regional director for Northern Ireland. She later became regional director for Wales, and the London and South East regions. In 2014, she was appointed chief operating officer, leading the operations and consultancy team. She took up the director-general role in March 2018.
In 2006, McGrady spotted a role that ticked every box: regional director for the National Trust in Northern Ireland. “I think the stars aligned,” she says. “It just seemed a perfect fusion. The trust is a business that needs to run well, but it brought me back into the world of arts and heritage – and the environment, which was an added bonus.”
From there, McGrady moved through a variety of roles at the trust before the director-general job came up in 2018. “I never at any point thought I’m on a mission to try to get to director-general – that was never in my ether at all,” she says.
“Each time I just kept seeing things that I thought: ‘Oh, that would be interesting, and I think I’ve got something to add to that.’ And here I find myself as director-general of the most extraordinary organisation ever.”
Art meets nature
McGrady’s passion for the National Trust is evident. “I love arts in all shapes and forms and setting that within a historical context is the thing that marks the trust,” she says. “You’ve got the painting, but then you’ve got the painting within a room, and then you’ve got the room within a house, and a house within the landscape and the landscape within the country. I think that’s a really fascinating dimension that makes us quite unique.”
As the custodian of so many varied sites, the trust’s dual priorities sometimes come into conflict, says McGrady. “We have this constant question at the trust: how do you manage the beauty of a period in time, and allow new thinking to come in? I think the trust has accepted that it needs to move on. I think we’re in a much healthier place on conservation being the management of change.”
Despite having to grapple with the long tail of Covid, as well as with new challenges such as the energy crisis, the trust has been able to rebuild itself to near pre-Covid levels thanks to careful planning. “We figured there would be inflation after Covid – we didn’t anticipate a war,” says McGrady. “But we certainly anticipated that some tough years would be unavoidable. And so it turned out to be, but because we predicted that we are in good stead.”
A trusty army of workers
The organisation’s workforce is almost back up to full complement again, says McGrady, including replenishing collections and conservation staff and adding 28 new curatorial roles. It has also just launched a Volunteer Charter to offer more flexible roles for volunteers – a crucial part of its workforce and one that was particularly hard-hit during Covid. And it is putting a big emphasis on expanding its apprenticeships programme, doubling the number of heritage apprentices that it currently trains.
“We’re committed at bringing in heritage skills, which the sector needs desperately, but also it’s a great way for younger people to come into our sector,” says McGrady. The organisation will come to the end of its 10-year plan in 2025 and is beginning the consultation process for its new strategy.
But it is unlikely to stray too far from Octavia Hill’s core vision. One of McGrady’s proudest personal achievements is the trust’s acquisition of a headland overlooking the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the purchase of which she negotiated after it came under threat of development.
It encapsulates everything the National Trust – and McGrady herself – stands for. “You stand there and you just think no one’s ever going to be able to ruin that and future generations will be able to look on that landscape and glorify in it forever,” she says. “Those are the things that get me out of bed.”
The National Trust was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley to “promote the permanent preservation” of places of beauty or historic interest.
The trust acquired its first building, Alfriston Clergy House, a 14th-century house in Sussex, for £10 in 1896, and now cares for over 500 places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including more than 200 historic houses.
In addition to being the UK’s largest private landowner, the trust is the single biggest employer in the UK’s museum and heritage sector, with a workforce of almost 11,000. It provides training through facilities such as the Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole house in Kent that it opened in 2018.