In the June Bulletin, the events of 100 years ago when Lawrence Johnston and his mother, Mrs Gertrude Winthrop, came to Hidcote Manor and then the subsequent creation of Hidcote Manor garden leading up to its heyday in the 1930s were recalled. In this article, the transfer to the National Trust in 1948 and subsequent developments at Hidcote up to Lawrence Johnston’s death in 1958 are covered.

In the 1930s, Lawrence Johnston was actively engaged in seeking plants for Hidcote or for his garden at Serre de la Madone at Menton on the south coast of France. He was both a sponsor of, and went on, plant hunting expeditions to places such as Formosa (Taiwan) and to Yunnan in China. When he was at Hidcote, he led an active social life as his diaries for 1929 and 1932 show that there were many coming to see the garden or to play tennis. Towards the end of the 1930s when he was in his late 60s, he spent his summers at Hidcote and the winter months at Serre de la Madone.

During the second World War he was concerned about the taxation associated with living in England and began to consider what he should do about Hidcote. James Lees-Milne, whose parents used to live at Wickhamford, records in his diary that in February 1943 at a luncheon organised by Sibyl Colefax, an influential figure in London society who is mentioned a few times in Lawrence Johnston’s diaries, Johnston took him aside to ask if the National Trust would take over Hidcote without endowment after the war when he intended to live in the south of France for good.

Following the end of the war, Sibyl Colefax wrote in April 1947 to James Lees-Milne who was then working for the National Trust to say “I was over at Hidcote with Vivien Leigh Saturday. Laurie Johnston wants to give Hidcote to the N. T. now. So do get him tied up. You see he is not gaga but has no memory. He told me, indeed took me away specially to talk of this.”

This led to James Lees-Milne writing on 1st May 1947 to Lawrence Johnston saying that “Sibyl Colefax had written me a line to say that she has been over to Hidcote, and that you would like to see me and have a talk about the future of Hidcote some time. I need hardly say that I should be delighted to do so.” He went on to say that he would be probably staying with his parents at Wickhamford – about ten miles away from Hidcote – over Whitsun and asking if he could come and visit one afternoon then. Lawrence Johnston replied the next day saying “Yes, I have decided to make this over to the National Trust. Anyway at my death. I shall be glad to see you at Whitsuntide.”

James Lees-Milne visited Hidcote and produced a one page report dated 25th May 1947 on Hidcote. This said that Major Johnston offered to leave his property to the Trust by will but wished to know that the Trust will accept it before he made the necessary testamentary depositions. It noted that the gardens created by Major Johnston over the past forty years are by garden experts accounted of national importance and interest.

Their layout is such that the visitor is constantly coming upon an unforeseen glade or vista. James Lees-Milne says that “As a specimen of the 20th century garden, this one at Hidcote is fascinating and probably unsurpassed.” He concluded by noting “Major Johnston considers that five gardeners are the maximum that would be required. He cannot provide any endowment in money, and the Trust would only receive revenue from the letting of the house and the farm rent.”

The National Trust then began to consider whether to accept Hidcote. Its historic buildings committee on 12th June 1947 “decided strongly to recommend acceptance of the devise on account of the gardens, provided (a) adequate endowment was forthcoming and (b) the gardens would be fully maintained and a curator or custodian with proper horticultural qualifications engaged to superintend them in future.” The finance committee considered Hidcote on the following day and decided to accept the offer of the Hon. Harold Nicholson to approach the Royal Horticultural Society (R.H.S.) to see if they could give financial help to the upkeep of the gardens. However, the council of the R.H.S. decided they could not accept this additional responsibility. An approach was made to see whether Kew could help but this was unsuccessful.

However, the R.H.S. in November considered the idea of a “Gardens” trust with Lord Aberconway saying that:

“He thought that something ought to be done to preserve a few of the outstanding gardens in the country for the future on the lines of the National Trust and suggested that such a Trust might be established to look after these and other similar gifts. Such a Trust of course would only take over the very best gardens.”

He suggested that this might be under the joint patronage of the National Trust and the R.H.S. and following consultations with the National Trust agreement was reached in February 1948 to set up the “Gardens Section of the National Trust”. This would have as its aim: the preservation of properties with gardens of National importance. Only gardens of special design or historic interest, or gardens having collections of plants or trees of value to the Nation either botanically, horticulturally, or scientifically, would be considered.

It would be financed by “The Gardens Fund” to be launched by an appeal for donations, bequests and public subscription. Such gardens would be administered by “The Gardens Committee” with a membership half from the National Trust and half from the R.H.S.

The first meeting of the gardens committee on 23rd March was held with Lord Aberconway in the chair. Members of the committee included Vita Sackville-West. the Earl of Rosse, the Hon David Bowes-Lyon. and Sir Edward Salisbury (director of Kew). Hidcote was the first item considered under “Gardens to be Considered.” The minutes record that “The chairman reported that this property has already been offered to the Trust and suggested that it should be one of the first properties to be considered when the Fund has been raised.” The Committee “took note, concurring.”

At a meeting of the gardens committee in April 1948 it was decided to launch “an appeal at the end of June to be supported by a letter in “The Times” and a broadcast by Lord Aberconway.” This was launched on 28 June 1948.

Lord Aberconway wrote to Lawrence Johnston in June saying that the gardens committee had decided that “your generous offer of “Hidcote” should be put in the forefront of our appeal.” Lawrence Johnston replied saying that “I am perfectly delighted that you may be able to take over Hidcote. … Of course, I should like it if I could come back here for short periods in the summer. There is so much I have planted that I should like to see grown. For that privilege I might be able to contribute to the expenses. I should have to consult my lawyer about that. It all depends on whether I should make myself liable for English income tax. I could afford to do it if I did not have to pay income tax.”

There was then a flurry of activity as Lawrence Johnston planned to depart for Serre de la Madone in September. A letter to Lawrence Johnston signed by Lord Crawford, the president of the National Trust, sets out the understanding between the National Trust and Lawrence Johnston that he should remain supervisor of the gardens for the rest of his lifetime, that the house will not be let and will be at Lawrence Johnston’s disposal should he wish to visit Hidcote and that whilst he is at Hidcote, the garden shall not be open more than three days a week, and those days will be at Lawrence Johnston’s discretion.

Lord Esher and James Lees-Milne went to visit Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote on 27th August 1948 when he signed the deed of conveyance for the Hidcote Manor estate. Lawrence Johnston departed for France on 14th September leaving the National Trust to manage Hidcote. The early years were difficult as there was always uncertainty as to whether or when Lawrence Johnston would be returning each summer and the absence of any endowment for Hidcote meant that there were concerns each year about the costs and how these would be met. In addition, the house could not be let as it needed to be kept ready in case Lawrence Johnston returned.

In November 1948 the nine cottages and farm house in Hidcote Bartrim were occupied as follows: Cottage No. 1. (opposite Manor House and near two derelict cottages). Occupied by D. Hughes who worked for Righton the farm tenant. His wife was the Mrs. Hughes who works in the house. Cottage No. 2 (two cottages endways on to the road and next to the Manor House). One was occupied by Walter Bennett, and the other by Edward Pearce, rent and rates free, both gardeners at the Manor. Bennet has been in occupation since 1910 and Pearce for about 40 years too. Cottage Nos. 4, 5 & 6. (opposite fountain) One was occupied by W. Hughes (brother to D. Hughes above) who works for Righton and another was occupied by L. Batchelor (son-in-law to W. Bennett) who works for his father as a market gardener at Upper Quinton. This cottage consists really of one room only which Bennett is partitioning with the permission of Major Johnston. He occupies it rent free; it used to be the village hall or something of that sort. The third was occupied by Mrs Bennett (senior) the mother of Walter Bennett above. Occupies the cottage rent free as is she is the widow of G. Bennett, employed as a gardener at one time by Major Johnston. Cottage Nos. 7, 8 & 9. (adjoining derelict shed). One was occupied by S. Nichols, rent free, gardener at the Manor. (He is a brother-in-law to W. Bennett) and another was occupied by Mrs. Maxsted a friend of Major Johnston who paid 5/s. per week rent to the National Trust. The third was occupied by L. Merriman who works for Righton. Farm House. This was occupied by P. Righton. cousin of the farm tenant.

There were four gardeners in 1949: Albert Hawkins, who was effectively head gardener. Ted Pearce. Walter Bennett and Sidney Nichols (brother in law to Walter Bennett), aged 55. 68. 49 and 47 who had worked at Hidcote for 30. 42. 29 and 2 years respectively. All received £4-10-0 a week apart from Ted Pearce who received £5 a week (as he used to look after Lawrence Johnston’s hens and had been tried out as head gardener at the end of the war but without success) and all apart from Albert Hawkins (who preferred to live in Ebrington) were provided with a cottage rent-free.

In October 1949, the gardens committee instructed the secretary of the National Trust (J. F. W. Rathbone) “to explore the possibility of setting up a small local committee to help to run these gardens.” This led to a local committee with Major Kenneth Shennan of Shipton Oliffe Manor, Andoversford as the chairman together with Mrs. Heather Muir of Kiftsgate, Mr. Joseph de Navarro of Court Farm, Broadway and Miss Nancy Lindsay as members. Nancy Lindsay told the secretary that she regarded “herself as Major Johnston’s “seeing eye”” for Hidcote. Despite misgivings expressed by Mrs. Muir, Major Shennan and the National Trust, it was judged better to include her rather than, as the secretary noted, “hurt the feelings of this tiresome woman.”

Lawrence Johnston returned to Hidcote only once, in July 1950. In August, the area agent of the National Trust, Colin Jones, visited Hidcote and then wrote to the secretary that Lawrence Johnston seemed quite happy about everything “except the fact that Miss Lindsay was on the Local Committee. He said he hoped we would not bring her to Hidcote as he couldn’t bear the woman!” Lawrence Johnston returned to France at the end of August. The gardens committee after some consideration decided that Nancy Lindsay should be told that they had decided that professional gardeners should not be members of National Trust gardens committees and so she would not be re-elected.

During the 1950s when Lawrence Johnston was in his 80s it was evident that he would not be returning to Hidcote and a sale was held of the furniture and household effects in the winter months of 1956 and then a flat was created in the kitchen wing of the house for a new head gardener, Mr. Philip Knox, who started on 3 June 1957.

Lawrence Johnston, aged 86, died in Menton on 27th April 1958 and his body was brought back to England and buried in Mickleton churchyard on 14th May 1958 alongside his mother, Mrs. Gertrude Winthrop.

A subsequent article for the Bulletin will cover later developments at Hidcote through to the ongoing programme today to raise matched funding for the reinstatement and restoration of Hidcote back to how it was in its heyday.

Graham Pearson is the volunteer archivist at Hidcote and the author of Hidcote: The Garden and Lawrence Johnston published in June 2007 by Anova Books/National Trust Books, £20, hardback, illustrated throughout.

(Article from the Chipping Campden Bulletin. Included with kind permission of Jeremy Green)