LORD Victor Bulwer-Lytton, the 2nd Earl of Lytton, owner of Knebworth House, was having none of it!

He’d rather burn his stately pile to the ground, he declared on the letters page of the popular national Daily Dispatch, than follow Sir Charles Trevelyan’s example.

The latter’s crime? Well, trumpeting his socialist beliefs, the former Labour Secretary of State for Education had announced his intention to leave his estate at Wallington lock, stock and barrel to the National Trust.

In doing so, said the outraged Earl, Trevelyan was capitulating to the ‘blackmail taxation’ imposed by successive governments trying to tax home owners out of existence or railroad them into selling up their estates for ‘breaking-up purposes’.

But Trevelyan, chatelain of a then 250 year old historic home, 13,000 acres and the myriad of farms and tenants they played host to, had his very good reasons why.

He unveiled his plans to his tenants during a garden party at Wallington in 1936, and followed up soon afterwards with a speech broadcast by BBC Radio Newcastle expounding his support for Lord Lothian’s much-debated Country Houses Scheme.

It wasn’t until 1968 – pretty much 50 years ago to the day – that full ownership of the estate finally passed into the hands of the National Trust, following the deaths of Charles in 1958 and his wife Molly, in 1966.

The wily ex-politician had negotiated the right of tenancy for himself, his wife and his children for so long as any of them should wish.

But his commitment to preserving his estate for the benefit of the nation had never wavered. In his wireless broadcast of March 1937, he said: “As a socialist I am not hampered by any sense of ownership.

“I’m prompted to act as I am doing by satisfaction at knowing that the place I love will be held in perpetuity for the people of my country.”

To mark the half-century of the National Trust’s ownership, the award-winning troupe November Club will be at Wallington these next three weekends, entertaining visitors with pop-up ‘playlets’ designed to inform as well as entertain.

Writer Fiona Ellis and November Club’s founder/director Cinzia Hardy homed in on the national debate that raged between the likes of Victor Bulwer-Lytton on the one side and Charles Trevelyan on the other.

“I found so many press cuttings that, in the end, telling it from the journalists’ different vantage points was a good way to tackle the story,” said Cinzia.

“If you and I made our wills, they would be relatively straightforward, but can you imagine Sir Charles Trevelyan making his will? You almost need a PhD to understand his memorandum of wishes.

“Journalists investigated the notion about whether he did the right thing. How did his wife feel, becoming a tenant in her own home? And what about their son, George, who was disinherited?”

November Club aimed to get people thinking about the issues surrounding the donation of Wallington estate in its entirety.

“It sounds like a simple concept, and people say ‘but he had lots of money’ and ‘as a socialist, he shouldn’t have had all that’,” said Cinzia, “but it was a pretty complex affair.”

Sir Charles first took soundings with the Trust about the transfer in 1934, a month before Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, secretary to Prime Minster Lloyd George and, pertinently, owner of Norfolk’s magnificent Blickling Estate, outlined his idea for a Country Houses Scheme.

Charles’s approach has been credited with spurring on the scheme and Lord Lothian has been celebrated ever since as the driving force behind the National Trust Act of 1937, which enabled the first large-scale transfer of mansion houses to the Trust in lieu of death duties.

Needless to say, Blickling Estate was one of the first bequeathed to the Trust under the scheme.

In that wireless broadcast, Sir Charles explained his reasons: “In every part of England now there are well-known country houses which are ceasing to be occupied by their owners. Their contents are being sold and with them departs the historic continuity of the house and its principal interest and value.

“In our two northern counties of Northumberland and Durham, in the last few years I recall at once the sale of Haggerston Castle and its destruction at the hands of the housebreakers.

“Then there is Lambton Castle, the home of the Durhams, and Chillingham Castle, belonging to Lord Tankerville in Northumberland.

“The whole contents of these places have been sold and the great mansions left empty.

“In some cases, it is only a misfortune for the owner that his family home is gone and a tradition ended which he cherishes; but in others, the community loses as much in the long run as the private owner, where treasures of national interest are dissipated and fine architectural or historic mansions are doomed to decay.”

He estimated there were at least 300 large rural houses of national significance due to, variously, their splendid architecture, their priceless collections of art or their historic connections.

However, blind chance dictated whether they survived the legal rigours of inheritance and death duties intact. He was determined Wallington would.

The present house had been built in the late 1600s on the site of the castle from which the Fenwick chieftain had sallied forth, reiving and fending off Reivers by turn, he said.

The family had been ruined during the tenure of Sir John Fenwick, a Jacobite, and the estate had been sold to the rich merchant princes of Newcastle – the Blacketts.

In a continuing rum run of luck, Sir John was beheaded for trying to assassinate William III and the Blacketts pulled his castle down to make way for the house we know today.

Sir Charles said: “For the last six years (Wallington) has been open to the public to visit free on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and public holidays and, with due notice, on other days from Easter to October.

“The result has been that many thousands come out to see it every year. It is increasingly a holiday resort for numbers of people from industrial Tyneside, who show their appreciation not only by coming out, but by an almost universal anxiety not to injure or mishandle anything.

“It would clearly be a public calamity if the house were to lose the collections which make it interesting, or were to be closed to the public who increasingly like to frequent it, or if the woods were cut down to meet taxation, or if the place were to become derelict if my successors could not afford to live in it.

“I made up my mind that I was not going to allow Wallington to become only a memory.”