The conservation or preservation of nature in the nineteenth-century United States grew in substantial part from a sense that wilderness and wild creatures ought to be preserved. But in England, at the same time, the start of nature conservation or preservation was rooted in different circumstances and sprang from distinctive motivations. In England, there was effectively no wilderness left. The country was long settled and densely populated and, since there were no places where topography or climate was really extreme, almost all rural landscapes bore signs of long human habitation and of having been adapted and shaped by people’s desires and necessities. Accordingly, the nature which many early English conservationists wanted to preserve was not only and not even primarily characterized by ideas of grandeur or the wish to preserve wilderness, as was the case in the US. Their vision was often one of people in nature: the country village, the fields at harvest, the village children dancing round the maypole, the country church, and people enjoying themselves out of doors.

English people had of course been stirred to appreciation of wild scenery by Romantic painters and particularly poets, but the wild scenes they admired were often foreign: Alpine mountains, Norwegian fjords, German forests, or Scottish moors. English nature was instead associated with well-tended fields, fat cattle, and merry villagers. Certainly, conservation efforts in England by the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took a keen interest in the upland and remote areas of England, particularly the Lake District, which the Lake Poets (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, among others) had taught them to appreciate. And the threat of development in the Lake District was one of motives behind the foundation in 1895 of the country’s most famous conservation body, The National Trust. But the earliest nature conservation efforts focused on quite different areas and on people in nature. Here, I focus on these efforts.

By the mid nineteenth century English nature—cultivated, contented, slow-changing, and populated—seemed under threat from rapidly expanding industries and cities. The census of 1851 revealed that for the first time more English people lived in towns and cities than in the countryside. But the problem was not just that cities were growing and industries springing up on otherwise rural land: the city dwellers and factory workers had no contact with nature. Early English conservationists were motivated in considerable part by a desire to re-establish a right relationship between people and nature by helping people enjoy open spaces. They were not concerned with keeping open spaces free of people.

The experience of one reformer, Octavia Hill, shows this effectively. Hill, best known now as one of three founders of the National Trust, was viewed in her lifetime as a housing reformer. Hill saw first-hand the shoddily built houses put up by speculators which soon degenerated into slums, and old houses, which, when subdivided and packed with tenants, offered even worse accommodation, and dedicated her life to improving housing for London’s poor. Although she did put up some small, purpose-built housing developments (all cottages with gardens, reminiscent in style of the English countryside), she mainly operated by closely managing existing housing.


It was believed that access to nature would improve poor people’s morals, religion, health, and sobriety. But the mechanism by which nature was to improve city dwellers was rarely clear.


She and her female colleagues sought to improve both the physical housing stock and its tenants. An integral part of her reform was the promotion of wholesome and physically and spiritually refreshing contacts with nature and open spaces. She improved her tenants’ housing by planting flowers in courtyards and providing nearby playgrounds for children, as well as open spaces where adults could rest in the open air. She also encouraged her tenants to get out into nature for evening walks, visits to friends’ gardens, or longer excursions. In addition to bringing nature into her tenant housing, she created parks elsewhere in London and campaigned for the preservation of common land—always with the expectation that open spaces would be used for public recreation, particularly by the poor.

Hill was one of many contemporary reformers who thought that cutting off poor city dwellers from nature also excluded them from its benign influences. She often drew a contrast between the city’s fouled streets, waterways, and air, and the verminous, dirty, and ill-nourished poor, with the cleanliness and plenty of nature, together with the contentment of country folk. Hill and other reformers believed that urban spaces were degraded by criminality, irreligion, and vice, while the country brimmed with virtue and wholesomeness. It was believed that access to nature would improve poor people’s morals, religion, health, and sobriety. But the mechanism by which nature was to improve city dwellers was rarely clear, and the results of poor people’s exposure to nature sometimes disappointed middle-class campaigners. Yet the failure to articulate how nature would uplift the poor, and the disappointment that (at least in the eyes of middle-class observers) it sometimes failed to do so, did not dampen the efforts of the campaigners.

The urge to bring people to nature was one of the motives behind the foundation of the earliest English nature conservation body: the Commons Preservation Society. This body was founded in 1865 by a group of mainly Liberal politicians and professionals, who used legal devices to preserve common land in the vicinity of cities, particularly London, which could then be used for recreation. Common land was land on which commoners from the adjoining villages had profitable rights, including the right to graze animals or gather firewood. The existence of these rights kept such common land open and free from development until the mid eighteenth century, after which many commons were parceled out to individuals and enclosed. A new threat to these commons emerged in the nineteenth century when land near big cities became a potentially valuable resource for housing and industry. By this time, many such commons had come to be used as much for the recreation of residents of nearby cities, as for grazing or wood gathering by local people.

One such area was Epping Forest, the remains of a Royal Forest (land reserved for the monarch to hunt deer), a few miles east of London. The local commoners’ rights to lop wood and graze animals kept the land open and undeveloped and, being a scenic spot, the forest became heavily used as a place for country outings by poor people from the East End of London. They arrived by horse-drawn brake or, later, by train to spend a day of rest in the fresh air. The struggle to keep Epping Forest unbuilt and open to all became a national cause celebre in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rights of commoners were used by campaigners, notably the Commons Preservation Society, to keep the forest from development, but were, ironically, then extinguished so that the land could be used unimpeded for public recreation. The forest was eventually preserved in perpetuity in the ownership of the Corporation of the City of London, a wealthy historic body, and rights of access for all were guaranteed. After it had been secured, day trips organized by Ragged Schools and Sunday Schools, and housing reformers such as Hill tried to ensure that even those disadvantaged by poverty or disability could take advantage of their rights of access to the forest in order to spend a day in nature.

Complementing these actions were plans to secure open land closer to their homes. Parks were established in cities, again, particularly London. One such was the extensive Victoria Park opened in 1845 in the east side of London, where poor people could enjoy fresh air and exercise under the watchful eye of the park keepers. More common were tiny “pocket parks” or as Octavia Hill called them “outdoor sitting rooms” in the middle of areas where poor people lived and worked. These were often formed from disused churchyards or other pre-existing pieces of open ground. As with the commons and the Royal Forests, early conservationists focused on securing existing open areas for recreation to save campaigners the ruinous expense of buying land in or near cities. For instance, Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s cathedral in the heart of London, was created in 1880 from a disused ancient churchyard and later expanded to include two other churchyards. It got its name from the postmen who rested there during their long working days. By 1882, Reginald Brabazon founded the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and in the 1880s and 1890s was first chairman of the London county council’s parks committee. Together these organizations preserved numerous open spaces in the metropolis, creating parks, gardens, and playgrounds covering thousands of acres for public recreation.

To what extent were these developments driven by science? Compared with conservation efforts in other countries the answer was probably rather little. The open spaces which attracted the attentions of early conservationist were not wild areas where new species needed to be observed, investigated, and classified. Some early conservationists, such as Edward North Buxton (an important figure in the campaign to save Epping Forest) were keen naturalists, but it would be misleading to describe them as primarily scientists. Buxton’s chief contributions to conservation were in shifting attitudes: he argued, presciently, in favor of shooting game in Africa with the camera rather than the rifle, and of opening up natural spaces to the impoverished. His popular Epping Forest (1885) went to twelve editions, and beautifully illustrated the flora and fauna of the forest. However, it would be misleading to say that even conservationists who were keen naturalists were primarily interested in natural history. In the case of Buxton, for example, Liberal politics and Christian faith were his primary motives.

Scientific principles were not much relied on for the management of open spaces. There were nods to contemporary German forest practice, which was then regarded as scientifically progressive, but the main criterion was aesthetic. Parks were managed according to contemporary ideas of horticulture in which artifice dominated and stridently colored annual bedding plant was admired. Common land was also managed according to aesthetic criteria rather than scientific principles—something which caused trouble at Epping Forest when trees which had traditionally been pollarded (periodically cut off at head height to encourage the growth of new shoots suitable for hedging poles or firewood) were allowed to resume their “natural” shape. This left them top heavy and liable to blow over in strong winds.


Incarnation theology gave those who were persuaded by it a mechanism for how exposure to nature was to exert its benign influence on people.


There were, however, invocations of science in arguments about open space. The science of sanitation and advances in public health impacted urban living conditions through initiatives to improve water supply, drainage, and sewerage, as well as to control of vermin and regulate the keeping of animals in the city. This last was necessary when transport relied on horses and before refrigeration could ensure that foods could be kept fresh during transport to towns. Sanitary science also influenced the open space movement. The Ladies’ National Association for the Diffusion of Sanitary Knowledge, later the Ladies’ Sanitary Association (Octavia Hill was a founding member of the organization) campaigned for an approach to public health informed by sanitary science, as well as by common sense and domestic management. Access to nature and open space was an important part of their message. They produced pamphlets such as “What can window-gardens do for our health?” (n.d.), “The mischief of bad air” (n.d.), and “A day in the country” (n.d.), all of which aimed to improve sanitary conditions for poor people by improving their interaction with nature.

Reginald Brabazon specifically called his parks urban “healtheries,” and the National Health Society, which sought to expound “sanitary laws” to a wide audience, also drew the connection between urban parks and improved health. Whereas Octavia Hill thought that simply resting in the fresh air in her “outdoor sitting rooms” conducive for health, Meath and others stressed exercise and activity in nature. He and his wife encouraged exercise in the playgrounds they established, promoted the teaching of physical exercise in schools through his national organization, and worked to make physical exercise compulsory in elementary schools. These campaigns had a militaristic overtone; showing that the promotion of public health shaded into advancing the strong and vigorous population needed for imperial strength.

The preservation movement was further influence by a newly founded social science. The Royal Statistical Society (founded in 1834) was one of the institutions which advocated what would now be called evidence-based policy making. They argued for the gathering of statistical data about all aspects of society and pushed for their systematic analysis to inform public debate and public policy. Some of this thinking fed into the science-led initiatives mentioned above, such as the wish to foster public health through exercise in the fresh air, but systematically gathered statistical data were also used to for the preservation of accessible open space. In 1897, Robert Hunter, one of the founders of the National Trust and architect of many of the Commons Preservation Society’s successes, lectured to the society about common land and its enclosure. His aim was by careful exposition of the historical facts and of the law to promote continued vigilance against threats to commons.


Nature conservation in whatever country or period exposes the inherent tension between opening natural spaces to people and finding that they can harm or even destroy the nature they seek.


Octavia Hill also utilized the demographic and mapping approaches of the new social science. Skilled in co-opting volunteer labor and as a pamphleteer and public speaker, Hill created a remarkable study in 1888 called “More air for London” which was published in the widely read periodical The Nineteenth Century. She included a map based on information gathered by her fellow-workers, which showed parks and open spaces in a six mile radius around Charing Cross in central London. It brought home the difference between the east of London (densely populated and lacking in green space) and the west (affluent and with abundant green space). Hill combined this kind of social scientific inquiry with heartfelt speeches to move her audiences to donate their money, time, and influence to her causes.

Hill was committed to these causes in large part because she believed that her work was religious. It is hardly surprising to find religious involvement in the open space movement during a century in which religion lay at the basis of so much philanthropic activity and in which religious expression provided the readiest language to articulate the kind of transcendental experience which many advocates felt nature could provide. But it is a reason which has received little attention and bears some investigation.

Boyd Hilton has characterized the period 1795–1865 as the Age of Atonement , arguing that evangelicalism, which called on Christians to repent to avert impending catastrophe, profoundly affected wider social and economic thought, leading to an understanding of suffering as providential and a willingness to take a harsh attitude to the less fortunate. At the same time as the conservation movement gathered pace, the evangelical emphasis on atonement gave way in many quarters to an emphasis on the incarnation, that is, Christ’s taking of human form. This, it was argued, sanctified the whole of creation and this made a delight in beauty, including natural beauty, no longer a distraction from spiritual discipline but something to be sanctioned and cultivated. Moreover, incarnation theology gave those who were persuaded by it a mechanism for how exposure to nature was to exert its benign influence on people. It was not so much nature per se, though it was right to celebrate and cultivate this, but God’s immanence in nature which transformed people.

Hill was profoundly affected by Christian Socialism and made clear that her work, whether in housing reform, the cultivation of beauty, or the preservation of nature, was part of a unified Christian project. “I should often be sad, if I did not know God cared for England, its people, and its commons,” she wrote to her fellow-workers, demonstrating her confidence that her efforts to improve her country, its people, and its natural, accessible open spaces were part of a single, divinely sanctioned project. She described the securing of nature as open and accessible to all as “a giving back to men that which God gives most freely and generally to all his children—blue sky, pure earth, bright water, green grass,” and comes close to finding herself arguing for the rights of all people to own natural spaces since they were originally a gift from God. Hill’s radical interpretation of Christian obligation entailed both social justice and a reverence for nature: “if you try to accept the duty [to your neighbors] as our Lord showed it. . .all God’s children will be dear to you, and His earth sacred.” Religious motives in several cases led to conservationists giving priority to people over idealized nature. In a dispute in 1881 over whether the train line should be extended to run through Epping Forest, Buxton, by then one of those with key responsibility for managing the forest, remarked, “Our chief care must be for the single annual holiday of the artisan, his tired wife and smoke-filled children.” He argued then that access should take priority over nature protection.

This essay by no means suggests that science and religion completely account for the rise of the conservation movement. Liberal politics, literary movements, gender politics, nostalgia, social conservatism, a new understanding of patriotism, and radical movements asserting people’s right to land are just some other factors which need to be taken into account—and of course all need to be set against the economic background of rising urbanization and industrialization. Nature conservation in whatever country or period exposes the inherent tension between opening natural spaces to people and finding that they can harm or even destroy the nature they seek, and in the early English conservation movement, characterized as it was by preserving natural areas close to cities, such tensions surfaced early and starkly.

Elizabeth Baigent is the University of Oxford’s Reader in the History of Geography and Senior Tutor at SCIO, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. She is the author of The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State (1992), along with 540 scholarly publications on subjects in the history of geography.

Image from Wikipedia via the National Library of Wales.


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