A great public servant and a great national benefactor passed away when on November 6 last, after a short illness at his Haslemere home, Sir Robert Hunter entered into rest. (p. 230)….
Few people recognise the monumental work Hunter did for the postal service during the thirty years he held office, because few people realise how great a variety of legal work is required by a large administrative department like the Post Office. It fell to his lot, not only continually to examine private Bills, but to draft and to supervise all postal regulations and negotiations connected with the compulsory acquisition of land for Post Office purposes in London and the country. On behalf of the Post Office, he was instrumental in passing through Parliament fifty public general Acts. (pp. 230-1)
The taxpayer is hardly aware what money Hunter saved the country by the passing of the Conveyance of Mails Act in 1893, which was both his suggestion and his drafting. This, and the successful litigation with various railway companies which followed, was said by Sir George Murray, then Secretary to the Post Office, to have saved the country £10,000,000. Hunter used to speak of this as the most important service he had rendered to the Post Office. (p. 231)….
The development of the telephone service from its earliest infancy took place during Hunter’s tenure of office, and gave rise to questions and consequences in which he played a large part. The crowning work of his service to the nation as a Post Office official was the final purchase contract of the National Telephone Company’s system, which was drafted by Hunter and negotiated by him in conjunction with Sir Henry Babington Smith. The Company claimed £20,924,700 from the State; they were awarded £12,515,264. This saving of more than eight million pounds to the taxpayers was largely the result of Sir Robert Hunter’s judgment in drafting an agreement, conjointly with his friend the Secretary of the Post Office, which stood the test of prolonged and fiercely fought arbitration. (p. 232)….
But it is not only of Sir Robert Hunter the indefatigable servant of the State Department, who by his sagacity and legal acumen saved millions of money to the ratepayers, we would speak, but of Sir Robert Hunter, the strenuous patriot and man of public spirit, who gave his spare time in unpaid services to the saving of commons and open spaces, rights of way, and places of natural and historic beauty for the recreation, the rest, and inspiration of future Britain. (p. 233)….
He was adviser to the Commons Preservation Society for fourteen years, at the time when to fight for an open space and to defend a common or right of way had not behind it, as it has to-day, friendly public opinion and the good-will of Parliament. But he never lost a case (p. 233)….
This brings one naturally to speak of the crowning work that Hunter did for the preservation of open spaces in conducting to a successful issue the fight for the re-opening of Epping Forest. The suit resulted in the saving for all time for public enjoyment, at the very gates of London, of a beautiful woodland with open lands 5,600 acres in extent (p. 235)….
The result of the Epping Forest proceeding was that four hundred enclosures were declared to be illegal, 3,000 acres which had been cribbed from it were restored to the Forest, and finally 6,000 acres were secured to the public for ever. Never was there preserved by a single suit an area so large in extent and so remarkable for woodland charm and scenic beauty as that secured for ever for the enjoyment of the public by the battle of Epping Forest. The legal arguments lasted for three years. (p. 236)….
Notwithstanding his removal to the Post Office in 1882, Sir Robert Hunter, as Vice-Chairman of the Commons Preservation Society and as Chairman of the Kent and Surrey Footpaths Committees, kept himself in touch with the work of the Commons Preservation Society till the day of his death. For forty-five years, though not for the last thirty officially engaged by the Society, he gave the benefit of his unrivalled knowledge of the subject to those who were engaged in the battle. His interest in footpath law has never slackened. (pp. 236-7)….
In 1895 more work came to him to do that perhaps was nearer his heart than any he had yet undertaken for the public benefit…. That [the National Trust] has gone forward is evidenced by the fact that, in addition to the public monuments held in trust, forty-five properties in eighteen years have been secured for the nation’s enjoyment, and Sir Robert Hunter, in addition to the 6,000 acres which he gained for the public when he won the famous Epping Forest case, has helped to secure another 6,000 as recreation grounds for the people. In his own countryside in Surrey, Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punchbowl—750 acres in extent—Ludshott Common, Bramshott Chase, Nutcombe Down, Grayswood Common, Waggoner’s Wells, and Marley Common remain as monuments to Sir Robert Hunter’s enthusiasm and to the trust which was placed in him by the donors as adviser and arranger of details in negotiation. (p. 237)
Here in parenthesis we may add that he helped Miss Octavia Hill in the early days of the Kyrle Society formed by her sister. They were fast friends, for they had in common the high ideal of service and the grace of public spirit, which naturally attracted the one to the other. They had the same passionate love of natural beauty and believed in its power to help the workers of the world. It is touching to recall that almost the last words Sir Robert Hunter was heard to utter showed that he thought of the great Societies for which he had worked, and feared they might feel the loss of his help. Nor can I help recalling how, as I accompanied him to Hampstead after the last meeting of the National Trust at which he was present, he spoke with great satisfaction of the Box Hill negotiations being so nearly completed, and of the National Trust having obtained the full confidence of the public. He never realised that this was largely due to himself, for he was as humble in heart as he was public-spirited. (pp. 237-8)
It is not only the Commons Preservation Society and the National Trust that will miss him: he will be sadly missed by the Hampstead Garden Suburb, of which he was Chairman and a co-operator with Mrs. Barnett from its beginning; but his presence will haunt Parliament Hill, Richmond Hill, Vauxhall Park, Hilly Fields, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, for the preservation of which, as open spaces, he worked; and Londoners who care for the old historic buildings—Charterhouse, Staple Inn, the French Almshouses in Mile End Road, and the Ironmonger Almshouse in the Kingsland Road—will bless Sir Robert’s memory, (p. 238)
(Cornhill Magazine, 36 (February 1914), 230-9.)