Two proposals in the 1870s were to shape the fight against industrial expansion in the Lake District in the decades that followed. The first was a rumoured proposal to build a railway line between Kendal and Ambleside to transport iron ore mined from Helvellyn. The second was to allow Manchester Corporation to use the lake at Thirlmere as a reservoir from which to pipe water nearly 100 miles to the city. Central to the campaigns to prevent both developments taking place were Robert Somervell and John Ruskin. Although Hardwicke is credited with the title of ‘Defender of the Lakes’ he had minimal involvement in these pivotal campaigns against industrial exploitation of the Lakes.
It was in 1875 that Somervell, aged only twenty-four and the son of a wealthy shoe manufacturer based in Kendal, heard vague talk of a railway line being built between Windermere and Ambleside. He was stung into protest and set about gathering signatures for a petition to be sent to Parliament opposing the proposal. He sent one of his workers to make contact with local people to gather their support. Ruskin allowed him access to his address book so that Somervell could contact influential people beyond the Lake District. The petition to Parliament was not needed as the railway rumour never turned into a formal plan. In 1876 Somervell published a pamphlet, A Protest against the Extension of Railways in the Lake District, in which he marshalled his arguments against any expansion, reprinted a number of newspaper articles that supported his protest, and added a Preface by Ruskin. It only sold a few copies and he was left with a financial loss. This did not deter him, however, when the Thirlmere scheme became public knowledge.
During the nineteenth century Manchester’s industrial might and population had grown significantly and this put a major demand on the city’s need for water. By the mid-1860s, Manchester Waterworks Committee were being told that additional supplies were needed to support the city’s growing demand for water. After looking at a number of alternatives they concluded that turning Thirlmere in the Lake District into a reservoir and piping the water to Manchester was the best long-term option. In August 1876 Manchester Corporation approved the purchase of land and water rights in the area. Reports in the press began to circulate about Manchester’s intention to apply to Parliament for permission to dam Thirlmere and build a reservoir that would supply the city with fifty million gallons of water per day.
Manchester clearly needed more water in the long term and the city had the financial muscle-power to fund the undertaking. There were also many in the Lake District who were supportive of the scheme. Some were landowners who stood to make large sums of money by selling their land, others were local residents and tradespeople who would benefit from increased jobs and trade. But what was new about Thirlmere, and which, no one in Manchester Corporation had taken into account, was that this proposal was the first to be made in the heart of the Lake District, whose unique landscape had been largely left undisturbed for centuries. For all the arguments that Somervell brought to bear against the Thirlmere proposal, it was this uniqueness and unspoilt beauty of the area that was to have a profound effect on how future industrial projects in areas such as the Lakes would be assessed. A new era in conservation was about to unfold.
In February 1877 a number of residents in the Lake District were so concerned by what they were hearing and reading that they were jolted into action. About 60 people attended a meeting at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Grasmere, Robert Somervell being one of them. This meeting led to the formation of the Thirlmere Defence Association (TDA), the first such organised and coordinated campaign group in the Lake District. Somervell, as secretary of the TDA, used the three thousand names that Ruskin had given him from their earlier railway protest as a starting point to elicit support. The TDA soon had a fund of £3000 and a list of subscribers that included many notable names from the world of politics, academia, the church, and the arts.
Somervell and his supporters did not attempt to deny that Manchester needed more water. What they objected to was the proposal to take it from Thirlmere, arguing that other sources should be considered, and that even if Thirlmere had to be used, Manchester’s plan could be improved in many ways. The Parliamentary Bill to enable Manchester to proceed with its scheme was laid before Parliament in December 1877. Normally, during the Committee stage of a Bill, only those parties who were directly impacted economically were allowed to give evidence. Because of the widespread interest generated by this Bill it was agreed that it would be discussed in Parliament before a Select Committee which would hear evidence from all interested parties, including the TDA. Although the Select Committee found in favour of Manchester they acknowledged that ‘the public at large has also an inheritance in the beautiful scenery of these mountains and lakes’. This was a fundamental turning point for future conservation projects and a major victory for the TDA. It meant that the wider interests of the public, and not purely economic considerations, had to be taken into account when assessing such proposals in the future.
As the Bill progressed through the Parliamentary process the TDA objected that so many changes had now been made to it that it was no longer the same Bill that had originally been proposed. The Lord’s Examiner on Standing Orders agreed and the Bill was rejected on technical grounds. The TDA knew, however, that this was a hollow victory and that Manchester Corporation would return with a revised Bill.
Manchester Corporation never expected the strength or nature of the opposition that the TDA were able to muster. The rejection of the Bill gave the TDA an opportunity to engage in further discussions with the Corporation to ensure that meaningful safeguards to their concerns were included in the new Bill being prepared for Parliament. A ‘Manchester Corporation Waterworks Act’ returned to the House of Commons in early 1879 and received Royal Assent on 23 May. Although the Thirlmere Scheme was finally approved in 1879 it did not end there. Building and engineering works did not commence for a number of years. By the time that they did, Hardwicke was firmly established in his role as ‘Defender of the Lakes’.
Robert Somervell spent the early 1880s between Cambridge, where he was studying, and the Lake District, but did not play a leading role in the campaigns that were to shape the future of conservation in the area. In 1887 he became Bursar of Eton, a position he was to occupy for over thirty years. He was a modest individual who did not wish to trumpet his achievements. Nevertheless, he should be given credit for his pioneering actions.
Whilst the Lake District was not a frenzy of conservation activity, Hardwicke knew that much was happening in other parts of the country. Newly-formed groups such as the Commons Preservation Society (CPS), the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, were trying to stem the tide of urban spread, land closures, building restorations, and industrial developments. So one can imagine his shock when he sat down to read the London Evening Standard of 1 February 1883. The newspaper said they had received a letter from Colonel Grenall, Lingholme, Keswick, drawing their attention to the Braithwaite and Buttermere Railway Bill that was making its way through Parliament. This short article must have hit Hardwicke like a bolt of lightning. He clearly had not expected any such happening and his reaction was immediate. He fired off an angry response that was probably the most impactful letter that he ever wrote. It was a withering attack on the greed of entrepreneurs who are only interested in lining their own pockets and who have no concern for damage that might be caused to the landscape. At the same time, it was a wake-up call to the nation. Take note and do something about developments harmful to beautiful scenery before it is too late.
Other letters quickly followed denouncing the proposed development, including one from the CPS. Following the example of the Thirlmere campaign, a Derwentwater and Borrowdale Defence Committee was organised to publicise the arguments against the railway as widely as possible and elicit donations for a fund to fight the Bill in Parliament. The publicity and money-raising campaign was orchestrated by a small number of individuals. Many regional and national newspapers supported the Defence Committee.
The Defence Committee challenged the railway promoter’s assertion that the railway was for the public good. Economically they showed that the line could not make a profit without further investment, an increase in the amount of slate mined, and the building of spur lines to other quarries. They also rejected the claim that the line would be used to carry passengers and cattle. Echoing the arguments put forward by the Thirlmere campaigners, the primary focus of the case against the railway was the damage that would be done to the scenic beauty of the area. As with Thirlmere, not everyone in the Lake District was an opponent of the railway. Some local newspapers came out in support, arguing that the railway would bring in more people and jobs. There were also claims that the voices of the local inhabitants were being drowned out by middle-class aesthetes and other notables in public life, many of whom had no connection with the area other than the occasional visit.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary process continued and, despite the activity of the Defence Committee, the Bill was approved at its Second Reading. On 9 April, however, in an unexpected turn of events, which no-one saw coming, the Bill was suddenly withdrawn and the railway proposal was dead and buried. The success of the railway campaign was by no means due to Hardwicke alone. The Defence Committee made much in their publicity that the Commons Preservation Society were actively involved in all facets of the campaign including strategy, legal and parliamentary expertise, and fund raising. In addition, the core of the Defence Committee was made up of a number of outstanding individuals such as W.H. Hills, a retired bookseller living in Ambleside.
Hardwicke and his colleagues knew that other railway proposals were likely to follow and he wasted no time in publicising the necessity for a permanent organisation to protect the Lake District. At the annual meeting of the Wordsworth Society on 2 May 1883 Hardwicke gave a paper on ‘The Proposed Permanent Lake District Defence Society’. The presentation bears all the hallmarks of having been written entirely by Hardwicke. He knew full well that if he could get Wordsworth Society members on board then the new society would have a great chance of being successful. His presentation to them was couched in terms such that they could hardly refuse to back him. It was a masterly stroke in marketing the idea of a Lake District Defence Society (LDDS). Hardwicke’s presentation was a major landmark in the history of preservation of the Lake District.
The embryonic Derwentwater and Borrowdale Defence Committee provided the blueprint for the new organisation. Its leadership formed the core of the LDDS executive with Gordon Somervell as Hon. Treasurer, Hardwicke, Hon. Secretary, and W. H. Hills and Albert Fleming as executive members. Like Robert Somervell, it is easy to forget men like Hills who laboured away in the cause of Lake District conservation, working in the background under Hardwicke’s exuberant personality. Within such men, however, the Lake District may not have become what it is today.
After the Wordsworth Society meeting, much needed to be done to get the new organisation off the ground. Publicity was essential to spread the word about the existence of the LDDS, membership had to be recruited, and funds raised so that it could fight the battles that were expected. Hills drafted the first publicity/recruiting leaflet of the LDDS. Archive holdings of these early leaflets show how much debate took place before the remit of the new society was agreed. Everyone supported the view that the society was against railway and mineral exploitation. Hardwicke, however, was keen to see that rights of way and commons were protected. Other executive members disagreed, fearing that they would alienate local landowners. In addition to an executive committee, local committees were formed in major cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and London. Both Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill, future co-founders of the National Trust along with Hardwicke, were members of the London Committee.
The fledgling LDDS was very fortunate in that contemporaneous with Hardwicke’s appeal to the Wordsworth Society an Ennerdale Railway Bill was laid before Parliament. Like the Braithwaite proposal a few months earlier, the Ennerdale Bill was weak, being another example of speculators wanting to make a profit without due consideration of the economics of their case or damage to the Lake District. And this time the importance of the Lake District to the nation as a whole was fresh in the minds of the public and the newspapers.
The new proposal was to build a 6-mile line near Ennerdale Water on the western side of the Lake District that would carry iron ore to the existing Whitehaven-Egremont-Cleator line. In some ways the Ennerdale Railway became a recruiting vehicle for the LDDS. Hardwicke appeared before the Select Committee in Parliament discussing the Bill. He must have felt overjoyed when it was rejected by the Committee on economic grounds on the 18 July 1883.
Having defeated a number of railway bills, the LDDS was, by 1885, well-versed in putting forward arguments against attempts to further develop the rail network in the Lakes. The arguments rested on a common set of themes. There would be long-term damage to the landscape and no resulting economic, or other, benefits. Such proposals were made for purely speculative purposes by a small minority of businessmen. The LDDS argued that the Lake District was already easily accessible by rail to anyone who wanted to visit and that the proposals made to date would not have helped the many thousands in towns and cities who wanted to visit the Lakes as a place of rest and recreation.
In late 1886, however, a railway bill was published proposing to extend the line from Windermere to Ambleside, laying the ground for future expansion to Grasmere and Keswick. The Ambleside Railway Bill differed from earlier proposals. It had solid backing in the local community – from tradesmen, hotelkeepers, industrialists, some landowners and Town Councils. And its promoters had gone to considerable length to ensure that possible damage to the landscape was minimised.
The LDDS and CPS were against the Bill, as were most national and regional newspapers. Arguments and counter-arguments filled the columns of many newspapers with each side shouting loudly that their opponents were telling untruths. This time, however, Hardwicke was not the driving force behind the opposition to the Bill. During January and February 1887 when the Bill was being debated in Parliament he was recuperating from illness, first in France, then in Egypt. It was left to Hills to spearhead the campaign against the Ambleside Bill. Hills was very ably supported by the CPS, especially James Bryce, its chairman.
After passing its second reading, the Ambleside Railway Bill was sent to a Select Committee for detailed discussion. Although Hardwicke had returned from abroad in early March it was decided not to call him as an expert witness before the Committee. After a number of days discussing the Bill, the Committee rejected it purely on economic grounds. Crucially, for the LDDS and other opponents of the Bill, the London and North-Western Railway, who the promoters hoped would work the line once built, had withdrawn their support. This completely undermined the initial economic logic of the proposal. The Select Committee made clear that they rejected the Ambleside Railway Bill purely upon financial grounds, and expressed ‘no opinion upon the alleged probable advantages of the line to the district’. It seems clear that had the London and North-Western Railway supported the Bill it may well have passed. It is ironic that Hardwicke and his colleagues had a railway company to thank for ensuring that Wordsworth’s great concern that a line would be built from Windermere to Keswick did not come to pass.
Railways, however, were not the only enemy that threatened the landscape of the Lake District. In 1885, six years after the passing of the Thirlmere Act, Manchester Corporation began engineering work to dam the lake at Thirlmere and convert it into a massive reservoir that would raise the water by 50 feet and allow up to 50 million gallons of water a day to be extracted. As part of the 1879 Act, Manchester Corporation had also agreed to build a new road high up on the west side of Thirlmere. During the six years that passed after the 1879 Act, Manchester had downgraded their forecasts of the amount of water they needed to take from Thirlmere. The new forecasts suggested that Manchester only needed 10 million gallons of water per day and that the water level would rise by only 20 feet. On hearing this news the LDDS Executive were jubilant. They had always thought that the new road would be unsightly and spoil the landscape. Now, they concluded, it was not needed and they wrote to the Waterworks Committee that the new road could be abandoned.
The three signatories to this letter were Hardwicke and Hills for the LDDS, and George Shaw-Lefevre for the CPS. This offer must have been music to the ears of the Waterworks Committee, for they were being given an opportunity to save many thousands of pounds. Any agreement, however, to abandon a new road on the west side of the lake would necessitate an amendment to the 1879 Act. Unfortunately, in taking their decision, the LDDS were acting in haste and on their own initiative. They had not consulted any other parties who might have a stake in the new road such as local residents, hoteliers, tradesmen etc. The defeat of the railway proposals seems to have led the LDDS leaders to believe that they really did know what was best for the Lake District. Later developments showed that they had misjudged the situation and been out-of-touch with local views.
Hardwicke also faced a dilemma. He was at this time standing for election as an Independent Liberal for the Keswick Division of Cumberland County Council. Not surprisingly many of the electors who were in favour of the new road wanted to know what his views were on the subject. There are no records of Hardwicke’s comments on the new road during his election campaign. After his election on 18 January 1889, however, subsequent events led to the view that he either altered his opinion or gave ambiguous answers. Recognising that his position as both a member of the LDDS Executive and a County Councillor were now in some conflict Hardwicke took matters into his own hands and resigned from the LDDS. This must have been an agonising decision for Hardwicke to take. He, and others, had badly misjudged the situation and the strong views of people living in the area. It was certainly a mistake for the LDDS to suggest to Manchester Corporation that the road be abandoned without any consultation with others who might be affected. Whether Hardwicke then gave some support for the new road in his election campaign is not known, but it seems as if some of his colleagues thought he had. It is also probable that he and Hills had forged too close a relationship with the Waterworks Committee. Hardwicke’s resignation was never mentioned in any press reports.
Eventually Manchester Corporation agreed to honour their initial obligations and the new road was built. This was the first defeat suffered by the LDDS and it came about because of their own insistence that they were right and could speak on behalf of all the communities involved. The reservoir was officially opened on 12 October 1894 with both Hills and Hardwicke attending.
It was during the 1880s that the LDDS had a major impact on preserving the scenery of the Lake District. Railway expansion and mining speculators were the most headline catching campaigns. But there were numerous other smaller campaigns involving roads, bridges, footpaths etc. that did not make the headlines.
So what did the LDDS achieve? Perhaps its greatest achievement was not any specific campaign. Rather it was that it constantly kept the Lake District prominently before the public eye. It ensured that the preservation of the landscape of the area became a national issue. The battle cry that the Lake District was unique and a national asset was successfully sold to the nation. It is no coincidence that it was a failure to buy land in the Lake District in 1893 that galvanised Hardwicke, Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter to bring to fruition the idea of a National Trust. One might argue that so successful was the LDDS in keeping the Lake District at the forefront of national conservation consciousness that without it the formation of a National Trust would have been delayed.
The LDDS was also the platform which brought Hardwicke to national prominence as the ‘Defender of the Lakes’. Other people worked diligently behind the scenes in the various campaigns, no one more so than W. H. Hills whose contribution was acknowledged by Hardwicke in his book, Literary Associations of the English Lakes (1894).
It was Hardwicke, however, who became the public face of the Lake District. He did this by sheer force of personality and energy. He was the first to make an appeal for a permanent organisation to protect the Lake District. Even though he resigned from it, he remained the public embodiment of the fight to preserve the area in its natural condition for the nation for ever.