In the mid-1930s, when James (Jim) Lees-Milne had come down from Oxford and had dabbled ineffectually in a couple of dim jobs, his life must have seemed bound for effete pointlessness. As it happened, however, history was about to provide the one job suited only to him, and luck (together with a little nepotism, which he always afterwards preferred to merit) was about to ensure that he got it.
No one knew at that time how many country houses there were scattered about England. In fact, except for those living in them, no one knew much about them at all, even the ones now crowded with visitors. It was certain though that there were many which were much too fine to be allowed to crumble away, and the prescient could see that rising costs and taxes would soon make it hard for owners to preserve them by themselves. The infant National Trust had till then been concerned mostly with landscape and coastline but it now came up with a scheme for these houses. If they could be endowed, and then taken over and maintained by the Trust, which would not be subject to tax, their former owners could continue to live in them and the public could be allowed to come and look round.
On the whole, the owners were not prescient and were cordially repelled by this idea. The Trust was not even offering to buy their houses; it was asking to be given them together with a great deal of money. It seemed a kind of Jacobinism. Opening up their houses to possibly lower-class visitors did not appeal either. Only when war and austerity came, landed income dropped, and respectful servants disappeared, did the idea start to look attractive after all.
Throughout this period, from 1936 to 1953, Jim was the National Trust’s first Country Houses Secretary; he acted as ambassador and aesthetic assessor. Some potential donors were survivors from the Victorian age and they must have been surprised to see a very young man arriving, as he often did, on foot, to relieve them of their patrimon
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