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by Nigel Swift

From Wellington Evening Post, New Zealand, 14 October 1899  (111 years ago today!):

In response to this offer the Chancellor of the Exchequer said the price was “absolutely impossible for any purchaser to consider” (familiar or what?!) and thus it fell to Sir Edmund to save or spoil the monument. Whether he was a good guy or the reverse depends on your point of view.

He certainly didn’t like (or was he prudent regarding?) mass tourism to the site. Writing to Henry Medlicott on 31 December 1900 he said “The attendance at Stonehenge is already largely increased, and when the … railway is opened … I fear that the class of visitor will be very different to what it was in former years. (What) would (you) advise for preservation and protection to meet these very altered circumstances?”

Plebs, eh?

Anyway, in 1901 he put a fence up to protect it and imposed an admission charge of a shilling. The Amesbury locals protested – as did Sir John Lubbock, Flinders Petrie and the National Trust who saw it as an unwarrantable act of enclosure (sounds familiar again?) but he won a court case against the protestors. Stonehenge had never been “common land” – only in people’s hearts and minds (and that issue is familiar yet again!)

Was imposing control of the monument good or bad? A couple of generations later Mrs Thatcher thought it was good but there were those who disagreed, and still do. One thing that WAS good though. According to the guide book of the time (written by Lady Antrobus) the barrier was “composed of the lightest barbed wire of a neutral tint and absolutely invisible from a distance.” (Well, that’s not rocket science or expensive, is it? So how come, 110 years later….. well, you write and ask!)

Still, fencing off the People’s monument caused a row alright. And then letting modern archaeology cut it’s teeth there so comprehensively didn’t help. In 1901 Lord Antrobus paid for the re-erection of “the leaning stone” and shoring works to others but then in the next four years a further 123 digs or interventions were allowed, some good, some very damaging, prompting Richard Le Gallienne to say of Sir Edmund in his Travels in England that he bids fair to divide the honours of iconoclasm with the Reverend Francis Gastrell, [who] it will be remembered, razed Shakespeare’s New Place to the ground because he was so pestered with pious callers.

Not that Sir Edmund appeared to be too worried about what people said, for in 1905 he joined the Ancient Order of Druids (as did Winston Churchill a bit later) and he let them celebrate at Stonehenge amicably for some years. I say amicably, but who could quarrel with them when it became known, as it did, that many of them arrived wearing false beards! Good or bad? Good, definitely. You can never have too many false beards at Stonehenge.

Unfortunately, as Druidry moved into a more radical, countercultural style under the new leadership of George MacGregor Reid, relations between the druids and Sir Edmund deteriorated from 1912 onwards. Various sectors of the druids were disinclined to pay an admission fee (more familiar stuff!) and refused to comply with a request from Antrobus that they should pay £2,500 for restoration work on the monument (maybe they should. “Our temple” is maybe a claim that has financial implications for any group that wishes to be recognised as qualifying for charitable status as a religion! )

The upshot was that he banned them from entering for the next solstice and several after that, and George MacGregor Reid called down “the curse of Almighty God and of his Spirit Messengers” on Sir Edward – who promptly upped and died soon afterwards – of “natural causes” (yeah, right!). But before he went, in 1915, he put Stonehenge and thirty surrounding acres up for auction in Salisbury and it was bought for £6,600 by CH Chubb who presented it to the nation three years later and received a knighthood in return.

Thus it was saved for the Nation forever, theoretically, (although soon afterwards the War Office did want to dismantle it as a hazard to aviation, and some of the digs that were carried out were catastrophic and its guardians nearly built a dirty great tunnel under it 90 years later!) And when I say “for the nation” that’s not quite accurate because the last time it was checked 72% of visitors to Stonehenge were from oversees and more than 50% were American so the way it’s treated is rather more than a national disgrace it’s a world one, as those visitors will very readily tell you if you canvass them.

So all in all, Sir Edmund Antrobus, good or bad for Stonehenge? Good on balance IMO. After all, he stood up to the plate and was prepared to make an effort to protect it when the government wouldn’t  (exactly like they won’t now), and although he restricted “the people” from having a free run over their monument he prevented the worst excesses of that freedom. People didn’t dance on the lintels in his lifetime. Or build burger shacks next to it.


October 2010

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