William Robinson (1838–1935) died without an heir and he bequeathed the freehold of his estate, the Gravetye Estate in West Sussex, in trust, to the nation. His intention, according to the terms of his will was that the estate ‘be held and utilised for the purposes of State Forestry under the control of Trustees or Managers….’. In 1936, an independent charity, the William Robinson Charity (registered charity 256766) was set up to take ownership of the property, and Forestry Commissioners were appointed trustees. The local branch of the Forestry Commission was appointed to manage the estate on a day to day basis.
As Robinson’s death occurred a few short years before the outbreak of World War II, no long term management plan was ever established for the estate, and the manor house was requisitioned for use by Canadian troops. After the war work on the estate’s forests restarted, and the woods were restocked, but the house and garden fell into disrepair. During the 1950s the Forestry Commission produced a woodland management plan, setting out operational plans until 1965 and granted a long lease for the house to be used as a hotel, and the renovation of both the house and garden was begun. Robinson’s creation had all but disappeared by this time, herbaceous borders having been dug up to plant vegetables by the Canadian soldiers stationed in the house. Work on the surrounding woods continued with restocking from the mid-20th century, and following extensive storm damage in 1987 and 1990.
Governance arrangements were formally reviewed in 2000 and as a result the Gravetye Estate is now owned by the William Robinson Gravetye Charity (registerd charity 1136242). This new charity incorporates the former charity, and it is also a registered company limited by guarantee (no. 06876284). All assets were removed from the Forestry Commission’s asset register and the charity is now run quite independently of the Forestry Commission’s accounts and systems, although the estate continues to be managed on behalf of the charity by Forestry Commission England, and independent consultants.
Over the last 10 years the Forestry Commission, while continuing as the Corporate Trustee, has recruited independent trustees for the William Robinson Gravetye Charity, with whom to work on the care and management of the estate. The Board of Trustees consists of six Trustees: two non-executive Forestry Commissioners, two local trustees and two other independent trustees.
Gravetye Manor Hotel and garden is the 35 acre jewel in the crown of the extensive 750-acre estate owned by the William Robinson Gravetye Charity. William Robinson’s papers are held at the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library. The archive comprises of two volumes relating to work carried out on Gravetye Manor itself, as well as the garden and the surrounding estate, 227 letters written to William Robinson and his nurse, Mary Gilpin, and a small number of papers collected by William Robinson.