One hundred years ago, Cecil Chubb walked into an auction house in Salisbury and walked out as the new owner of Stonehenge. His impulse buy marked a turning point, not just in the ownership of the ancient stones but in the story of how Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape has been cared for and preserved over the last century.
Legend has it that Wiltshire-born Cecil Chubb went along to the auction with an instruction from his wife to buy a set of dining chairs. Instead he found himself bidding for lot number 15: ‘Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland’.
How Mrs Chubb reacted when her husband returned not with dining chairs but with the deeds for a world-famous ancient monument is not recorded. But Stonehenge was apparently intended as a gift for Mrs Chubb; certainly both of their names appear on all subsequent documentation relating to the site.
A neglected ruin
Prior to its purchase, Stonehenge was in a perilous condition. A popular attraction since the Middle Ages, by the 19th century people were regularly chipping the stones for souvenirs and scratching their names on the monument.
In 1893 Augustus Pitt Rivers, the Inspector of Ancient Monuments, reported that most of the stones at Stonehenge were in a state of collapse.
Two stones fell in late 1900 and the first restoration, the straightening of perilously leaning Stone 56, took place in 1901. Stonehenge was fenced in that year and an admission change levied for the first time, covering some of the costs of restoration and for a policeman to keep watch. But many of the leaning stones were held up with wooden ‘props’.
A historic photograph of Stonehenge c. 1870 © NMR
Stonehenge had been owned by the Antrobus family since the early 1800s but after the heir to the baronetcy was killed in action in the opening months of the First World War and Sir Edmund died shortly after, the whole Antrobus estate, including Stonehenge, was divided up into lots and put up for auction. The stage was set for a monumental auction.
According to reports in the local Salisbury and Winchester Journal (now the Salisbury Journal) the Palace Theatre on 21 September 2015 was “filled with an interested audience, intending purchasers and spectators”.
Interest increased when lot 15 was announced. The particulars of sale were given in the auction catalogue with a description of the monument written by the Royal Archaeological Institute.
The Winchester and Salisbury Journal reported that “any doubts as to its future safety were set at rest by a reminder that Stonehenge has been scheduled under the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1913. While a note to the particulars set forth the condition that the purchaser of the lot would be required to erect to the satisfaction of the vendor’s solicitors and maintain a fence on the western boundary of the lot so far as no fence exists at present.”
“Surely someone will bid me £5000 to start with” urged the auctioneer, Sir Howard Frank. A hand from a gentleman in the stalls was held up, and in calm, business like tones it was announced that the first £5000 bid had been received.
A copy of the original auction catalogue from 1915, in front of the historic stone circle
© Sam Frost / English Heritage
Bidding increased by £100 increments from £6,000 until the figure of £6,500 was reached by local man Isaac Crook, whose grandson Richard still farms the fields around Stonehenge today. Another bid was received. “The hammer remained aloft for an instant; there was no further offer and it descended with a sharp rap.” Stonehenge had been sold for £6,600 to Mr. Cecil Chubb.
Chubb remarked to a local reporter that he had not intended to acquire the ancient stones “but while I was in the room, I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it, and that is how it was done.” Asked if he had any plans for the stones, Chubb replied that he had not yet had time to think about it but wanted to assure the public that every means of “protecting Stonehenge…would be taken.”
Who was Cecil Chubb?
Cecil Herbert Edward Chubb came from Shrewton, a village to the west of Stonehenge. From humble origins he gained a place at Christ’s College Cambridge where he was awarded a double first in Science and Law. He married well and by 1911 was living with his wife, two children and eight servants at Bemerton Lodge, Salisbury where his occupation was given as barrister and owner of a Lunatic Asylum.
Sir Cecil and Mary Chubb © Library of Congress
A gift to the nation
Stonehenge had been in private ownership since the 12th century, and Cecil Chubb was to be the monument’s last private owner. Three years after purchasing Stonehenge at auction, Chubb donated it to the nation, writing:
“Stonehenge is perhaps the best known and the most interesting of our national monuments and has always appealed strongly to the British imagination. To me, who was born close to it and during my boyhood and youth visited it at all hours of the day and night, under every conceivable condition of weather – in driving tempests of hail, rain and snow, fierce thunderstorms, glorious moonlight and beautiful sunshine, it always has had an inexpressible charm. I became the owner of it with a deep sense of pleasure…[but] it has…been pressed upon me that the nation would like to have it for its own.”
A special handing-over ceremony took place in October 1918 and Chubb received a knighthood, gaining the local nickname ‘Viscount Stonehenge’. Chubb's coat of arms featured a trilithon representing Stonehenge.
Sir Cecil lived at Bemerton Lodge, where Bertie, the future King George VI, was a regular guest. He liked the estate because it was small, secluded and away from London. Chubb died of heart disease in London on 22 September 1934 aged 58, leaving behind his wife and only daughter. A plaque commemorating his birth was erected in the late 1980s on the house in Shrewton where he was born.
Restoring Stonehenge and its landscape
Major restoration at Stonehenge started in 1919. It was extensive, removing the wooden props that supported many stones, straightening them and re-setting them in concrete, effectively safeguarding many of the stones at Stonehenge from further collapse. The restoration was accompanied and followed by excavations carried out by Col William Hawley.
In parallel with this work, the 1920’s saw the start of a ‘tidying up’ of the surrounding landscape, with the demolition of old disused buildings such as the Stonehenge aerodome.
In 1927 a national appeal was launched to “restore and preserve the open surroundings of Stonehenge”. By 1929 the appeal had raised sufficient funds to purchase 1500 acres which were then presented to the National Trust.
The second major phase of restoration, carried out during the 1950’s and 60’s, resulted in the Stonehenge that we see today. In 1958 a trilithon that had collapsed in 1797 was raised.
This, above all the restoration works, radically changed the appearance of Stonehenge. More recently, the landscape has changed with arable fields replanted as permanent pasture and fences removed to recreate some of the atmosphere of the long vanished downland.
There is just a simple, low level rope around the monument – allowing visitors great views. In the surrounding area, woodland has been removed where it impinged on prehistoric monuments and greater access has been allowed to the Stonehenge landscape.
In 2013, a sense of dignity and wonder was restored to the monument by removing both the A344 road and the outdated visitor facilities that sat immediately beside it and re-uniting the monument with The Avenue, its original processional route.
A national treasure
Cecil Chubb’s purchase marked a turning point in the care of this iconic monument. Since 1918, there have been a series of restorations and excavations, and Stonehenge has gone from a neglected ruin to a national treasure.
Today it is cared for by English Heritage on behalf of the nation, and thanks to extensive work over recent years now sits within a restored landscape that gives a true sense of its original setting. Stonehenge now welcomes over 1.3 million visitors from around the world, through the new exhibition centre – which acts as a physical and intellectual gateway to the ancient monument and its surrounding landscape.
With thanks to the Salisbury Journal for providing the contemporary reports of the auction.