We’ve had the opportunity to visit Stonehenge a couple of times. The first time was quite a few years ago when Stonehenge was not the massive tourist attraction it is today. Yes, there was a modest entrance fee, but the site was quite accessible. A small fence, which you could easily step over, surrounded the stones and there was a path which circled the stones for walking. You could spend an entire afternoon just enjoying the beauty of the area with its grassy knolls and meadows.
Today, however, a visit to Stonehenge is quite different. Tickets to England’s most popular tourist attractions must be booked in advance … and the cost for a family of four is a hefty £54.90. There is a new and impressive Visitor’s Center with a ticket office, museum, gift shop and coffee shop. The museum has changing exhibits featuring contemporary art, photographs, and treasures from museums around the world.
Just outside the Visitor’s Center is a fascinating new exhibit of neolithic, or stone age, houses. These yurt-style homes with their thatched roofs are based on houses found during the 2006 excavations in this area. Carbon dating showed that the original buildings were built around 2,500 BC, the same time period the stones were being erected. This fascinating addition to Stonehenge is one which I can’t wait to see.
Stonehenge has been a curiosity since the beginning of recorded time. Studies and surveys have led researchers to speculate that this circle of stones could have been anything from a Roman fort to a Druid monument. What we have learned is that the people who built Stonehenge were farmers and knowing the changing of the seasons would be very important to them. The layout of Stonehenge is positioned in relation to the solstices, or the sun’s movement. In addition to knowing what to expect with the changing seasons, Stonehenge also played an important part in the lives of these early people spiritually. The cremated remains of over 150 people have been found buried here.
Today, this ancient monument is a registered UNESCO World Heritage site and is managed by the English Heritage, a registered charity that manages over 400 of England’s historic buildings and monuments. But, did you know that at one time these ancient stones were privately owned?
In 1540 King Henry VIII took ownership of Stonehenge and the surrounding land from the monks at Amesbury Abbey. Many names and transfers of ownership occurred over the next 300 years until the Antrobus family of Cheshire bought the estate in 1824. Always curious, souvenir hunters plagued these prehistoric stones, chiseling chips out of the blocks, etching their names into the stones, digging holes in the ground, until one day in 1901 one of the enormous uprights and its lintel crashed to the ground.
Edmund Antrobus was forced to fence off approximately 20 acres around the monument, hire a guard, and prop up the other stones with wooden planks and poles. Meanwhile, the construction of a new railway and roads brought many new visitors to the area. Continued concern for the safety of the visitors grew until Edmund, with the help of the Society of Antiquaries, organized a restoration of the neglected ruins, causing him to charge a one-shilling admission fee.
Edmund’s son, the last heir to the Antrobus family, was killed fighting in France during World War I. And when Edmund died a few months later, the family decided to put the estate, which included Stonehenge, up for sale.
Now let’s meet Cecil Chubb. Cecil was born to a leathersmith in 1876 in a small village not far from Stonehenge. Cecil studied hard, worked hard and became a school teacher at the age of 14. Chubb continued his studies and eventually became a lawyer, opening his own law firm. In 1902 Chubb married Mary Finch. When Mary’s uncle, Dr. Corbin Finch, died in 1910, he left the Fisherton House Asylum, a psychiatric hospital near Salisbury, which had been in the family for years, to his daughter. But she wasn’t capable of managing it, so she employed the help of Cecil. Chubb then decided to give up his law firm, and he and Mary moved back to Salisbury to run the hospital.
An astute businessman, Cecil made the hospital a great success, growing it to the largest private hospital in all of England. He introduced new treatments, made the patients lives better and easier, returning most to their homes. He also worked closely with military casualties, using his own home when necessary to accommodate soldiers returning from the war.
On September 21, 1915, a local auction was set to take place in Salisbury. The auction by Knight Frank & Rutley estate agents included “Lot 15. Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland.” In the catalogue, Lot 15 was also described as “a place of sanctity dedicated to the observation or adoration of the sun”. Bidding began at £5000, but there seemed to be little interest. The auctioneer, Sir Howard Frank, was not at all impressed and temporarily stopped the bidding. He voiced his disappointment and started again. Although Cecil had no intention of bidding, in his own words: “while I was in the room I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it and that is how it was done”. The highest bid was a mere £6600 and it was from Sir Cecil Herbert Edward Chubb.
Legend says Cecil was sent by his wife to buy some household items, dining chairs, curtains, etc. Legend also says Cecil was looking for a birthday gift for Mary. We’ll never know if either of these are true. But Cecil did buy Lot 15 and Stonehenge. There were many, however, who accused Chubb of snatching up this land with its tourist-attracting monument as another money-making business venture, which he vehemently denied. He told The Times on October 7, 1915:
“Before the sale I never discussed Stonehenge with a view to purchase with anyone, and at the time of going to the sale I did not even know any figures as the receipts. I think I said before that when I went into the sale-room, I had no intention of buying, and I certainly did not look upon it as an investment”
Chubb purchased the land on a whim, unaware that he would become involved in a number of political arguments about public access, entrance fees, and abuse of the land. Cecil owned the land for three years and then in 1918, he contacted the government department ‘Office of Works’ interested in antiquities and offered the land and the monument to the country as a gift. But . . . he had three provisions. The first was that local residents should continue to have free access to it. The second was that entrance fee should never be more than a shilling. Lastly, that the stones remain in their present condition and no building be erected within 400 yards of the stones themselves.
In his letter announcing the donation of Stonehenge, Chubb wrote:
“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 owner of it with a deep sense of pleasure, and had contemplated that it might remain a cherished possession of my family for long years to come. It has, however, been pressed upon me that the nation would like to have it for its own, and would prize it most highly.”
For his generous gift to the nation, Cecil was rewarded with a Knighthood. Ultimately, perhaps Cecil was relieved to step out of the quagmire of arguments and debates as to who shall own this world heritage site. The government took possession and in 1919 launched the first of many extensive renovations of Stonehenge, which began with straightening the stones and re-setting them in concrete. Now over a century later, the work continues with the new visitor’s center and neolithic houses.
Stonehenge may be the best known prehistoric site in the world. Although the entrance fee is considerably more than a shilling, I hope some day you get the opportunity to visit. This “place of sanctity dedicated to the observation or adoration of the sun” will be a memorable experience.
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References: Freemasons, Ancient Origins, Wikipedia, English Heritage, Stonehenge Tours, History, Stonehenge Monument, Daily Telegraph