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When Stonehenge Was on the Auction Block

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Man Who Bought Stonehenge

Cecil Chubb was a successful barrister (lawyer) in England when, in September 1915, Stonehenge was put up for sale. The monument was part of a large estate near Salisbury. The family that owned the estate and Stonehenge had been hit by tragedy and decided to sell.

Stonehenge at sunrise.

Stonehenge at sunrise.

The Ownership of Stonehenge

About 4,000 years ago, unknown people dragged huge blocks of stone onto the bleak and windswept Salisbury Plain. Nobody knows why they did this, except that it seems to have had something to do with astronomy.

The stones were erected on common ground because, at the time, the concept of land ownership was unknown.

Novelist Thomas Hardy called Stonehenge “a very Temple of the Winds.”

The first record of ownership of the land on which the monument rests and, therefore, of Stonehenge itself, comes from the ninth century CE. The area was part of the royal estate of King Alfred (849-899).

In the mid-16th century, Henry VIII gifted the 200,000-acre estate to Sir Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset. (He was the father of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife who remained in the king's favour by producing a male heir. However, she died 12 days after giving birth).

The estate remained in the Seymour family's hands for several generations and was then passed around among dukes, lords, and earls until it was bought by Sir Edmund Atrobus in 1825.

Stonehenge and the Atrobus Family

Ownership of Stonehenge passed though several Atrobus family members, all of them, apparently, called Edmund. In 1901, the third Sir Edmund Atrobus put a fence around Stonehenge and charged people a shilling to get in for a close up view.

He did this, in part, because visitors had started using hammers and chisels to take pieces of the rocks as souvenirs; others thought it was a nifty idea to carve their names into the monument. Also, one of the huge upright stones and the massive lintel on top of it had toppled to the ground. Other rocks were leaning precariously and were propped up by timbers. In short, Stonehenge had become something of a fixer-upper.

The Druids say that Stonehenge was built by them and is sacred to their calling; but this claim lacks the smallest shred of historical evidence to support it. Nevertheless, when Sir Edmund put up his fence and restricted access to the monument, the Druids got furious and slapped a curse on the Atrobus family.

A year later, in October 1914, yet another Sir Edmund Antrobus, a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action in Belgium. Four months after that, the dead soldier's father passed away, and his widow put the estate up for sale.

At the summer and winter solstices as well as the equinoxes people are allowed into the stone circle to celebrate pagan festivals.

At the summer and winter solstices as well as the equinoxes people are allowed into the stone circle to celebrate pagan festivals.

The Stonehenge Auction

This is where we meet Cecil Chubb. His origins were humble; his father was a saddle and harness maker in the village of Shrewton, just three miles from Stonehenge. He came into this world in 1876 and must have been an exceptional student because he went to Cambridge University and graduated with a double first in law.

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He entered the legal profession and became a barrister, which, in the English tradition, meant he practiced advocacy and litigation in the country's superior courts. It was lucrative work and Chubb amassed a tidy fortune.

So it was, that on September 21, 1915, Cecil Chubb was sitting in the New Theatre, Salisbury as the estate and chattels of the Antrobus family came under the auctioneer's hammer. He was there at the request of his wife, Mary, to buy some curtains, or, it may have been chairs—accounts vary.

Lot 15, was described in the catalogue as a “place of sanctity dedicated to the observation or adoration of the sun.” The auctioneer, Sir Howard Frank, asked for a bid of £5,000. A few hands went up but the bidding stalled at £6,000. Sir Frank was about to bring done his gavel when Cecil Chubb impulsively bid £6,600—an amount a little bit shy of a million dollars in today's money.

Chubb said he had no intention of bidding on Stonehenge but “while I was in the room I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it and that is how it was done.” He may have made the purchase for patriotic reasons. There were rumours that wealthy Americans were interested in buying antiquities and shipping them to the United States.

Artistic License Taken by Placing the Auction at Stonehenge

A Gift to the Nation

Cecil Chubb was in possession of this incredible monument for just three years. In late October 1918, he gave it to the nation, with the attachment of a few covenants.

One stipulation was that the entrance fee to view Stonehenge should never be more than one shilling (six cents U.S.). The price stayed there until the 1970s, but crowds became enormous so the price was raised to get the number of visitors down to a manageable size.

The single, adult entry fee is now £26 ($31). The monument itself is roped off and visitors can only walk around the circle of stones several yards away.

The monument is not without its controversies. Two busy roads pass quite close to the site and make the quiet contemplation of the stones difficult; the large crowds also make that a challenge. Plans come and go to make improvements but they always remain just plans.

In 2006, several hundred conservation and tourism experts were recruited by the National Geographic Society to evaluate 94 World Heritage Sites. Stonehenge was described as “in moderate trouble” and came in 75th place; one of the evaluators noted “What a mess. Compelling, over-loved. Certainly, the current experience lacks magic.”

It's likely Chubb would be disappointed.

Cecil Chubb with his wife Mary.

Cecil Chubb with his wife Mary.

Bonus Factoids

  • Cecil Chubb's generosity was rewarded a year after his gift when the title of 1st Baronet of Stonehenge was bestowed upon him. His coat of arms contained the motto Saxis Condita, which means “founded on stones.”
  • In his gift, Chubb stipulated that locals living in the vicinity of Stonehenge should be allowed entry free of charge; they continue to enjoy this privilege today.
  • Stonehenge receives about 1.3 million visitors a year.
  • The Georgia Guidestones were often called “America's Stonehenge” until they were destroyed by vandalism in July 2022. You can read more about them here.
  • The British government has announced plans to drive a tunnel under the Stonehenge site to divert traffic from running beside the monument. But, archaeologists and activists say this would damage the structure. In July 2021, a high court agreed and called the tunnel project unlawful. The government has, so far, ignored the court decision and is pushing ahead with the scheme.
The Stonehenge traffic problem.

The Stonehenge traffic problem.

Sources


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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