Just realised that I was wrong to claim that Dorneywood was intended as a country residence for the Foreign Secretary. It has in fact generally been regarded as a perk for either the Chancellor or the Home Secretary — as Simon Jenkins points out this morning. Chevening is the Foreign Secretary’s country residence.
Jenkins is also good on what motivated rich people to donate these grand houses to the government.
Dorneywood is one of a set of houses round London donated in the last century as a snare for naive Labour ministers. They were supposedly for the relaxation of those without “places” of their own. Both Chequers (1917) and Dorneywood (1942) were given during the tribulations of war and with socialism looming. Lord Stanhope gave the spectacular Chevening in 1967, obscurely for use by the Prince of Wales, the prime minister or another cabinet minister. Since 1980 this has tended to mean the foreign secretary.
The gifts had a mixed reception. Lord Haldane considered Chequers “a dangerous distraction” for those “unaccustomed to the charms of a country house”. Ministers would lose touch with government business and go native. Arthur Lee, Tory donor of Chequers, regarded this as precisely the point. A fine old house was architectural psychotherapy, to subvert whatever revolutionary instincts its occupant might harbour. The trust deed stated: “It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power will be drawn … To the revolutionary statesman, the antique and calm tenacity of Chequers and its annals might suggest some saving virtues in the continuity of English history.” Maurice Hankey put it more succinctly: “Chequers should have a marvellous effect on these Labour people.”