header image

The Foundations

A Brief History

Sir David Wills acquired Ditchley Park in north Oxfordshire in 1953. Because he lived in nearby Sandford St Martin, he was primarily interested in its farmland and forest, rather than the mansion as a private residence. In consultation with his friends and acquaintances in public life, he developed the idea, as a passionate transatlanticist, of establishing a venue for regular Anglo-American dialogue. The Ditchley Foundation was incorporated in the United Kingdom in 1958 and American and Canadian affiliates were established subsequently.

Funded almost exclusively through the endowment which Sir David Wills set up, the Foundation convenes private and highly focussed conferences, gathering senior international experts together to address issues of transatlantic and indeed global interest.

There are approximately twelve conferences annually. One conference a year takes place either in the United States or in Canada. All the others are held at Ditchley Park, drawing inspiration from its historic significance and beautiful surroundings.

Set in a wooded and pastoral countryside, Ditchley lies twelve miles north of Oxford, and within easy reach of Heathrow Airport and Central London. The original owners, the Lee Family, had hosted English monarchs there since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. The use of the house as an international conference centre aptly reflects its history and its transatlantic heritage. Built in the eighteenth century, this residence has served as the site of a number of distinguished international meetings, most notably during World War II when it occasionally became the weekend retreat of Sir Winston Churchill.

Today, Ditchley's style and programme provide an opportunity for brainstorming unique in international affairs. Small invited groups of about forty distinguished men and women are brought together from senior levels in the worlds of politics, business and industry, academic life, the civil service, the armed forces and the media. Conference subjects are carefully chosen in response to new international challenges arising from issues of concern to democratic societies. Conferences stress open, informal discussions that reflect personal thinking and take place under strict rules of confidentiality.

Though Ditchley has close informal contacts with ministers and officials from many nations, no government or agency sets its agenda or provides working funds. The American Ditchley Foundation and its Canadian counterpart likewise depend entirely on private funds for their work in helping shape the conference programme, recruiting US and Canadian participants and sponsoring their travel.

Ditchley's impact manifests itself in the relevance of its programme to government policy-making and in contacts made, understanding deepened, fresh insights gained and new ideas or lines of thought established in the minds of those participants who have policy decisions to make in their own professions. It is the combined atmosphere of informality, trust and expertise that characterises this extraordinary enterprise.