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Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties

Didier Lancien
Monique de Saint-Martin

I. L'état des lieux

English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century1

Francis M. L. Thompson

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper was written in 1994 and contemporary statements and statistics relate to that year and (...)

1In the mood of the often savage pessimism, self-criticism, even despair, of the last twenty years, the history of Britain in the hundred years since 1880 has been placed in a context of decline and decay, incompetence and failure. This is particularly true of the economy, where the concept of long-term economic decline and the hunt for technical explanations or cultural scapegoats have been dominant concerns for economic and social historians. It is scarcely any less true of the state, where the descent from global empire and dominant great power and the spectacle of Britain shrinking into an offshore island–or more accurately and problematically into one and a quarter offshore island–have set the stage for recent historical thinking. In this general intellectual climate it is little wonder that those observers and historians who have focussed more narrowly on changes in the social structure, and especially in the upper classes, have been impressed above all by the decline, at times precipitous and catastrophic, of the traditional landed aristocracy, and its apparently complete disappearance as a serious element in modern British society. In its place a rather ill-defined and unstable upper crust has emerged, consisting chiefly of a business class composed of the very wealthy corporate managers and a political class composed of successful career politicians with good connections to their party machines. There is a paradox here. Pre-1914 Radicals, and most Liberals, would have seen the decline of the aristocracy as evidence of progress, a condition of advance towards a more equitable and desirable kind of society and polity. The liberal intellectuals of the 1990s, on the other hand, seem to regard this decline as a matter for regret, as one more symptom of general decadence.

2The general thesis of Britain's decline is partly a question of fact, but mainly a matter of opinion. The decline and fall of the old aristocracy, by contrast, appears to be largely a matter of fact. Yet the facts do not all point in the same direction. Viewed in a purely British, insular, perspective they establish incontrovertibly that the remnants of the landed aristocracy in the 1980s were a great deal weaker, less wealthy, less influential, and less prominent than their forebears had been in the 1880s, then at the peak of their fortunes if not of their power. The remnants, however, are not inconsiderable. Viewed in a European context the last hundred years look like an amazing success story for the British aristocracy. Where the Russian, Habsburg, and German aristocracies have been impoverished, expropriated, liquidated, forced into exile, and all but eliminated, the British aristocrats have survived in large numbers and with sizeable portions of their ancestral territories, they have escaped revolutionary upheavals and most of the disasters of war, they retain a great deal of wealth and easy access to the best education and the best positions in the business world, and are reasonably well integrated into the contemporary upper class. Probably only the French can rival, or outpace, the British in the tenacity with which they have held on to lands, châteaux, and top jobs in the last hundred years; and they started from a much smaller base, already by 1880 a group of survivors who had managed to regain their property after the Revolution, reinforced by Bonapartist and Orleanist contingents that tended to be more bourgeois the more fanciful their peerage titles.

3In the public sphere the descent of the old aristocracy from the glittering heights of power, prestige, control, influence, and deference has been conclusive, balanced by the rise of professionalism and the meritocratic principle, which have taken over the worlds of politics and government, the civil service, the armed forces, the Church, and consolidated their hold on the other professions and the universities. The political and social landscape has been changed and reshaped by a process of erosion, rather than by sudden shocks and earthquakes. The erosion of aristocratic control began long before 1880, and will certainly continue after the 1990s: already the reform of the House of Lords, by abolishing the right to membership of hereditary peers, the traditional and fundamental justification of the House, is back on the political agenda. First mooted in the “end them or mend them” slogan of the 1890s when the Lords thwarted the measures of Liberal Governments, then formally incorporated into the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act, the reform of the House of Lords may possibly make some progress in the 1990s. In the meantime the survival of the House of Lords, its wings clipped since 1911 and its body inflated and remoulded since 1958 by the influx of life peers and peeresses, is the most obvious relict feature in the contemporary landscape, left behind by the process of erosion. Other features become recognisable and publicly visible intermittently, when members of the old aristocracy with hereditary titles to honorific and meaningless offices occupy centre stage in great public ceremonies; yet others are confined to purely local landscapes, where here and there a local lord and landowner is still an important figure in local government, in local charities, and in county social life. Because there has never been any clean sweep these traces of the old order are not difficult to spot in the Britain of the 1990s; but in formal terms the old aristocracy, as a political force or as a social class, has become powerless and of very little consequence.

  • 2 The most readily accessible source for the numbers of hereditary peers are the annual editions of (...)
  • 3 Data on landownership, and on peers who owned little or no land, in the 1870s and 1880s are from J (...)
  • 4 The relationship between estate-size and social class or status has been discussed in Thompson (19 (...)

4Informally and in the private sphere, where what counts are the wealth, income, family connections, and personal qualities of individuals rather than the institutions or legal privileges of aristocrats as a distinct order in society, the story is rather different. Among today's elite the descendants of members of the old aristocracy are a significant element. They are so by virtue of their property and possessions rather than their peerages. That is to be expected, since in English usage “aristocracy” and “nobility” have long been treated as closely connected but distinct categories. The aristocracy was commonly understood to be a landed aristocracy, the group of great landowners with estates of 10,000 acres and upwards, most of whom were noblemen with hereditary titles but a substantial minority of whom were untitled commoners. Similarly, while all holders of hereditary titles were members of the nobility (the position of baronets, whose titles were hereditary, was ambiguous, and they were usually listed in a category of their own, separate from the peerage: they were not members of the House of Lords), not all of the nobility were great landowners. In 1880 the correspondence between the two categories was perhaps as close as it had ever been: the gap was about to widen with the beginning of the influx of industrialists into the peerage. Before that happened there were, in 1880, 427 dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons with seats in the House of Lords; in addition there were 142 peers with titles in the Scottish or Irish peerage who did not hold any British or United Kingdom title and therefore did not sit in the House, and 7 peeresses in their own right who were similarly excluded (there were a further 84 Scottish and Irish peers who did hold subsidiary British or United Kingdom titles and who are included in the 427 total).2 The nobility, on this definition, was a body of 576 title-holders; 330 of them, 57 per cent, were also landed aristocrats in the sense that they owned estates of at least 10,000 acres worth at least £10,000 a year; another one-third of the peers, 189 of them, were considerable landowners although not great magnates, with estates of 2,000 to 10,000 acres; while ten per cent of the nobility, 57 individuals, had estates of less than 2,000 acres, a few of them owning no land at all.3 Thus the peers were emphatically a body of landowners, but the landed aristocrats among them stood out as an elite within the elite. It was largely a coincidence that there chanced to be a similar total number, 583, of landowners in Great Britain and Ireland with estates of more than 10,000 acres worth at least £ 10,000 a year (there were another 269 estates of more than 10,000 acres of low quality land worth less than £ 10,000 a year; those were chiefly in Ireland, owned by impoverished gentry). Hence, on the territorial definition, the nobility also formed around 56 per cent of the landed aristocracy; 28 per cent of the aristocrats were untitled, and 16 per cent were baronets. A wider definition of a “great landowner” has often been adopted, by contemporaries and historians, and if one takes the favourite alternative threshold of ownership of an estate of at least 3,000 acres worth at least £3,000 a year the peers formed no more than one fifth of the total body of great landowners.4 A discrepancy of this size, of a landed aristocracy five times larger than the peerage, strains credibility since it refers to a society which thought of itself as having a territorial nobility as its top layer. Moreover it tends to blur, or abolish, the distinction between aristocracy and gentry within the body of landowners, a distinction that is pertinent and illuminating in social and political analysis as well as in the grading of landed possessions and wealth. Enjoyment of an income from land of at least £10,000, therefore, which usually implied ownership of an estate of 10,000 acres, remains a good working definition of a late Victorian landed aristocrat.

5What has happened to these 583 aristocrats since 1880? The 132 aristocrats whose estates were chiefly in Ireland have been virtually eliminated by the peculiarities of the Irish question. These included state-aided purchase of their holdings by tenants on terms which, in the prevailing political and social circumstances, were too good for the landowners to refuse. Thus the Irish disappear from the story. For the rest they have been through hard times. All the odds, financial, fiscal, agricultural, political, demographic, ideological, have been stacked against them and their way of life as a leisured class almost continuously for more than a hundred years. Many have sunk without trace, either forced to sell up completely by debts and taxes and to disappear into the anonymity of the middle classes, or literally extinguished by the failure of heirs. Some tried to make a fresh start in the colonies between the wars, aiming to transplant their way of life into low-cost, lowtax economies with abundant and cheap servants, only to be confronted by the new perils of decolonization after 1945. All have parted with at least some of their land; there is only one major landowner whose estates were considerably larger in the 1980s than they had been a hundred years earlier, the Duke of Roxburghe of Floors Castle, Kelso, although the Duke of Westminster might be put in the same class since while the ancestral Grosvenor family estate in Cheshire has been reduced in size a Scottish estate of more than 100,000 acres has been acquired where there was none in 1880 (Thompson 1990: 1-24). The clatter of estates breaking up has resounded through the property press almost continuously since 1918. Such sales may mark the end of the road for a landed family. They may also, however, be evidence of the restructuring of an investment portfolio by a shrewd and prudent manager.

6It had long been sensible on purely financial grounds for landowners to diversify out of agricultural land, but the pursuit of economic rationality had been restrained or over-ruled by powerful non-economic considerations. From the 1880s onwards, with sharply falling agricultural rents, it became increasingly desirable to diversify, although the same trend did not make it easy to find purchasers for agricultural estates. The relative prosperity of farming during the Great War and the expectation–unfounded as it turned out-that it would continue, produced a stream of purchasers after 1918. At the same time the social and political changes during the War, and the deep wounds in the core of many landed families caused by the high casualty rate in the officer class, convinced the majority of landowners that there were no longer any social returns in terms of position or influence, or compelling reasons of family pride, which might impel them to retain ownership of the greatest possible number of acres regardless of the financial problems and sacrifices that entailed. Thus inhibitions against parting with ancestral acres, at least those which did not form the heartland surrounding the principal country house of the family, were removed. In the avalanche of estate sales which followed between 1918 and 1921 it is impossible to distinguish between the different reasons for selling by different owners. The necessity of raising money to pay death duties was the reason most frequently cited by contemporaries. But the direct effects of these duties, raised in 1919 to a rate of 40 per cent on the largest estates, have been greatly over-dramatised. Probably not more than a fifth of the sales of 1918-21 were directly related to deaths of heads of families in the preceding five years, although selling to raise money in anticipation of future deaths and their liabilities was a possibility. A more general motive was the desire, or the pressing need, to clear off debts, many of them of very long standing, some accumulated over several generations. Restructuring by substituting some more reliable income-producing assets for a slice of their agricultural land was the third general reason. It was a luxury, available only to the wealthiest landowners who were fairly well clear of debts and thus one of the techniques which ensured that the wealthiest landowners of the 1880s were most likely to provide the survivors of the 1990s (Thompson 1963, chap. XII).

  • 5 Country Landowners Association papers, CLA Office, 16 Belgrave Square, London SW1, The Future of L (...)
  • 6 Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, Report No. 7, July 1979 [Cmnd. 759.5, 1 (...)

7Although some of the old aristocratic estates which survive in the 1990s are still exceedingly large–the Duke of Buccleuch, with more than a quarter of a million acres, is reckoned to be the largest private landowner in Europe–the general shrinkage of individual estates has understandably led to revision in perceptions of what constitutes a large estate, the contemporary equivalent of the 10,000 acres of the 1880s. The landowners’ mouthpiece, the Country Landowners Association, recognised this when it defined as “major estates” all those over 6,000 acres, and a “large estate” as one between 3,000 and 6,000 acres, in a statement on the future of landownership in 1976. By 1989, when conducting a survey of its membership on policies towards farm tenancies, the Country Landowners Association simply divided its membership into two groups: its 421 large landowners had estates of more than 3,000 acres, and the rest of its 40,000 members fell below that line.5 In the same vein the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth in 1979 adopted a 5,000 acre threshold for its definition of very large landowners.6 This down-grading in definitions of large estates certainly reflects the lowly state to which many of the Victorian magnates have fallen after a century of attrition. The marquesses of Ailesbury now have 6,000 acres where a hundred years ago they had 55,000, the dukes of Bedford have 13,000 instead of 87,000, and the dukes of Richmond 12,000 acres in place of 286,000, to cite a few striking examples of drastic reductions (Perrott 1968). But the redefinition is also a perfectly rational response to the new social and economic realities which were beginning to be apparent before 1914 and which have been very clearly established since 1945. Landownership in itself has ceased to confer political influence or social authority and responsibility proportionate to the acreage owned, in the way that was broadly the case before the 1880s. As the generations have passed it has become borne in on the landed aristocracy that there are no particular rewards or benefits, beyond the sentimentality of family pride or the speculative offchance that land might in the future outpace other assets in capital appreciation, in striving to hold on to the greatest possible acreage. Instead of the vast, sprawling, and scattered estates of the Victorian grandees, usually accumulated through the haphazard mechanisms of marriage and inheritance, the sensible option for the late twentieth-century landowner is to possess a reasonably compact, easily manageable estate, a balanced portfolio of investments, and an income not unduly reliant on agricultural rents or farming profits. On some such conditions the owner, in the 1990s, of an estate of 5-6,000 acres, or even one of 3,000 acres, is a great landowner, the lineal descendant of the 10,000 acre man of the 1880s: not just a poor relation who has fallen on hard times, but a direct equivalent who has adapted to changed times.

  • 7 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Acquisition and Occupancy of Agricultural Land [the No (...)

8There is no entirely reliable or accurate way of applying these definitions to the contemporary scene, since there are no public records of the ownership of land. The one comprehensive survey of ownership since the New Domesday of 1873, the detailed information collected in the valuations for the Lloyd George land taxes introduced in the 1909-10 Finance Act, was never consolidated, digested, or analysed by government, and the raw material has been only patchily used by historians; in any case the information predates all the great land sales and the restructuring of the old aristocracy (Short and Reed 1987). In 1979 the Northfield Committee on the Acquisition and Occupancy of Agricultural Land found itself hampered by “the lack of data on agricultural land ownership and occupancy”, and strongly recommended “that more information should be collected and made available as a base for policy decisions affecting agricultural structure.”7 But the Thatcher Government had different ideas about policy for agricultural structure, namely to let the market rip, and saw no point in collecting data on ownership. In default of any official register, information about who owns the land, or about which of the landed aristocrats of 1880 are still landowners, can only come from private ventures into the field, some by academics, some by journalists, and such surveys are inevitably something short of being comprehensive or definitive.

9The most systematic and reliable survey is that carried out by a historical geographer, Fleather Clemenson, in 1980, by a questionnaire sent to a sample of the descendants of rather over one third of the 1880 landowners (Clemenson 1982). This, relating to England only, showed that a quarter of the original landed aristocrats still owned estates of more than 10,000 acres in 1980, and a further one third had estates of between 3,000 and 10,000 acres. A handful of the original group, 9 out of 124, were in the much reduced circumstances of being left with estates of less than 3,000 acres but above 1,000; adding these in, two-thirds of the landed aristocrats of 1880 had direct descendants a hundred years later who were considerable, and in most cases substantial, landowners sitting on the same lands as their forebears. Or, to put it the other way round, no more than one third of the aristocratic families of 1880 seem to have become completely detached from the land. This conclusion is as robust as it is surprising, but unfortunately the composition of the sample remains anonymous so that it is not possible to identify who has survived and who has gone under. Journalists, by contrast, are by nature committed to the personal angle, and whether they are investigating landowners or simply the wealthy, they stalk their quarry individual by individual, name by name, alert to quotable peculiarities and somewhat indifferent to ordinariness. The approach has many disadvantages: some, perhaps many, individuals are ignored and omitted because of failure to identify them or because insufficient information is available; for others, the information is sketchy, and in any case is unverifiable. The advantages of the naming of names, however, are that the survivors and, although less certainly, the casualties can be identified and explanations for the differing fortunes of landed families can be suggested; while the lists of survivors are likely to be conservative, minimalist, statements because of the high risk of omissions.

  • 8 The Sunday Times, “Britain’s Richest 500” (1994). The series started with “Britain’s Rich, the Top (...)

10In the last few years The Sunday Times has published an annual list of the wealthiest people in Britain, compiled by its investigative financial journalists from such sources as Stock Exchange share prices, company reports which have to disclose precise figures of directors’ shareholdings, their own valuations of agricultural land, forestry, and sporting estates, and their estimates of the value of art collections–whose exact contents are frequently a matter of hearsay and guesswork when private owners choose not to permit public access. The resulting listings are subject to an unknown margin of error, but the broad impression is probably a reasonable guide to the contemporary elite of wealth and to the distinction between old money and new money. In the list for 1994, 65 hereditary landowners appear among “Britain's Richest 500.”8 In addition there are half a dozen new landowners among the super-wealthy, whose estates rest upon nineteenth and twentieth-century business fortunes: two of these new landed estates had already been founded by 1880, but were subsequently further expanded, those of the viscounts Wimborne (Guest, ironmaster), and Hambleden (W. H. Smith, the newsagent). The other four newcomers were of more recent origin: the earls of Iveagh (Guinness, brewers), viscounts Cowdray (Pearson, Mexican oil and civil contracting), lords Leverhulme (Lever, soap), and Sir William Lithgow (shipbuilding). All the 65 hereditary survivors were fully-acred landed aristocrats in 1880, and all except half a dozen of them still own estates of over 10,000 acres in 1994. Naturally, they all have other assets besides land, and it is their non-landed possessions which lift them into the ranks of the top 500 multimillionaires; but the half dozen who are super-wealthy because their art treasures more than compensate for their reduced territories nevertheless retain gratifyingly large estates of more than 5,000 acres, with the sole exception of the Earl of Jersey who is reputed to retain no more than 650 acres, when in 1880 his ancestor had over 18,000. These 650 acres, however, are prime development land lying between Osterley Park, the family home now made over to the National Trust, and Heathrow Airport, and are quite sufficient to support him comfortably in his tax-proof home on the island of Jersey. (The other members of this sub-10,000 acre group of the super-wealthy are the Earl of Harewood, 7,000 acres remaining out of 29,000 in 1880; Lord Hesketh, 5,000 acres in place of 15,000; Earl Spencer, 8,000 acres in place of 24,000; the Earl of Verulam, 2,500 acres in place of 10,000; and the Duke of Wellington, 7,000 acres in place of 19,000.)

11Figures of this order confirm in the cold language of money that the old landed aristocracy has been decisively removed from its pedestal of wealth, whatever may have befallen its less measurable social qualities. William D. Rubinstein has shown in a most striking way the enormous preponderance of landed wealth in Britain until the late nineteenth century. A graphic sentence tells us: “An observer entering a room full of Britain's 200 wealthiest men in 1825 might be forgiven for thinking that the Industrial Revolution had not occurred,” since pretty well all of them would have been landowners. “Until about 1880,” he observes, “more than half of all the really wealthy men in Britain were landowners.” The old aristocracy, in other words, were just about clinging on to possession of the high ground of wealth until 1880, but had yielded a lot of space at the top to new money in the previous half century. The declining trend in the proportion of the really wealthy who were landed aristocrats started well before 1880, and while it continued thereafter the figures do not suggest that it did so at an accelerating pace. The “really wealthy” were defined by Rubinstein as those who left assets at death, including land, valued at more than £500 000 (which in terms of 1994 values is broadly equivalent to the.£20 million valuation which secures an entry in The Sunday Times “Richest 500”). On that basis the landowners provided 44 per cent of the really wealthy dying in the 1880s, 28 per cent of those dying in the 1900s, and 15 per cent of those dying between the Wars; all in all a rather smoothly declining curve from the presumed near 100 per cent of 1825. Now the 65 extremely wealthy hereditary landowners of 1994 represent 13 per cent of Britain's Richest 500 people. The two sets of figures are not exactly comparable, since the 1994 set refers to estimates of the worth of living people while the earlier sets refer to the values of estates left at death. The general implication, however, is unmistakeable. The long decline in the relative importance of the landed aristocracy in the wealth stakes–itself, pace Rubinstein, an inexorable if somewhat delayed action consequence of the Industrial Revolution–has been halted at some point between 1939 and the 1990s. Either the decline continued beyond 1939 and was then reversed by a revival in aristocratic fortunes, for which a plausible case could be made out resting on the sharp spurt in land values in the 1970s; or the aristocracy bottomed out around the time of the Second World War and has since continued on a more or less even keel, perhaps a more plausible view.

12The survival process has been a generation game, a family matter, as well as a contest with external forces and the changing character, hostile or benevolent, of taxation rates and regimes, farm rents and profits, development values and regulations, the vagaries of the art market, or the relative movement of incomes and aristocratic costs of living. The process has been a matter of getting rid of the rotten apples, and of adapting to a way of life in which the successful aristocrat has to be a successful man of business, a process which to a large extent waited on the arrival to maturity and to the control of family affairs of heirs who had not been brought up to expect the high Victorian aristocratic way of life to continue automatically, and without great effort on their part, for ever. The rotten apples, however, had been sitting in the aristocratic barrel for quite a long time before the 1880s, and their dire effects on many aristocratic estates could not be fended off by waiting for the re-education of heirs in financial and estate management, and more frugal living, to bear fruit. The rotten apples were the estates carrying a weight of debt which they could no longer support. Drowning under overwhelming debt had long been a landowner's nightmare. Quite apart from the huge debts that could be quickly run up through individual folly, extravagance, or recklessness, inexorably mounting debts seemed to be the inexorable consequence of the marriage settlement system which lumbered the family estate with the financial support of each generation of daughters and younger sons, typically in the form of capital sums, or portions, provided by mortgages of the core estate. That these debts had not, on the whole, overwhelmed many landed families before the 1880s had been due to the continual postponement of nemesis through increases in rental incomes and in land values, and by the exploitation of non-agricultural assets. After 1880 the nightmare became real. Agricultural rents fell until the mid-1890s, and thereafter stabilised but did not recover. In many of the more pastoral regions of the west and north rents scarcely declined at all in real terms; but in the chief cereal growing areas of the east and south rents fell by up to 50 per cent, and landowners with their estates concentrated in those regions had their incomes severely squeezed. Of more importance to landowners’ finances, land values declined generally and throughout the country, regardless of farming types, and were roughly halved within the space of 15 to 20 years. Such a dramatic collapse in land prices left many indebted landowners holding what the 1990s has come to call negative equity, their debts suddenly made larger than their assets by the collapse of the land market (Cannadine 1990: 92-95).

13As in the housing market of the 1990s, the landowners’ creditors, by this time largely insurance companies, banks, and some specialised financial institutions, were not keen to repossess their security, the landed estates, as long as the debtors could make some show of continuing to service their debts, since they had no wish to become landowners themselves and the market value of repossessed estates was less than the value of the original loans. The financial pressure on indebted landowners, however, was intense. Several shut up their country houses, or if they were lucky let them on short leases to rich parvenus, and went to live cheaply abroad, in France or in the colonies. All of them aimed to sell land and clear off debts whenever purchasers could be found, and almost fortuitously it had for the first time become legally possible to do this without incurring large costs to obtain powers of sale, with the passage of the Settled Land Act in 1880. The snag was that there were few buyers in the market, for the same reasons that there were many sellers: the price of land was historically low in the 30 years before 1914, but in the prevailing uncertainty and pessimism over the future of agriculture in Britain that did not mean that land was cheap and there was a general expectation that its price might go on falling. Some sales and purchases did take place between 1880 and 1914, notably by rich businessmen who were largely indifferent to the future of farming and of land values so long as they could satisfy their aspirations to country house living and landed status: Cunliffe-Lister the wool-comber, Guinness the brewer, Maple the furniture dealer, Pearson the oil magnate, and Samuel the founder of Shell Oil, were among the examples of this type of movement on to the land in this period. Such transactions, however, formed no more than a steady trickle. The market remained overshadowed by huge quantities of land ready to be put up for sale if ever purchasers should come forward in large numbers (Thompson 1963: 318-320; 1991: 16-18).

14That did not happen until the end of 1918. There followed three years of frantic activity during which, in England alone, it was claimed that a quarter of the country changed hands, something of the order of eight million acres. The large numbers of purchasers were in the main sitting tenants, farmers who were either flushed with the profits of wartime farming and confidence that they were going to continue, or were defensive purchasers fearful that new owners might raise their rents and deprive them of their newly gained profits. Their confidence in the postwar future was of course sadly misplaced, but while it lasted it enabled a large section of the old aristocracy, and of the landed gentry as well, to offload estates which they no longer wanted or which they could no longer afford to retain. A few of the great estates, and many of the estates of the lesser gentry, were completely wiped out in this flood of sales. The Breadalbane estates, for example, were among the major casualties. Once stretching almost from coast to coast in Perth and Argyll, these estates were drastically reduced in 1921 and finally extinguished by a further sale in the 1930s, sales chiefly induced by the enormous gambling debts run up by the Marquess before 1914; his descendant, the present Earl, is completely landless and lives in a bed-sitter in Gospel Oak. 1921 also saw the final act in a major collapse which had begun nearly a hundred years earlier, the fall of the Grenville dukes of Buckingham: a modest estate of 10,000 acres or so had been salvaged from the ruin of the second Duke in 1848, and it was the remnant of that along with the great mansion at Stowe which was sold in 1921, leaving the direct descendant of the dukes altogether landless in the Banbury Road in Oxford (Beckett 1994: chap. 7-10).

15The complete disappearance of once imposing estates was, however, exceptional. The fact that nearly all the old landed families were selling land at this time did not mean that nearly all of them were on the edge of oblivion. Around 100 landed aristocrats can be identified as sellers in the post-1918 flush, and about two-thirds of them are still considerable, and reasonably flourishing, landowners in the 1990s. In other words, they were selling outlying estates, clearing debts, with luck diversifying their investments, and not liquidating their landed position (Thompson 1991: 11). If the general selling of some parts of family estates is misleading as evidence of a general collapse of the landed element in the old landed aristocracy, so also is the abandonment and demolition of country houses, loudly lamented by the heritage lobby. Country houses had begun to fall by the wayside well before 1914, and indeed there had always been some natural wastage through changing fashions, obsolescence, redundancy, and occasional financial hardship. But it was after the First World War, and again at a greatly accelerated pace after 1945, that country houses were abandoned in shoals by the landed classes, no longer able to afford their upkeep or to tolerate the inconvenience of living in them without abundant supplies of domestic servants. This erasure of the visible evidence of a whole culture, whose expression in built form had been particularly elegant, was deeply distressing and alarming for architectural historians and traditionalists. As a lament for the past and a plea for public help in stopping the rot an exhibition was staged in 1974, entitled “The Destruction of the Country House,” and the accompanying research included the listing of close to a thousand country houses which had been destroyed in the hundred years since 1875. That sounds like a very large number of buildings, as does the further 250 country houses listed as having been sold off by their traditional owners since 1979, in the study of The Disintegration of a Heritage initiated by the Historic Houses Association (Sayer, Massingberd 1993; see also Strong, Binney, Harris 1974). There is no doubt that all these houses have either been demolished or have passed out of the ownership of landed families, and that in most cases their loss has been a loss of places of architectural merit or historical interest. Yet the interpretation of these figures, compiled in order to give maximum support to the alarmist case, is not entirely straightforward.

  • 9 See the review of Disintegration of a Heritage by Giles Worsley, “A False Dusk?” (Country Life, 1 (...)

16The picture of a priceless architectural and cultural heritage in danger has naturally been drawn in the most vivid colours, by making the total tally of country house losses as large as possible. Thus the total includes houses that were only built in the late nineteenth century and were never attached to large landed estates, such as Rounton Grange, built in the 1870s for the great iron and steel master Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, or Dawpool, built in the 1880s for the Liverpool shipowner T. H. Ismay. It includes houses which have been judiciously pruned rather than demolished, such as Clouds which had its servants wing removed in the 1930s. It includes the second or third grand mansions of some of the great magnates who had accumulated a whole string of houses through marriage and inheritance, and who discarded the surplus ones ruthlessly in this period when no buyers or alternative users could be found. Thus the marquesses of Bath dispensed with Muntham in Sussex (which had only been built in the 1880s), but retain the family's principal seat at Longleat; the dukes of Sutherland jettisoned Trentham in Staffordshire but retained Dunrobin Castle and one or two other Scottish houses; the marquesses of Bute dispensed with Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch, St John's Lodge in Regent's Park, Falkland Palace in Fife, Dumfries House in Ayrshire, but they clung on to their original seat, the vast palace of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; and in the obverse of this process the marquesses of Anglesey razed their traditional home, Beaudesert in Staffordshire, to the ground in the 1930s but continued to live in some style overlooking the Menai Straits in their second home, Plas Newydd.9 And the tally ignores all the new country houses which have been built. Since 1945 over 400 country houses have been demolished. But in the same years about 250 new ones have been built, all of them the centres of large landed estates and the great majority, over three-quarters, built by long-established landed families as convenient and manageable replacements for their earlier mansions, abandoned because of the crippling costs of upkeep and their unsuitability for running without servants. Thus Bowood, the seat of the marquesses of Lansdowne, may by listed as demolished; but its replacement, “the grandest stable conversion in England,” would fool most people into believing that it is the original eighteenth-century stately home. More typically, Knowsley, the sprawling and draughty seat of the earls of Derby, was first remodelled and made more compact in the 1950s, and then abandoned to the Lancashire police in the 1960s as their headquarters and replaced by a completely new large house in the same grounds (Robinson 1984).

17Even the gross total of houses demolished or alienated, around 1,250, represents barely one quarter of the opening stock of country houses as it stood in 1880. If that were to be reduced to a figure of the net losses of country residences of old-established landed families it would amount to less than one-fifth, probably substantially less, of the initial stock, a level of disappearance and loss consistent with the evidence of changes in the ownership and size of landed estates in the same period. Moreover, these net losses were overwhelmingly concentrated among the families of the landed gentry and those who had never owned more than middle-ranking estates, and very few came from the ranks of the landed aristocracy. No more than a handful of the great houses which were the main seats of great landed magnates in the 1880s no longer exist today, houses such as Cassiobury (earls of Essex), Clumber (dukes of Newcastle), or Panshanger (earls Cowper); perhaps a couple of handfuls, like Stowe and most recently Wynyard (marquesses of Londonderry), have passed out of the hands of their traditional families although the houses themselves are still standing. Even the houses now owned by the National Trust, and frequently still partly occupied by the original families as more or less perpetual tenants, although they are often extremely grand and of the greatest architectural quality and interest, include very few that came from the front rank of the aristocracy. The fate of the country houses since 1880 confirms the picture conveyed by looking at the fate of the ownership of land: most of the landed aristocracy have survived, it is the gentry who have gone to the wall. The great majority of the country houses which the Victorians recognised as being the grandest, the most imposing, and socially the most important, are still owned and lived in by the same families as in 1880. Alnwick, Althorp, and Arundel, Badminton, Belvoir, and Blenheim, Chatsworth, Goodwood, Hatfield, Castle Howard, Holkham, Longleat, Stratfield Saye, Wilton, and Woburn, are perhaps the cream of this set in England; and in Scotland there are Dalkeith, Dalmeny, Dunrobin, Floors, Hamilton, Inverary, and Mount Stuart, in the same class. A few of the grandees even keep up more than one great house: the Duke of Buccleuch keeps Boughton House in Northamptonshire and Drumlanrig in Dumfries, the Cavendishes retain Holker Hall in Cumbria as well as Chatsworth, the Duke of Norfolk still uses Carlton Towers in Yorkshire as well as Arundel Castle, the Duke of Northumberland has both Syon House and Alnwick, and the Duke of Rutland Haddon Hall as well as Belvoir Castle.

  • 10 Sunday Times, “Richest 500.” For Scottish landowners, see Norton-Taylor (1982).

18One striking feature about the owners of these great houses is that they are all members of the nobility: the sole untitled owner, Howard of Castle Howard, is the head of a cadet branch of the Howard family, the Earl of Carlisle's estate having been divided into two parts. Much the same is true of the more objective test of survivorship, the identification of aristocratic families still in possession of their ancestral estates: more objective because land can be measured and acres counted, while designation of a house as a “country house” or a “really great country house” is subjective, a question of aesthetic, architectural, and social judgment. Whether one takes the 65 hereditary landowners who figure amongst “Britain’s Richest 500” in 1994, or the more select company of the 19 out of the 29 wealthiest landowners of the 1880s who are still part of the wealthiest set in the 1990s, or the larger group of nearly 150 traditional landowners who can be identified as owning estates of over 5,000 acres today, the story is the same. They are practically all members of the titled nobility: the largest group, the 150, which includes those who own thousands of acres even though their total assets fall below the £20 million mark, contains but a handful who are not peers: Sir John Baring (who is the descendant of the Victorian Lord Ashburton), Sir Walter Henry Bromley-Davenport (head of a long-established Cheshire gentry family, knighted in 1961 as a Tory Member of Parliament), Francis Fulford (head of an old Devonshire gentry family), Simon Howard (of Castle Howard), Charles Francis Legh (another member of the Cheshire gentry), Michael Saunders-Watson (of Rockingham Castle and in direct line of descent from the eighteenth-century earls of Rockingham), Sir Tatton Sykes (of Sledmere, major East Riding landowners since the eighteenth-century), Sir Joseph Weld (of Lulworth Castle and member of an old Dorset gentry family), and Samuel Whitbread (of Southill, Bedfordshire, brewer-descendant of the eighteenth-century brewer who founded both brewery and landed estate). To these should be added Sir Nicholas Bacon (14th baronet, the premier baronet of England, who most unusually has over three times as many acres today, 14,000, as his forebear had in 1883, the fruit of a marriage to a rich heiress). Among the great Scottish landowners of the 1990s only Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel does not have a peerage to go with his 130,000 acres: but to be the Cameron of Lochiel, 26th Chief of the Clan, requires no garnish.10

19Thus well over 90 per cent of the landed aristocracy who are still great landowners in the 1990s have peerages, whereas in 1880 as many as 44 per cent were untitled or held baronetcies. This very sharp contrast may be a statistical illusion, or it may hold the key to the explanation of survival. An illusion because those with titles are easier to see in the documents and easier for financial journalists to spot in lists of company directors. After all, the Heather Clemenson survival rate of around 50 per cent among the landed aristocracy leads one to expect, once the element of 132 predominantly Irish landowners among the initial 583 of 1880 has been discounted, that there would be still around in the 1990s about 120 large landowners with peerage titles and about 100 without titles. That number of peers has been positively identified, but no more than ten of the untitled aristocracy, creating the possibility that there is a troop of untitled landed aristocrats out there which none of the contemporary sources or observers has managed to locate. On the other hand, it is also possible that being a lord has been one of the conditions of survival, or at least that it has conferred advantages that have been denied to the untitled. These could include better chances to make good marriages with new money, better chances to get company directorships and inside-track jobs in the City, and perhaps above all better chances to have begun the race, in the 1880s, already endowed with larger and more valuable art collections. For while many factors have made life difficult for the landed aristocracy since 1880, the art market has moved in their favour, most emphatically of all since the Getty Museum appeared on the scene as a purchaser with a bottomless pocket. The ability to unload the odd Leonardo, Titian, or Rembrandt has kept many a wolf from the aristocratic door; and the valuations of great art collections still remaining in private hands indicate that there is the capacity in most of the noble houses to keep the wolf at bay for a long time yet.

20Whether these, or indeed other, factors favoured the old territorial nobility as against the old untitled aristocracy remains a matter of speculation. What does emerge by way of a solid conclusion from this general survey is that a surprisingly high proportion of the old landed aristocracy has successfully weathered the last hundred years; surprising if only because a “normal” pre-1880 rate of wastage through incompetence, extravagance, demographic failure, or divided inheritances would have seen about half a dozen such families fail each decade or slide below the aristocratic wealth threshold. The landed aristocrats, those who were wealthy or super-wealthy when they crossed the starting line in 1880, have fared far, far better than their less wealthy cousins, the landed gentry, of whom scarcely a third survive with some of their land. Those whose finances were, by and large, already in a precarious state in 1880 have been weeded out, unless they chance to have struck lucky like the Marquess of Cholmondeley in marrying a Sassoon, or the Duke of Roxburghe in marrying a Grosvenor. The remainder have knuckled down to the loss of their role as a ruling elite and have learned to behave more like businessmen running their estates and their houses as businesses. They no longer have any particular or distinct political or social functions, except possibly as ceremonial local figureheads, although they have been astute in inventing for themselves a cultural function as the guardians and chief embodiments of a very popular version of the national heritage. But there they are, and short of some huge political or economic convulsions, there they are likely to remain.



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1 This paper was written in 1994 and contemporary statements and statistics relate to that year and have not been updated.

2 The most readily accessible source for the numbers of hereditary peers are the annual editions of Whitaker’s Almanack from 1868 onwards.

3 Data on landownership, and on peers who owned little or no land, in the 1870s and 1880s are from John Bateman, The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (final edition 1883), and from Return of Owners of Land (England and Wales), Return of Owners of (Scotland), and Return of Owners of Land (Ireland), British Parliamentary Papers, 1874, LXXII, and 1876, LXXII.

4 The relationship between estate-size and social class or status has been discussed in Thompson (1963, chap. 2 and 5), Rubinstein (1987, chap, 6) and Thompson (1990a: 40-61).

5 Country Landowners Association papers, CLA Office, 16 Belgrave Square, London SW1, The Future of Landownership, a CLA Discussion Paper, 6 January 1976. CLA Council Minutes, 26 October 1989.

6 Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, Report No. 7, July 1979 [Cmnd. 759.5, 1979-19801, 6.26-6.28.

7 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Acquisition and Occupancy of Agricultural Land [the Northfield Report] (Cmnd. 76599, 1979), para. 272.

8 The Sunday Times, “Britain’s Richest 500” (1994). The series started with “Britain’s Rich, the Top 200” in 1989.

9 See the review of Disintegration of a Heritage by Giles Worsley, “A False Dusk?” (Country Life, 1 July 1993: 88 91).

10 Sunday Times, “Richest 500.” For Scottish landowners, see Norton-Taylor (1982).


Institute of Historical Research, University of London

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