As we are on the subject of Downton Abbey and as Armistice Day is commemorated on November 11, it is worthwhile looking at how the Great War was the last nail in the coffin for the English country estate.

Today’s younger Britons as well as foreign tourists might think that the great estates were always few in number. However, that would be a false assumption to make.

We have this impression because these homes and gardens are open to the public. Therefore, we ‘know’ what we can visit.

One lesser-known benefit of Downton Abbey was a renewed research into the decline of the English country estate. Several books have been written since the series has been running. Among them are John Martin Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks and Pamela Horn’s Country House Society: The private lives of England’s upper class after the First World War.

A number of online and offline articles have also addressed the subject.

19th century struggles

The Daily Beast discussed Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks in 2012. We discover that many estates, based on agriculture, livestock and tenant farmers were already suffering in the early 19th century.

George Eliot wrote about the state of the estate in her 1832 novel, Felix Holt, the Radical (emphases mine):

the fortune that was getting larger in the imagination of constituents was shrinking a little in the imagination of its owner. It was hardly more than a hundred and fifty thousand; and there were not only the heavy mortgages to be paid off, but also a large amount of capital was needed in order to repair the farm-buildings all over the estate, to carry out extensive draining, and make allowances to incoming tenants, which might remove the difficulty of newly letting the farms in a time of agricultural depression. The farms actually tenanted were held by men who had begged hard to succeed their fathers in getting a little poorer every year, on land which was also getting poorer, where the highest rate of increase was in the arrears of rent.

The reason for the decrease in income, the article says, was because of new innovations in food production overseas. This gave rise to cheap imports from as far away as the United States.

In 1894, the Liberal Party were in government. They instituted estate duty, a tax still with us to this day.

As with all taxes, it steadily increased. It hit large estates particularly hard. Heirs had to sell their land in parcels to make pay the duty and ends meet after a parent’s death. Estate duty, The Daily Beast explains:

proved frequently an expense that estates could not afford, and propelled increasing sales of land in a market where fewer and fewer buyers were prepared to purchase en bloc. Lots were inevitably broken up, and a large number of these properties were lost.

And:

The examples detailed in Felling the Ancient Oaks almost invariably entail the loss of the main house, but make clear that the estate was more than this—not merely the home but also “gardens, parkland, farms, and woods with an attendant village or cottages, and a church with family tombs.”

These were vast landholdings. Some family land dated from the time of the Norman Conquest. Other estates were built on old abbeys destroyed in Henry VIII’s time. Later redistributions also occurred.

Even some of the estates open today which stretch as far as the eye can see are smaller than they were originally. The families have had to sell of large parcels to outside concerns, for example, British Rail (as was, for new railway lines), huge amusement parks, hoteliers or home developers.

Downton’s story explained

Owners of large estates devoted their lives to running them. Of course, not all were responsible farmers and landlords, but those who were, such as Lord Grantham and his son-in-law Matthew Crawley, had a great emotional and intellectual investment in responsible farming and associated tenancy.

The Tax Foundation has an excellent analysis of what happened at Downton. By 1922, Lady Cora’s own money was part of the estate and would be passed on. It was no longer hers. Lord Grantham had already regrettably lost money to a Ponzi scheme. Salaries were rising at a time when land revenues were decreasing.

Matthew came to the rescue and bailed out the estate. He and Lord Grantham signed a contract to co-own the estate.

When Matthew died in the car accident, his half of estate tax came due. (Lord Grantham’s half would come due upon his demise.) At that time:

by the period of Season 3 and 4 we’re operating under the Finance Act 1919. Rates were on a sliding scale up to 40 percent on estates exceeding £2 million, with only a tiny £100 exemption (about $8,000 today). Exemptions for amounts given to spouses or charity didn’t come about until 1974, so the full tax is due.

The Tax Foundation directs readers to Sam Brunson’s site which estimates what might have been due:

We discover that Matthew didn’t have a formal will. Without such a will, apparently the estate would pass to George.[fn1] Before Matthew took his trip to Scotland, though, he drafted a letter to Mary. In that letter, he tells Mary that he intends to write a will when he returns from Scotland, and he intends for her to be his sole heir. Although the letter was not a will, he had it witnessed by two clients and, with its testamentary intent, the family’s attorney says it will function as a will.

How sensible, right? Maybe not. At dinner, after the letter/will is read, Lord Grantham says:

“I’m not sure how sensible it is. If the letter is valid, the estate will have to pay death duties twice before it reaches little George.”

So what would the death duties on Downton Abbey have been? It depends on the value of the estate. Movoto estimates that it would have been worth $34.7 million in 1920 (which is roughly the right time period). If, in 1920, one pound were worth about $3.50, the estate would have been worth nearly £10 million. At that value, the estate would have been subject to a marginal tax rate of 40%. Matthew’s estate would have owed taxes of nearly £4 million.

Furthermore, despite Matthew’s laudable idealism, pragmatism is an essential part of estate planning:

If he had left it to his son, it would have only faced one level of 40% Estate Duty. But now it goes through the tax system twice, first when he leaves it to Mary, then again when Mary leaves it to George. By failing to plan, the family may ultimately have to pay somewhere around £8 million, rather than the £4 million it would owe had the estate passed straight to George.[fn4]

That said, in the end:

apparently, Mary gets half of the estate. I don’t know what happens to the other half. If it goes to George, that half will only face one level of taxation.

The situation could have been avoided had Matthew taken financial advice early in his marriage and then made a will.

20th century developments

In 1999 —  before Downton AbbeyThe Guardian had an informative article on the sale of great estates in the 20th century.

Patrick Collinson went back to the archives of Country Life magazine — which, incidentally, would have been a staple at Downton — to research the situation in 1900. The first edition published that year featured 13 properties offered by estate agents Knight, Frank and Rutley. Today, the firm is known as Knight Frank. Of those 13, today only one still exists, although it is now an adult residential college. The others had been sold over the century to house developers, hoteliers and golf course developers.

But, as Collinson notes, even in 1900, the estate agents were already advertising Avon Castle in Ringwood, Hampshire, as prime land for houses. And that is exactly what happened. The main house was demolished. Executive homes with swimming pools now occupy the site. Interestingly, in 1999, Knight Frank sold one of these homes for £600,000.

Country Life readers had no idea at the turn of the century how dramatically their lives — and estates — would change. Articles from the 1900 editions focussed on the Boer War and tenant farmers’ housing.

The rest of the century, as we see in Downton Abbey, and continuing in subsequent decades, offered no relief:

The first world war, death duties, the 1930s depression, second world war requisitioning and higher taxes under the first Labour government of 1945-1951 combined to destroy many of the big turn-of-the-century estates. ‘The staff needed to run these huge places were no longer available after 1918, and in the inter-war depression years many of the great houses ran on a shoestring,’ says a spokesman for FPD Savills. After the second world war many gave up the ghost and in remote areas houses were simply demolished.

Dr Pamela Horn’s aforementioned book, which The Telegraph reviewed in February 2015 gave more examples:

In 1918 Sir Francis Ashley-Corbett sold his entire 4,500-acre Everleigh Manor house and estate, in Wiltshire. The previous year Lord Pembroke had sold one of his estates in the same county, and went on to dispose of 8,400 acres of the Wilton estate, also in Wiltshire, with many of his tenant farmers taking the opportunity to buy their holdings.

Horn’s book, The Telegraph says, explains landowners’ mixed fortune during the Great War:

The relative hardship experienced by Britain’s aristocracy during that period began during the First World War itself when conscription led to shortages in the domestic labour needed to maintain their large stately homes.

There were also growing shortages of food and fuel, although the landed gentry were able to grow fruit and vegetables, and raise poultry and livestock on their country estates, unlike the mass of the population.

However, their tenant farmers still had to be paid. Times were difficult and resources, including money, had to be carefully managed.

The Tax Foundation tells us that, in 1923, Highclere Castle — where Downton Abbey was filmed — was nearly crippled by estate tax which was due when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon died:

£500,000 (about $40 million today) in death duties … suggesting an estate valuation of about £1.5 million (about $120 million today). One-third is a pretty hefty tax bite, and led to the dismantling of many English estates as they sold land and possessions to pay the tax bill. Countess Carnarvon held a huge auction of art and jewelry in 1926 to raise enough to keep the house and land intact.

Later, fortunes continued to decline for many. Although we think of 1929’s Wall Street Crash as an American event, The Telegraph says it had repercussions on this side of the pond, too:

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a dramatic impact on those members of the aristocracy who had invested heavily in the stock market, in the hope of maintaining their privileged lifestyle following the war.

Sir Arthur and Lady Sybil Colefax lost their life savings – she reinvented herself as a fashionable interior designer in partnership with Peggy Ward, the Countess Munster – while the wealthy heiress Mabelle Wichfeld, who had once employed a retinue of 80 servants at Blair Castle, in Perthshire, was so short of cash on her death in 1933 that her funeral at Savoy Chapel, next to London’s Savoy Hotel, was paid for by friends.

The Daily Beast states that some landowners sold their estates to the military. Chicksands in Bedfordshire served as a hospital during the Great War. Later, the Royal Air Force built a joint RAF and US Air Force base on the estate.

Conclusion

Whilst many, including the BBC — in a recent documentary on the upstairs-downstairs scene of the early 20th century (BBC4, October 2015) — deride the wealthy for having more money and land than they needed, they, too, had family and emotional hardship to cope with.

Everyone’s misfortune is relative.

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