THE 1930’S: THE TOLL OF DEATH DUTIES

The stately homes of England were being closed down or sold: the cruel toll of super-taxation

Lullingstone
Owing to heavy death duties Sir Oswald Hart Dyke, son of Sir William Hart Dyke, who had died three months previous, was unable to keep Lullingstone Castle open. This photograph from 1931 shows the sale of contents in progress at the Baronial Hall. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“This will catch ————-,” said Sir William Harcourt in 1894, when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his devastating measure revolutionising death duties passed its third reading. The name he mentioned was that of a big landed proprietor whom he detested.

Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904) was a solicitor, journalist, politician and cabinet member in five British Liberal Governments, who in 1894 had achieved a major reform in death duties.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced estate duty, a tax on the capital value of land, in a bid to raise money to pay off a £4 million government deficit. The imposed graduated tax on the total estate of a deceased person was capable of producing much more revenue than taxes only on the amounts inherited by beneficiaries.

Sir William Harcourt (National Portrait Gallery)
Sir William Harcourt died at Nuneham House in 1904. “I love Nuneham, and have always wished to live and die there.” However, it came at a cost. Nuneham passed to his son, Lewis Vernon Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt, who had just married Mary Ethel Burns, a niece of American financier and banker, J. P. Morgan. The estate inherited by the young couple was in need of major renovations, which they could not afford. Morgan established a £52,000 line of credit at his London bank for his niece, which he told her did not need to be repaid. The Harcourts used these funds to renovate the old buildings and grounds. Image: National Portrait Gallery.

The new death duties were passed despite the opposition of many, including William Gladstone and the 5th Earl of Rosebery, who believed that easily increased taxes would encourage frivolous Government spending. Other opponents regarded the tax as an attack on the great hereditary landowners.

By a rare instance of poetic Justice Sir William himself was one of the earliest to suffer under an Act which increased death duties according to the degree of relationship. He succeeded unexpectedly to Nuneham, the Harcourt family place near Oxford, and was taxed heavily by his own clauses concerning inheritance from kinsmen.

Nuneham House
Nuneham House was built in 1756 by Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt, and was developed by his descendants before they sold it to Oxford University in 1948, while it was in use by the RAF, and was used for studying and storage.

It was a contentious act that impacted on the nation’s country houses throughout the opening years of the 20th century.

However, it took a few years before the long-term implications for landowners were realised. The Sphere, ‘an illustrated newspaper for the home’, had been founded in 1900 by Clement Shorter, who also founded The Tatler in the following year. In 1931, it highlighted the problems created by Sir William Harcourt’s act:

“The confiscation of capital – glossed under the name of ‘capital levy’ – has become the thickest plank in the Socialist and Communist platform. It has also become the practice in countries wherever the opportunity has offered. But in England – the monarchical and democratic – this confiscation has been going on steadily ever since the passing of Sir William’s Act. Later legislation has added burdens both to land and capital, with the result that the ultimate burden is becoming too heavy to be borne, and whole estates, or parts of estates, have to be sold merely to meet the death duties. However, the process may be disguised under ‘duties,’ the fact remains that men have to pay fortunes to the State simply because they have inherited money or its equivalent in land. Actually, the confiscation of capital. And that capital is used year after year as part of the national income.”

Lullingstone Castle
Despite the gloomy outlook of 1931, Lullingstone Castle has remained in the Hart Dyke family for twenty generations, including the current owner Guy Hart Dyke. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

It wasn’t only The Sphere that voiced opinion. George Holt Thomas’ The Bystander was equally opposed to death duties:

“The landed classes are, in fact, being taxed out of existence under our very noses and before our very eyes. It is one of the most dramatic and cruel episodes in the whole of England’s chequered career, and most people who should know better talk like the Socialists and say that it is all for the public good. They forget that England became what she is as a result of the feudal system and that the feudal system is the best possible thing for the countryside. Time and time again in the past great landlords used to remit the rent to their tenants if it was a bad year. They were able to see that tenants got proper attention if they were ill. In fact, they looked after them. Today there is no one to do that. There is no doubt about it that the politicians have got the country into such a position that there is practically no chance for any great estate to survive financially the death of two consecutive heads of the family. It might be possible if there were a couple of very long minorities. But that is the only hope. In fifty years’ time who can say with any assurance if a single one of the great houses will still be in private hands?”

There could, said The Sphere, be only one result – the sale or closing of big country houses, with the consequent loss to local employment, tradespeople, charitable subscriptions, cutting down pensions to old servants, probably the raising of cottage and farm rents; in short, the withdrawal of one of the biggest influences in the English countryside, especially strong where the landowners have realised their responsibilities.

The newspaper’s response came after news from Lullingstone Castle at Eynsford, in Kent, where the Hart Dykes had lived in unbroken succession for five hundred years, a house famous for its hospitality and kindliness. The new baronet, Sir Oswald, had been obliged to close the house because, not only had he paid the duties upon his father’s death, but also on the reversion of his elder brother, on whom it was entailed, and had died in the late Sir William’s lifetime.

Lord Durham, too, had to close Lambton Castle, near Durham, having had to pay something like half a million in duties owing to the successive deaths of his father and uncle. If the late Lord Durham had lived a little while longer the duties would have been three-quarters of a million.

Lambton Castle
Lambton Castle, Chester-Le-Street, County Durham, the ancestral seat of the Lambton family. It was designed by Joseph and Ignatius Bonomi with later additions by Sydney Smirke in 1862-65. These were largely demolished in 1932 and the family moved to the smaller Biddick Hall on the estate. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Sir Oswald Hart Dyke hoped to return to Lullingstone ten years later, but the Duke of Newcastle, closing Clumber House, after succeeding his brother, could entertain no hope so definite, and had lent some of the best pictures in the house to the Nottingham Museum. (Clumber House was demolished seven years later).

The Duke of Leeds wasn’t even fortunate enough to be able to close Hornby Castle and wait for better times. It had been demolished and the materials sold piecemeal. Stowe House, in Buckinghamshire, which Lady Kinloss had inherited from her father, the last Duke of Buckingham, had become a public school. Moor Park, at Rickmansworth, formerly belonging to Lord Ebury, was a country club. Ashridge Park, the old Brownlow property at Berkhamsted, had to be sold, and had been bought as a memorial to Mr Bonar Law, and was a training college for Conservative workers.

And the list went on. According to The Sphere, “these instances are repeated all over the country.”

Hornby Castle
The Duke of Leeds’ Hornby Castle, on the edge of Wensleydale, between Bedale and Leyburn, in North Yorkshire. In 1930 the estate was broken up and most of the house demolished. The present building is the surviving south range. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Clumber House (Nottinghamshire) - The Sphere - 9 July 1938 (BNA)
Probably one of the last photographs of Clumber House, for generations the ancestral home of the Dukes of Newcastle and one of the show places of the Dukeries. The house was demolished in 1938 due to increasing taxation. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The Duke of Portland had already expressed doubt, publicly, whether his heir would be able to live at Welbeck. There were rumours, too, that two big ducal castles, one in the north and the other in the south, may have to be closed, and the announcement had just been made that Lord Derby wished to dispose of his London home in Stratford Place.

Another sign of the pressure of taxation was the coming to market of The Old Palace at Richmond, the homes of Kings and Queens from the time of Henry I to Queen Charlotte, and where Queen Elizabeth died. For many years it had been the scene of delightful parties given by Mr Middleton, who had done much for its restoration. Yet other signs were Lord Harewood and Princess Mary leaving Chesterfield House, and Lady Louis Mountbatten leaving Brook House.

And Devonshire House, Grosvenor House, Dorchester House, Lansdowne House, Spencer House – where were they? Said The Sphere: “Taxation answers – flats or clubs.”

Modern inheritance tax still dates back to William Harcourt’s  intervention in 1894. Today, inheritance tax is paid if a person’s estate (their property, money and possessions) is worth more than £325,000 when they die. The rate of inheritance tax is 40% on anything above the threshold, and that rate may be reduced to 36%, if 10% or more of the estate is left to charity.

Welbeck
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. After World War Two, Welbeck was let by the Dukes of Portland to the Ministry of Defence and operated as Welbeck College, an army training college, until 2005. Lady Anne, the unmarried elder daughter of the 7th Duke, owned most of the estate until her death in 2008. William Henry Marcello Parente, son of her younger sister, inherited and the house has become his home. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Moor Park
Moor Park, Rickmansworth, London. Built by the Duke of Monmouth in 1640 and re-fronted in the Italian style by Benjamin Styles. Subsequent owners included Lord Anson, the victor of Cape Finisterre, the first Marquess of Westminster, Lord Ebury, and Lord Leverhulme, who bought it in 1922 to use as a golf club house . Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
The Old Palace
A King’s Palace to let! The Old Palace, Richmond Green, Surrey. All that remained of the historic building, which dated from the time of Edward I, where Henry VII lived and Queen Elizabeth died, was to be let at a rental of £450 per annum. Even so comparatively small a rent for a palace was difficult to obtain during those terrible times of taxation. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Stowe
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. The ancestral home of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos was sold for £50,000 in 1921. The buyer was Mr Harry Shaw who intended to gift the house to the nation, but was unable to pay for an endowment to maintain the building. It was sold again in 1922 to the governors of what became Stowe School. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
1280px-Ashridge_2007-09-01_035
Ashridge Park, better known today as Ashridge House, Hertfordshire. In 1929 it was renamed the Ashridge Bonar Law Memorial, carrying on the work of the Philip Stott College, Northampton, which had closed. Courses in government, history and economics were given to prospective Conservative candidates. Tory ministers and MPs received instruction, some 150 residing at Ashridge at a time, in weekly courses.

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