The Dukeries are four estates whose boundaries join and form a green and tranquil tract of Nottinghamshire which, until the Second World War, was a celebrated beauty spot.
In 1963, the writer J. Roger Baker re-visited the area for The Tatler and discovered that once more the estates were being cared for in a way which, while retaining the feeling of pre-war grandeur, was entirely consistent with the 1960s.
Fifty-five years later, with the benefit of hindsight, his work proves to be a rather rose-tinted look at four country houses. These were the ‘swinging-sixties’ after all, but life further north was a bit grim. For at least one of these properties times would get very hard indeed.
From ‘The Tatler’ – 28 August 1963:-
Today’s image of Nottinghamshire is probably one of coal-mining sons and lovers enjoying riotous Saturday nights and hung-over Sunday mornings, plus vague race-memories of Robin Hood engaging in endless television sorties with the local Sheriff. But the core of the county has always been – and remains – Sherwood Forest which once accounted for a fifth of its area. Until the 17th century this thirty-mile expanse of woodland and ling forest belonged to the Crown; the King retaining hunting rights and the great oaks were used to build ships and – it is generally believed – to supply beams for large buildings, among them St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1683 the Earl of Kingston formed Thoresby Park from 2,000 acres of forest land; later another 3,000 were taken for the fourth Earl of Clare’s park at Clumber and the Duke of Newcastle began building Welbeck Abbey. At nearby Worksop stood the magnificent Elizabethan manor house begun in about 1530 by the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. This house – the most glorious in the midlands and possibly the whole north of England was burned down (at a total loss in art treasures of £100,000) in 1761. The conjunction of these four estates is dubbed the Dukeries. In the past 30 years they have probably gone through more upheaval – retrogression and subsequent redevelopment – than in the previous three hundred. I revisited the Dukeries earlier this year when the oak, lime and birch trees were just emerging into consciousness and daffodils carpeted the parklands. It is possible to travel for miles without seeing a coal mine or any other scar on the carefully manicured landscape, or any living thing apart from birds or the odd herd of deer. The perimeter of the Dukeries is dotted with unlovely mining villages and in many places spoil heaps (buckets travel along wires to tip subterranean refuse on to growing piles) and mining plant encroach within the forest itself, but the centre of the area remains unspoiled. Or, to be more precise, has regained an unspoiled appearance.
For the greatest depredations to the forests and parks happened during the Second World War when the Army took over. I remember as a small boy raiding the ammunition dumps for Very lights which enlivened the first post-war bonfire celebrations. Perhaps the worst to suffer was Clumber Park which was requisitioned as an ammunition sub depot; it had been, too, a transit camp and much of the timber felled for war purposes leaving the park in a dismal state. Clumber House itself, a basically 18th-century mansion with later enlargements, facing on to the 87-acre lake, was demolished by the Duke of Newcastle in 1937 who intended to build a smaller dwelling on a nearby site. For a variety of reasons, he never did and sold the park to the National Trust.
A miniscule remnant of the house still stands (teas are available) and the National Trust’s area agent, Mr John Trayner, has his office in the stable courtyard.
“Clumber was the hunting and farming type of park,” he told me, “and a perfect example of a landscaped 18th century park which we are slowly restoring to its original state. The forestry side is well in hand, replanting at the rate of 28 acres a year. The rest is a question of maintenance and keeping the roads and paths in trim. We are also concerned with the buildings, especially the church.”
£9,000 has been spent on restoring Clumber church which was rededicated earlier this year. “On a good summer Sunday as many as 70,000 members of the public visit Clumber,” said Mr Trayner.
The joint estate of Thoresby is also open to the public. The hall is the home of Earl Manvers’ widow (he was the representative of the Dukes of Kingston whose title is defunct). It is not quite the Woburn of the Midlands, the Countess Manvers has made admirable use of the resources at her disposal to attract the public. In Sissons’ ‘Penny Illustrated Guide to the Dukeries’ published some 50 years ago, the rapturous author writes: ‘Everything is in the most perfect order on the Thoresby Estate and the mansion is the ideal abode of a high-minded English nobleman.
Of the estate this remains true; the park is about twelve miles in circumference, its variety of trees, lake and herds of deer (this particular estate has always retained large herds) are immaculate. Of the mansion… well, times have changed, and a few English noblemen would relish a bookstall selling Thoresby Hall place mats, waste paper bins, trays and tea towels in their great hall. The present house, another example of Victorian splendour, was designed by Salvin in 1874 and its massive, elaborate exterior confines a series of state apartments around which the public drift, open-mouthed at the fascinating collection of objets on view, ranging from the coronation robes of the Earl & Countess Manvers to some very beautiful paintings and back via a set of dolls in national costumes.
Despite the inevitable tourist attractions (did I spot a Robin Hood tea room?) Countess Manvers – an active painter, many of her works hang in Thoresby Hall – has clearly compromised with the ‘60s in the most agreeable manner, ensuring that the estate and house retain a basic feeling of a past age.
The other two ducal estates exist on a slightly different basis; to neither is the public admitted except by very special arrangement. Welbeck Abbey was first founded about 1150 but under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries act, destroyed. The present pile – of varying periods – was begun in 1600 by the first Duke of Newcastle. The author of Sissons’ ‘Penny Guide’ goes completely berserk at the prospect of describing Welbeck, describing the wonders as ‘world-wide.’ Well. The wonders exist of a series of underground rooms and tunnels built (Sissons estimates the cost as ‘two or three millions of money’) by the fifth Duke of Portland. One is not required to indulge in a species of pot-holing to see these apartments – they are in fact just below ground level, lit by skylights.
Today Welbeck Abbey is a school – a college providing a two-year sixth-form boarding school education for boys intending to take cadetships at Sandhurst. The present Duke of Portland, who lives in a smaller house at Welbeck Woodhouse nearby, retains some state apartments for his own use.
The underground ballroom (a picture gallery originally) is now the gymnasium, and oil paintings hang on the walls, men and women of a bygone century watching lusty youths vault, practise judo and perform on parallel bars. Many of the rooms leading from the underground galleries are classrooms; football and cricket pitches are marked on the great lawns and boats sail the lake. Tactful conversion of a great home into a military college of this nature is a sure way of preserving the house from either destruction or misuse. Within the park, Welbeck village, once a completely self-contained unit, feudal in nature, serving the Abbey, retains its function; the rest of the estate is farmed by efficient and up-to-date methods.
Farming is also the function of the Worksop Manor estate which joins that of Welbeck. The manor house has been associated with various moments of history, visited by Mary Queen of Scots, by Charles I, and once tenanted by Bess of Hardwick who married the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. The present house was built by the 9th Duke after the Elizabethan house had been razed in 1761. He and the Duchess began rebuilding but the death of their heir finished their enthusiasm. The remains of their project are in a singular curtain wall attached to the main house which gives the place a strangely Mediterranean feeling; there is space, there are statues. In 1840 the manor was sold to the Duke of Newcastle of Clumber and in 1890 sold again to Sir John Robinson, passing in 1929 to his great-nephew Captain John Farr, whose widow still lives there, the 450-acre farm being managed by her son., Mr Bryan Farr, who has a house on the estate which includes 600 acres of forest land. Today Worksop Manor is probably the most striking of the four houses; with its wide courtyard and unfinished wing, completely unexpected.
And so ended J. Roger Baker’s visit to the Dukeries. But what lay ahead for these country estates? This was the 1960s, and there was still a tendency to demolish great houses that proved too costly to maintain.
Clumber Park, minus demolished mansion, became one of the National Trust’s crown jewels. Listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, it has steadily been managed and maintained. It still contains the longest double avenue of lime trees in Europe, created by the 5th Duke of Newcastle in the 19th century and extending for more than two miles. The Duke of Newcastle’s study, designed by Charles Barry Jr, is all that survives of the house and is used as a café.
Worksop Manor might have been described as the finest of the four houses, but it was, and remains, the most secretive of estates. Guarded from public view, it strives to avoid publicity, the house remains in private ownership and continues to be the home to the Worksop Manor Stud.
The Dukedom of Portland became extinct following the death of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, 9th Duke of Portland, in 1990. The military college continued at Welbeck Abbey until 2005, while Lady Anne, the unmarried elder daughter of the 7th Duke of Portland, remained at Welbeck Woodhouse until her own death in 2008. Her nephew, William Henry Marcello Parente (born 1951) inherited and moved into Welbeck Abbey making it a family home once again. The family-controlled Welbeck Estates Company and the charitable Harley foundation have converted some estate buildings to new uses. These include the Dukeries Garden Centre in the estate glasshouses, the School of Artisan Food in the former fire stables, the Harley Gallery and Foundation and the Welbeck Farm Shop in the former estate gasworks and a range of craft workshops in a former kitchen garden. The house remains private although public visits are available on a limited basis at certain times of the year.
Perhaps the most beleaguered story belonged to Thoresby Hall. To minimise the threat of coal mining subsidence the house was sold to the National Coal Board in 1979 who proposed mining underneath it. It stood empty and abandoned from 1980, and in 1983 was described ‘as gradually crumbling as a coal seam is mined under its foundations’. It was sold on the open market ten years later and after several uninspiring owners was eventually acquired by Warner Leisure Hotels. Thoresby Hall opened as a 200-room country house hotel and spa in 2000.
The writer, J. Roger Baker , was born in 1934 and studied at Nottingham University. After working at the Nottingham Evening Post, he moved to London in 1960 to take a job with The Tatler. He died in 1993.
On the eve of ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, an aspiring writer traced the social and economic reasons for the decline of the English country house and described the dangers that threatened those remaining
In October 1974, a landmark exhibition opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Destruction of the Country House had been conceived following a conversation between the museum’s director, Roy Strong, and John Cornforth, the architectural historian, then compiling his important report on the ‘present’ state of our country houses, the first since the 1950 Gowers Report. The exhibition included a Hall of Destruction decorated with falling columns and illustrations of some of the hundreds of country houses demolished since 1875.
By the end of the exhibition, the total number of houses was found to be over 1,600. Forty years later, Matthew Beckett, ‘the statistician of loss’, found that between 1880 and 2014, the number of houses demolished was 1,921. A record of these can be found on his Lost Heritage website, and the number keeps increasing as we find more candidates – vanished, forgotten and then remembered again!
The exhibition was curated by Roy Strong, John Harris, then working at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Marcus Binney, soon to become Architectural Editor of Country Life Magazine, and Peter Thornton, from the V&A’s Department of Furniture and Woodwork. The exhibition did more than anything to bring the plight of our ‘suffering’ country houses to the attention of the public.
Days before the opening of The Destruction of the Country House, an article appeared in the Illustrated London News, written by John Martin Robinson, a 26-year-old Lancastrian who had just been awarded a doctoral degree for work on the architect Samuel Wyatt. By the end of the year, he was working for Greater London Council’s Historic Buildings Division, contributing to the Survey of London, inspecting buildings in Westminster and revising the Statutory Lists of Historic Buildings across the city. In time, we would know Robinson as an Architectural Writer for Country Life, as well as being the author of almost thirty books.
In 1974, John Martin Robinson was an unknown entity, but mature enough to write The Future of England’s Country Houses for a magazine that had been published since 1842. Unfortunately, like many of the country houses featured, the magazine eventually disappeared. However, forty-four years later, Robinson’s narrative still provides a definitive account as to how England’s country houses had got into such a perilous situation.
“No country can rival England in the number and beauty of its country houses in their setting of gardens, avenues and parklands. They are an association of beauty, art and nature achieved through centuries of effort, which has seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of civilisation. The English country house is the greatest contribution made by England to the visual arts: thus, the Gowers Report on ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic and Architectural Interest’ summed up the object of its investigations in 1950. Yet despite their unquestionable artistic importance the survival of these houses has been increasingly jeopardised in this century and many have been destroyed.
“With hindsight the rumblings of the avalanche can already be discerned behind the apparent calm and opulence of the Edwardian heyday of the country house, threatening the tranquil world of tea under the cedar trees and white-gloved footmen festooning smilax around the dining-room candelabra.”
“From 1870 onwards, English agriculture faced an increasingly serious crisis and its economic viability was destroyed by large imports of cheap grain from North America. As a result, land ceased to be profitable and the economic base of the country house was undermined. The effects were not immediately apparent because the overall financial power of the country’s trade and industry helped subsidise country house owners, but that was a situation that could not last forever.
“The huge staffs of Edwardian houses were partly a response to the rural unemployment caused by agricultural decline. In many areas domestic service was the only means of providing a livelihood for the inhabitants of whole villages. One result of the agricultural slump was disastrous, and that was the amendment of the settled land law in 1882, which enabled landowners to sell entailed heirlooms, particularly works of art, to meet their debts and day-to-day expenses. This opened the floodgates, and the systematic disposal of the fabulous collections assembled here between 1610 and 1850 has gone on ever since.”
“Estate duty was first introduced in 1897 and greatly increased in Lloyd George’s 1909 budget. This was followed quickly by the First World War in which it was common for two or three heirs to be killed one after the other, thus incurring multiple death duties. Then in the period between the wars came drastic increases in the rate of income tax which bore more heavily on landowners than on any other section of the community.
“The destructive effect of increased taxation upon the upkeep of country houses is well known. Another equally powerful but less widely recognised factor has been the steady encroachment of industry and urban development in certain areas, and it is those areas which have seen the worst losses of country houses – particularly South Lancashire, parts of Durham, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and outer London. South Lancashire has sustained the worse losses of all and today only two country houses are still lived in. Six are museums, over 50 have been demolished and the remainder lie derelict or have been converted into institutions.”
“The first two important English houses to go, heralds of doom, were Giacomo Leoni’s Bold Hall in Lancashire in 1900 and (Sir Charles) Barry’s Trentham in Staffordshire in 1910. In both cases industrial development was immediately responsible for the abandonment of the house. At Trentham the river had become so polluted with sewage from Stoke-on-Trent as to render that palatial seat no longer pleasantly habitable. In the case of Bold Hall, the coal mines crept up to the park walls and the owner finally sold out to the colliery company which demolished the house, thus contributing to an ironic pattern of development whereby the lucrative mineral, which had paid for so many fine houses, now destroyed them.”
“The crash occurred in the 1920s. In 1922 Stowe was sold up, and though the house was saved from demolition for use as a school the interior was largely dismantled, and the surroundings littered with gymnasiums, laboratories and all sorts of necessary new buildings, to the permanent spoliation of the gardens, the finest in England. Then house after house was demolished. In 1922 the worst loss was Cassiobury Park near Watford, where a Wyatt exterior concealed splendid seventeenth-century state rooms. In 1925 Leoni’s finest English house, Lathom House in Lancashire, was razed to the ground. In 1929 occurred the most regrettable vandalism of all, the wanton smashing of domed Nuthall Temple in Nottinghamshire, which contained superb rococo plasterwork. And so, the melancholy story continued until the eve of the Second World War.”
“However, the horizon was not one of unrelieved gloom. New country houses continued to be built, often on a considerable scale, particularly such late works of Sir Edwin Lutyens as Gledstone Hall, Castle Drogo and Middleton Park. The latter was completed only in 1938, and had 12 principal bathrooms including Lady Jersey’s, which was lined in pink onyx and white marble with a vaulted ceiling. A casual glance through the pages of Burke’s ‘Landed Gentry’ shows that ‘new’ families continued to be recruited throughout the period. They bought estates and either built their own houses or brought new life to old ones. Those who restored old houses often assembled in them fine art collections and laid out gardens on an almost eighteenth-century scale. Three of the most notable achievements of this type now belonging to the National Trust: Buscot Park and Upton House near Oxford, and Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge.
“This period also saw the beginning of a constructive attempt to save the country house from ruin. In 1924 the National Trust first pressed for legislation to grant tax concessions to the owners of country houses. This was unsuccessful, but in 1934 Parliament passed a Bill enabling the Trust to accept historic houses. The first house received by the Trust, Blickling in Norfolk, was bequeathed in 1940 by the Marquess of Lothian. It was followed in the same year by Wallington in Northumberland, and today the Trust owns and maintains some 150 great houses.”
“During the Second World War houses were used as hospitals, schools and army barracks. The eventual result of this was, in many cases disastrous. As readers of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ will know the Army was not an appreciative tenant. A typical example is Egginton Hall in Derbyshire where, when the Army relinquished the house in 1945, all the taps were left running. The interior was irreparably damaged by water and the house was subsequently demolished. Schools were reckoned to be more civilised occupants, although while Castle Howard was in use as a school half of it was gutted by fire.”
“At the beginning of the war the Government refused to give guidance and help to private owners over the storage and protection of art collections. As a result, a great deal of unnecessary damage was caused. The Duke of Bedford relates how, on inheriting Woburn, he found the famous Sèvres dinner service lying loose in the straw in the stables, while French eighteenth-century chairs were piled up in heaps with kitchen table legs stuck through the seats.”
The subject of wartime requisitioning was one that John Martin Robinson would return to. His book, The Country House at War was published in 1989. Twenty-five years later, it was followed with the weightier Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War.
“In 1945 the country house presented a huge, seemingly insoluble problem. No general maintenance had been done for at least six years, and many garden buildings and subsidiary structures had not been repaired since before the First World War because owners had had no money to spend on such ‘inessentials’. In many cases there seemed no alternative to demolition and over the next ten years hundreds were pulled down or truncated, as at Woburn, where half the house was demolished because of dry rot. The losses in this period were quantitively much greater than in the 1920s and 30s, though it could be argued that individually the houses destroyed were not of such great importance. The one absolutely irreparable loss was Coleshill, a statement of the utmost value to English architecture. It was gutted by fire in 1952. The Government declined to serve a preservation order on the shell, which as a result was demolished.”
“By the early 1950s it seemed as if the end had come for the country house, but there was in fact a remarkable recovery. This was largely due to the efforts of individual owners and also the post-war Labour Government. In 1945 the Minister for Housing and Local Government was empowered to make lists of buildings of special architectural and historic interest which were to be legally protected from demolition or unsympathetic alteration. Although slow in compilation (only 120 houses out of a target of 1,450 were listed in the first five years) and full of omissions and inconsistencies, they were better than nothing, and have developed in the succeeding years to become the foundation of all preservation work in this country. Then, at the invitation of Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a committee was set up to investigate the possibility of making grants and tax concessions to the owners of outstanding historic houses. In 1950 this committee produced the Gowers Report, as a result of which the Historic Buildings Council was established with the power to make annual grants for the restoration of great buildings.
“At the same time there was a dramatic revival in English agriculture. Landowners have reorganised their estates much more efficiently, and together with Government subsidies this has led to a doubling of the output of English farming and the restoration of its economic viability. Large-scale opening to the public, which started with Longleat in 1949, also provides funds for the upkeep of houses. This has given them a completely new raison d’etre, as well as presenting owners with additional incentive to maintain and improve their houses. As a result, many of the greatest country houses have been splendidly restored since 1960, and Chatsworth, Wilton, Holkham, Ragley and Althorp have never been so well cared for or looked so magnificent as they do today.”
John Martin Robinson’s use of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House was a good example. The property had been ‘closed-up’ for many years but is now regarded as one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions. The other houses remain open to the public, in the case of Althorp in Northamptonshire, its popularity reached unprecedented heights for being the home and final resting place of Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales.
“A year ago, this article could have finished on that happy note, but now there are new dangers. The possibility of increased taxation, together with general economic recession, threatens the precarious finances of the owners of great houses. If a wealth tax were to be imposed upon such houses and their contents it would lead to certain ruin. Already there have been disquieting events. For example, Heveningham Hall in Suffolk had to be sold as a result of capital gains tax in 1969 and although bought by the Government most of its contents were dispersed and it stands today empty and without a use, a sad place to visit.”
The Wealth Tax didn’t materialise. Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor misquoted for saying “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak” came closest in his 1974 election pledge but was forced to backtrack. However, the possibility remains a distant threat as is the recurring menace of a Mansion Tax, a common name for an annual property tax on high value homes. There was a happy end for Heveningham Hall, after all. The halls and grounds were bought in 1994 by Jon Hunt and his wife to use as a family home. Extensive work has been carried out to restore the house and the Capability Brown grounds.
“The great increase in the monetary value of works of art is also, ironically, a threat. Not only are owners tempted to sell, as in the case of the Longford Castle Velasquez, but the increased monetary value of country house collections makes them a great security problem, as was highlighted by the recent spectacular theft of pictures from Russborough in Ireland. These treasures, however, form the greatest portion of the works of art in this country and far surpass in both quantity and quality the contents of our provincial museums. As well as the furniture and portraits which obviously form a unity with the architecture, about 100 great English houses contain important collections of European works of art formed between the seventeenth and mid nineteenth centuries, which as collections are of the greatest and aesthetic importance. England is the only country in the world where such historic collections survive on such a scale, and it would be tragic if they were to be dispersed.”
When John Martin Robinson referred to the theft of pictures (by the IRA) from Russborough House in County Wicklow, he wasn’t to know that they would be recovered, but stolen a further three times.
“Another threat is to the landscaped parks in which these houses are situated. Unlike historic buildings, they enjoy no statutory protection despite the fact that they form some of the greatest works of art ever produced in this country. Those at Petworth and Chillington, designed by Capability Brown, as well as Port Elliot by Repton, are threatened by motorways. At Audley End the local council wish to place a sewage works in the middle of Capability Brown’s landscape, and many other eighteenth-century parks are also menaced by incongruous developments.
“It is essential therefore that the machinery of Statutory protection be expanded to cover the parks, gardens and the essential contents of historic houses. At the same time the system of grants should be extended to pay for such works as the renewal of the planting in eighteenth-century parks and the proper maintenance of the pictures and furniture in all privately-owned houses regularly open to the public. In 1950 the Gowers Report recommended that all the repair and maintenance costs of historic houses and their contents should be subject to tax relief. It was also recommended that landowners should be able to set aside part of their estates to produce a tax-free income for the support of the house in perpetuity.
“These recommendations were not adopted at the time, but their implementation is even more urgent now, and it is to be hoped that the Government will at least introduce effective legislation to protect country houses, their contents and collections, their parks and gardens from ruin. It would be tragic if despite the hard work of the last 18 years, the cultural achievement of five centuries were still to be needlessly sacrificed.”
And so he ended. Nine years after Robinson wrote about parks and gardens, the ‘Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’, was established in 1983. It now identifies over 1,600 sites, including many country house properties, assessed to be of particular significance and which are graded similar to that of historic buildings.
Of course, there were many things John Martin Robinson couldn’t have foreseen in 1974.
The resurgence in agriculture was to stall, the full impact of joining the Common Market in 1973 still around the corner. The days of quotas and subsidies from the European Union were still to come. In fact, agriculture was to see the biggest change ever.
Country house visits increased in popularity during the remaining years of the 20th century. Those houses managed by the National Trust and English Heritage (formed in 1983) are now some of the country’s biggest visitor attractions. They’ve been joined by those properties belonging to the Historic Houses Association (now known as Historic Houses), a not-for-profit organisation representing about 1,600 privately owned historic houses, and created in 1973, a year before Robinson’s magazine article.
More than anything, the country house has had to reinvent itself. This was highlighted in the television series, Country House Rescue, which showcased large properties heading for oblivion. The programmes made intelligent attempts to persuade owners that the house must pay for itself. Some succeeded; some failed due to the stubbornness of the property holder. A large number of country houses are now hotels, conference centres, training facilities, wedding venues and specialist event centres. The trend of the seventies and eighties, when mansions became offices for large companies has reversed – many of these given over to the hospitality industry and even reverting back to residential use.
Sadly, the days of aristocrats in their big houses are a thing of the past. A large number are still in private ownership, but you’ll far more likely see a country house owned by a self-made businessman, a Russian oligarch or a middle-eastern billionaire.
Thankfully, the number of country houses being demolished is now a trickle, confined to those unfortunate not to be included on Historic England‘s ‘National Heritage List for England’ (NHLE). Probably more houses have been destroyed through fire, as in the cases of Clandon Park, Kelsale Hall and Parnham House, whose shells still survive due to the listing process, one that wasn’t afforded the magnificent Coleshill back in 1958.
The stately homes of England were being closed down or sold: the cruel toll of super-taxation
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.