Downton Abbey: The Reluctant Landlord

Who is the landlord?

“The landlord is a gentleman – I have not a word to say about him in his personal capacity – the landlord is a gentleman who does not earn his wealth. He does not even trouble to receive his wealth. He has a host of agents and clerks to receive it for him. He does not even take the trouble to spend his wealth. He has a host of people around him to do the actual spending for him…” So said Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer in his incendiary July 1909 speech arguing in favor of higher taxes for landowners.

David Lloyd George, 1863 - 1945. A British Liberal politician and statesman, Lloyd George is remembered for setting up the British welfare state. His bias against large landholders was apparent.
David Lloyd George, 1863 – 1945. A British Liberal politician and statesman, Lloyd George is remembered for setting up the British welfare state. His bias against large landholders was apparent.

And, well, it just about sums up how Lord Grantham ran his estate. I’ve mentioned before that he was not interested in discussing estate management or the funding needed to keep it running. And his distaste for the subject resulted him not knowing or caring about his failed investment until it was too late.

Lack of interest was a common method of ‘management’ before World War I. The war was a critical turning point, and the slow decline of aristocratic dominance began as the landed gentry were unable to keep up with the changing times and higher costs of owning an estate.

Burdens of Estates

After Lloyd George’s speech in 1909, four new land taxes were introduced, increasing the burden on large land owners. Happily for Lloyd George, and less happily for landowners, the burdens further increased during the war. In 1917, the Corn Production Act was introduced to boost wartime production. With the passage of this act, landlords were prohibited from raising rents. For the first time, “the cropping and stocking of land was regulated, neglected land was cultivated, and inefficient farmers and landowners could be dispossessed” (Beard, 39). Aristocratic landowners were actually held accountable for proper (or lack thereof) estate management.

Estate management costs continued to rise following the war. The small rents gave a very poor return on investments for the landowners, and they were less enthused about putting new capital and investments into the land. Furthermore, in 1919 death duties increased from 20 percent to 40 percent on estates that were valued at more than two million pounds sterling. And land taxes jumped up again.

Some families of the great houses pretended nothing had changed: parties were thrown, money was spent, and large staff was kept on. Beard writes that, following the war, the great houses and lifestyles of landed gentry “symbolized their detachment from the modern world” (p. 66). Resistance to change was apparent.

Strapped for cash but intent on keeping their way of life, some families began to sell outlaying portions of their estates. It was an easy way to make some money. Beard tells the tale of one Lord who sold 2,000 acres of his estate, netting £65,000, and he still had 17,000 acres to call his own. I doubt he even noticed those 2,000 acres were gone. With the influx of cash, his way of life continued on as usual with parties, spending, and staff.

Others began to see the need for a shift in how estates were run. Matthew is representative of the new business-minded people who came in to take over some estates. The nouveau riche in particular began to snap up land. Land could turn a profit when managed effectively, and these men were all business. Furthermore, the country houses themselves were purchased (or built), demonstrating that the great house remained an important symbol of social status even as aristocratic dominance began its decline.

Matthew Crawley in front of Downton Abbey
Matthew Crawley in front of Downton Abbey

With the higher land taxes, death duties, and new (and better) opportunities elsewhere for the staff, good estate management is essential if Lord Grantham wants to keep Downton. He needs to hand over the decision-making to Matthew, and allow some changes to happen. In two of the five episodes this season, Murray has alluded to the doomsday scenarios if something isn’t done. And yet, Lord Grantham can’t take a hint.

Continue to The Happy Farmer to hear about Daisy’s new opportunity!


Further Reading:

Beard, Madeleine. Acres and Heirlooms: The Survival of Britain’s Historic Estates. Routledge, 1989.

Bennett, Ernest N. Problems of Village Life. Nabau Press 2010.

Horn, Pamela. Rural Life in England in the First World War. Palgrave Macmillan, 1985.

Howkins, Alun. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside since 1900. Routledge, 2003.


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