Downton Abbey: The Happy Farmer

Continued from The Reluctant Landlord.

Tenants and Owner-Occupiers

After World War I, the tenant-landlord relationship became a critical part of running an estate due to a shift in attitudes and opportunities. Pamela Horn notes that, following the war, “erstwhile leaders of landed estates found their authority no longer accepted with the ready acquiescence which had applied before 1914.” (p. 195) There was a weakening bond between the landowner and tenant farmer.

As landowners began to give up outlaying pieces of their estate, tenant farmers began purchase land from them. Often, landowners were against selling their land to ‘new money’ and would give tenants the option of purchasing their own plots first. By 1927, about a quarter of rural land had changed hands, and “owner-occupiers” held about 36 percent of the cultivated land*, up from just 11 percent in 1914. The Corn Production Act of 1917, which negatively impacted landlords, was helpful for farmers: during and after the war, rents remained low while they retained higher profits. Many farmers had enough money put aside to purchase land.

Yet, at the same time there was a general shift away from agriculture during the 1920s.  It was hard work with poor and uncertain pay, whether as a tenant or an owner-occupier. There was a definite appeal to owning your own land, rather than working as a tenant farmer, but in a way, life became harder. The support system disappeared.

When the Corn Production Act was repealed in 1921, all farmers felt the blow. “Unable to afford the payments to farmers necessary after a price fall in 1921, the Cabinet made the decision to revert to the free market, and arable farmers throughout England were left to suffer in silence,” writes Beard. Tenant farmers fared better than those who owned their own farms, “yet, because of the depressed economy, landowners themselves were hard-pressed to undertake all the duties of estate maintenance required of them”. (Beard, 57)

Farmers  began to discourage their children from following in their footsteps. The availability of newspapers and the radio led to an increased realization of other opportunities. And the greater availability of things like bicycles and buses made it easier to travel to town to work. Just like servants, farmers were beginning to see that better employment options were accessible, if not for them, then definitely for their children.

So I find the new Daisy Mason storyline to be an interesting one.

Mr. Mason asks Daisy to join him on the farm, and eventually take it over.
Mr. Mason asks Daisy to join him on the farm, and eventually take it over.

At the same time that there is a drift away from agriculture in England, Mr. Mason gives Daisy an opportunity to take over his farm and asks her to join him soon so she can start learning from him. Mr. Mason is a tenant farmer but he owns “the equipment, all the stock, and [has] quite a bit put by”. Daisy tells Mr. Mason that always thought she’d spend her life in service, but Mr. Mason asks her a valid question: “Do you think these great houses will be around in 40 years?”

But should she do it?  I wonder whether the shift from servant to farmer would be a good ‘career move’ so to speak.

Daisy seems to understand farming is hard work, and she is a hard worker herself. “No farmer’s his own boss. He takes his orders from the sun, the wind, the snow and the rain,” she says.  I’m sure she’d enjoy working along side Mr. Mason. Plus, she’d have the opportunity to expand the business; Mr. Mason mentioned she could sell her produce and make jams, etc. (She could call her line of jams “Mason Jars”! Ha. Anyone?)

On the other hand, profits tend to be small and, in some years, non-existent. There is little control over earnings.

At this point, farming might sound appealing to Daisy. The beneficial Corn Production Act is still in effect. Once that is repealed, it will be a different story. Later on in 1920s there is a farming depression, as cheaper crops were dumped into England and English farmers saw their prices lower even further. It would be a risky move, and wouldn’t maker her life any easier.

What do you think? Should Daisy take up Mr. Mason’s offer? (No spoilers please.)

*some rural land was not cultivated, hence the higher percentage here.


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.


11 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: The Happy Farmer”

  1. I think that Daisy should take the chance! She may be able to diversify the farm produce, as you point out, and if she finds a strapping young man to help her, they might make a go of it and even own the farm one day! Fingers crossed for Daisy!


  2. Yes! I’m on Team Daisy. She might need some help – But if Lady Edith can handle a tractor/trailer, Daisy can certainly take on the challenge!

  3. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that along with many other changes, eating habits changed in the 1920’s. People began eating more fruits and vegetables, and if Daisy does take over the farm her best bet is to probably concentrate of specialty crops, along with cattle, sheep, pigs, and other livestock.

    As Mr. Mason points out, she also has the ability to produce preserves, baked goods, and other “finished” food products.

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