Economics of Downton Abbey: Tenant Farming

With the death of Old Mr. Drewe, Episode Four of Downton Abbey brings up the issue of farm tenancy. Lady Mary and Tom Branson see the death of the tenant as an opportunity to foreclose the tenancy and farm the land themselves, while Young Mr. Drewe hopes to take on the tenancy and continue farming the land.

Earlier in the season we saw the effects of land laws on the landed class. This plotline gives a small snippet of the other side of land law: the rights of tenant farmers.

Tenant Farmers and Land Laws in the 1920s

Farmland on the Highclere Estate, where Downton Abbey is filmed.
Farmland on the Highclere Estate, where Downton Abbey is filmed.

The Handbook of Law Relating to Landlord and Tenant, published in 1921 by Benaiah Adkin, lays out some of the laws Mr. Drewe was subject to as tenant of Downton.

Mr. Drewe was likely a ‘tenant for years’ meaning that he was a leaseholder who holds the lease for a definite period of time, with the option for renewal. This was a very common form of agricultural tenancy in the early 20th century; it was often a year-to-year or a 7 -, 14 -, or 21-year lease. Every tenant had the right to ‘assign his term’, meaning that he could name a new lessee to take over the tenancy. Had the rent been current, Young Mr. Drewe likely could have continued farming on the terms of the old lease.

However, the Drewes hadn’t made rent payments in years. English land law at the time enabled termination of a lease through forfeiture of the property for unpaid rent. This scenario played out on this episode of Downton Abbey: Mr. Drewe was in arrears of his rent by several years, and the Crawleys decided to terminate the lease and take back the land. In the 1920s, the landlord could resume possession of the farm or land in question ‘without process of law, provided that in the case of a forfeiture [the landlord] has given notice to the tenant’ (Adkin, p. 244 – 245). So basically, eviction could be instantaneous, and tenants behind in rent didn’t really have the means to contest. On Downton, we have a happier ending. Young Mr. Drewe was able to convince Lord Grantham to let him farm the land, and Lord Grantham even agrees to pay the arrears.

Economics of Tenant Farming

Why did Lord Grantham let the rent payments languish for so long? In short, the tenant – especially one that has been working the land for many years – has a specialized knowledge of the land and how to work it – something that the landowner would be reluctant to give up. This aligns with the theory of information asymmetry in economics.

While shorter term leases for farming became common in the 19th century, they were short-term in name only. Avner Offer, an economic historian at Oxford, writes that tenant laws encouraged a ‘long-term commitment in a short-term tenant’ (1991, p. 11). For the tenant, mobility was low because they often couldn’t afford to move or buy land outright. For the landlord, the costs of replacing the tenant were too high, especially if there was information asymmetry. Even if a lease was year-to-year, often the tenant would be there for many years, if not for his lifetime.

These conditions made falling behind on rent payments somewhat expected and acceptable in tenant farming. Offer writes that, once fixed payments like rent and labor are removed from the equation, the net income of a tenant farmer was highly variable and dependent on the harvest year. While landowners could evict tenants for missed payments, it was often not in their best interest to do so. Instead, arrears were used as temporary relief, and ‘stood a good chance of being collected later’ in a good harvest year (Offer, p.6).

Offer notes that there is an argument that landowners often intentionally allowed arrears to build up, or even cancelled debt for their tenant farmers as a part of risk-sharing . However, he refutes the idea that there was risk-sharing between landowner and tenant. Rather, the majority of the risk fell to the tenant farmer.

A Shift Away from Tenancy

The tenant farming system failed to maximize economic opportunity for farmers, yet it persisted in Britain for centuries (Offer, 1991). It wasn’t until World War I that things began to change. As Offer writes, “only war could shake the English land system” (p. 17).

The Corn Production Act of 1917 restricted rent increases while requiring fixed minimum prices for several crops. At the same time, large landowners were beginning to sell smaller portions of land to get out of debt. Tenant farmers who suddenly had extra cash on their hands were able to transition to owner-occupiers. The proportion of owner-occupation of farmland (rather than tenancy) increased from one-tenth to one-third in the years following the war. Similarly, after World War II rents were again frozen and land sales increased.

Apparently Old Mr. Drewe was one of the few farmers who did not make money during the war. While there was a larger shift away from tenancy in the 1920s, this episode Downton Abbey provides insight into tenancy negotiations and the changing relationship between landowner and tenant. I found the use of the word ‘partnership’ in this episode particularly interesting.  Tenant farming a half-century earlier was paternalistic, with the landlord presiding over the tenants; it would never be termed a partnership. But Lord Grantham seemed to really relish the idea of a partnership between farmer and landowner. Perhaps he is beginning to embrace new ways of estate management after all.

For more information on the Corn Production Act and the shift away from tenancy, see last season’s posts The Reluctant Landlord and The Happy Farmer

Further Reading

Adkin, B. W. (1921). A Handbook of the Law Relating to Landlord and Tenant. London: The Estates Gazette, Ltd. Fifth Edition.

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

Offer, A. (1991). Farm Tenure and Land Values in England c. 1750 – 1950The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 1 – 20.

Image: Retrieved from 


2 thoughts on “Economics of Downton Abbey: Tenant Farming”

  1. Hi Meg:

    Great post and it helped me understand the term tenancy better. I have studied the early modern period in England a bit more that this period for sure (but I am certainly no expert!!) and I always got this vague impression that English tenancies were seen in terms of a long period of time–for a lawyer that results almost in a fee (ownership) interest–and those tenancies could be “handed down” from father to son via will(?)–which makes you understand the statement “my family has been farming this land since Napoleon” comes from. This post makes it a bit clearer and it seems that perhaps the English use the word foreclosure a bit different than we do in the States–to me foreclosure relates to mortgages and property owned by the party not paying the mortgage, but after all, what is mortgage but rent to the bank for the money borrowed? In the end, I think it might just be semantics. Thanks for the post, perhaps Mr. Napier will have some interesting news tonight and what of Daisy taking over the farm???


    1. Hi Kim, glad this helped! Yes, starting in the 19th century, the tenancy terms really started to change. Prior to the 19th century, a lot of them were ‘tenancies at will’, which means that the tenant holds the lease for as long as he and the landlord desire. Once the leases became short-term, not much actually changed – tenants continued farming for many years, and turnover was low. The short-term aspect was really an advantage for the landowner to give them flexibility if they wanted to change tenants.

      I really enjoyed researching this subject. I am really disappointed that Daisy did not take over the farm. It seems like Mr. Mason isn’t even on the show anymore? I always thought that would be a great storyline, but I guess if it’s outside of Downton estate, then we wouldn’t see her much anymore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s