Welcome to the Season 5 edition of the Economics of Downton Abbey! I look forward to once again delving into the economic history embedded in the show. To prepare for the opening episode (tonight on PBS!), I thought I’d talk about what is happening in Great Britain more broadly, focusing on things that may impact the plot lines this season.
Great Britain in 1924
This season jumps ahead two years to begin in February, 1924. From the last time that we saw the Crawleys, the interwar economy hasn’t changed much. By 1924, things in may have seemed rosy in London – Liaquat Ahamed (2009) writes that London had rid itself of the “grim austerity” of the war years – but the country’s unemployment rate remained above ten percent. Britain’s economy was struggling and exports remained weak,even as new industries developed. The war had done great damage to its status as a world economic power. As for the upper classes, the power of the aristocracy continued its slow decline. Life in the country wasn’t what it used to be. Some titled aristocrats turned to the city to take on roles as directors of companies or other lucrative (and often ornamental) roles to help maintain their status and bring in some cash; others turned to travels abroad and pursuits that took them beyond a country life that now seemed less exciting (Cannadine 1992).
On the international front, Great Britain was preoccupied with war debts. Great Britain owed the United States and Germany’s default on the war reparations agreed to at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles was causing great debate. I expect we’ll hear talk of these foreign policy issues at Downton because a solution for the German reparations (the Dawes Plan) finally arrived in late 1924.
Politically, we’ll likely see some more lively debates between Tom and Lord Grantham. The Labour Party, somewhat unexpectedly, took power in January 1924 for the first time. The Labour Government, seen as the start of a socialist disaster by the right-wing, was a result of the inability of the Conservative and Liberal parties to form a coalition government. Perhaps even more shocking to some, Margaret Bondfield was appointed as Undersecretary for the Minister of Labour by the new Labour PM, making her the first woman to hold a Ministerial position (She would later become Minister of Labour in 1929.) Lord Grantham is probably having a heart attack.
Socially, the interwar years were a whirlwind. Modernity continued (at too rapid a pace for dear Mr. Carson), changing the ways in which people conducted their lives. City life held an intense appeal with ample opportunities for social activities for those who could afford it. Young women sported bobs, danced the Charleston, and asserted an independence that shocked traditionalists. For Rose especially, this season should be full of adventures. Consumer culture was in full swing, and the use of credit for purchases was on the rise among all classes. The household radio was introduced in 1923 and within three years, 20 percent of households in Great Britain had a radio. By the end of the 1920s radios appeared in 50% of households, often purchased with credit (Bowden and Offer 1994).
I look forward to seeing where the Downton universe takes us this season. To follow along, you can subscribe to the blog, follow me on Twitter, or check back weekly. I plan to have posts available the Saturday following each episode. So check back next Saturday for discussion of episode 1! For a refresher of economic issues in past seasons, check out my Series tab.
Ahamed, L. 2009. Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. New York: Penguin Books.
BBC News. October 31, 2008. Women in Parliament. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
Bennett, G. 2014. What’s the Context? 22 January 1924: Britain’s First Labour Government Takes Office. Retrieved January 2, 2014 from History of Government blog curated by the National Archives.
Bowden, S. and A. Offer. 1994. Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain Since the 1920s. The Economic History Review, New Series 47 (4): 725-748.
Cannadine, D. 1999. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1990)
Image: Retrieved from PBS.org; photograph by Nick Briggs.