Economics of Downton Abbey: Building on the Estate

(Season Five Episode Four)

First, I am so glad that Lord Grantham is supportive of Mrs. Patmore’s efforts to have Archie remembered alongside other soldiers. Even if it is prohibited, it’s a nice gesture recognizing the unfair stigma surrounding cowardice during World War I.

And now on to this week’s topic: building on the estate.

Episode Four continued the conversation about a potential housing development on the estate. A prospective builder from Leeds envisions a “whole field of houses.” The Crawleys would get a percentage of the sales, an offer worth considering. As Tom says, it’s a “lump of capital with no outlay” meaning that they would not be responsible for maintenance or upgrades.

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

I’ve written about estate management and land sales for seasons three and four. As landlords were considering smaller estates, the housing industry was taking off in Britain. The housing boom in the 1920s has been labeled the “backbone” of the British economic recovery by several economic historians (see Humphries 1987, p. 325). Following the war there was a housing shortage that encouraged government intervention. Municipalities were given subsidies by the government to build houses. Rising real incomes and decreased building costs also made housing more affordable. Residential construction grew throughout the 1920s, with a boom in 1927. By 1939, four million suburban homes had been built, with one million subsidized by local authorities (Hollow 2011).

Building Societies

Economic historian Jane Humphries argues not enough credit is given to the rising popularity of building societies which opened the doors of home-ownership to the working and lower-middle classes in the interwar years. Building societies helped create the savings that made it possible to own a home rather than rent. As Sir Harold Bellman – who was the chairman of the Abbey Road Building Society in the 1930s – writes in 1933, “a building society is a combination of investors and borrowers operating under a measure of Government control to promote the ideals of thrift and home-ownership” (pp. 2-3). Depositors had special protection, and the pooled funds went towards financing homes.

Participation in building societies grew rapidly in the 1920s, especially for the middle class (see Humphries 1987). In the time of Downton, 1924, the working class still had limited prospects for home-ownership; it is estimated that only about 8 or 9% of the working class owned a home in the 1920s, with this number growing more rapidly in the ’30s (Scott 2008).

Social Ideal of Home Ownership

In the interwar years, the ideal for the working and middle classes was to own a suburban home (Scott 2008, Hollow 2011). Historian Peter Scott writes that unlike the prewar aspiration for the working class – independence from charitable assistance – the ideal of home ownership stemmed from a desire for independence as a domestic unit (2008, pp. 105-106).  The idea of a owning a separate space – a modest home with room for a garden – connects easily with the desire for an independent family unit. In Downton Abbey Tom remarks that units sell quicker as separate dwellings, which supports this idea.

For those who couldn’t afford to own a house, the option to live in a council-owned cottage estate (again, separate units) was desirable and seen as a way to improve social status (Hollow 2011).  Scott (2008) is quick to point out that the “socially-determined minimum level of material well-being” began to extend to housing during this period (p. 102).People took great care to affirm their respectability through the maintenance of their garden and home. This goes hand in hand with the rise in conspicuous consumption seen during the 1920s (remember the widespread desire to own a wireless?) It wasn’t just the things you had in your home; the home and its appearance that had importance, too.

While Lord Grantham isn’t thrilled about the original offer for a housing development, the Crawleys can afford to hold out for an offer on their terms. The desire for home-ownership is taking hold of Britain and the means to do so are becoming more available to the masses. And I think those looking for a new home would appreciate Lord Grantham’s desire to have any construction “fit with the village,” rather than ruin it.

One caveat – at the end of the episode I noticed Lord Grantham says, “We will build. We’ll even make money for the estate, but we won’t destroy what people love about the place.” He doesn’t specifically mention building houses, so it makes me curious whether he is considering another option, like a hotel. We’ll have to wait and see!

Further Reading

My account of building societies just skims the surface. Today building societies in Great Britain continue to operate at the benefit of members (rather than shareholders). For more information on the history building societies, start with the Building Societies Association. Also, for garden enthusiasts, Hollow’s account of the role of gardens as a public display of respectability for new home owners is worth a closer look.

Bellman, H. 1933. “Building Societies – Some Economic Aspects.” The Economic Journal 43(169): 1 – 39.

Hollow, M. 2011. “Suburban Ideals on England’s Interwar Council Estates.” Garden History 39(2): 203 – 217.

Humphries, J. 1987. “Inter-War House Building, Cheap Money and Building Societies: The Housing Boom Revisited.” Business History 29(3): 325 – 345.

Scott, P. 2008. “Did Owner-Occupation Lead to Smaller Families in Working-Class Households?

Image: Retrieved from the Highclere Estate website on February 2, 2014. 

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