Economics of Downton Abbey: War Memorials (or Sympathy Butters No Parsnips)

(Season Five, Episode Three)

The debate over the war memorial for Downton village has come up in all the episodes of Season Five thus far. I like this storyline; it represents a conversation that was happening in communities across Britain. Following the end of the Great War, people, quite naturally, wanted to commemorate the fallen soldiers in some way. The appropriate way to do so became a topic of national discussion. Debates swirled in newspapers across Britain, including the Times, with letters being written urging commemoration to take one of a variety of forms: scholarships, hospital additions, parks, or monuments, to name a few. As one Times editorial stated, “Memorials should add to the beauty of Britain and commemorate not only the soldiers but what they were fighting for: happiness.”

I highly recommend Alex King’s book, Memorials of the Great War in Britain, used here to flesh out insights about the continuing debates driving this plot line of Downton Abbey. The book’s discussion of the symbolism of and institutional influence on war memorials illuminates the many tensions and difficulties involved with creating the right kind of remembrance.

The Meaning of a Donation

The war memorials for the Great War were, for the most part, erected and paid for by local communities to commemorate local people who had been killed. While the national debate demonstrated a “uniformity of aims and attitudes” (King, p. 20), the decisions of what to do remained within each community. Public meetings were held and planning committees formed. Voluntary contributions were seen as the only appropriate way to raise funds for their creation, and community members were called upon to contribute.

Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.
Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.

This reminds me of Viviana A. Zelizer ‘s argument that the meaning of money and its exchange is strongly linked to the surrounding social relations and situations. In other words, a dollar is not always just a dollar (or, in the case of Downton Abbey, a pound isn’t always a pound), and money can be earmarked and valued in different ways.

With the memorials, money used for a donation was differentiated from other spending and earmarked as a way to express gratitude for soldiers’ service to their country. As King notes, a donation was seen as a concrete recognition of soldiers’ service. Participation from all classes and backgrounds was encouraged, regardless of amount, to make the memorial truly representative of the community.

Monetary donations for the creation of war memorials were socially embedded in a very public way, further adding meaning to this spending. Lists of who donated often appeared in papers and in town centers, praising those who valued the sacrifice of soldiers….and guilting those who hadn’t yet contributed. King writes that public appeals used language of “moral exhortation, local patriotism, …and even self-interest in the evasion of a future sense of guilt” (p. 32).

The intense community involvement could add a lot of pressure, and sometimes open up old wounds, as we see in Episode Three.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: War Memorials (or Sympathy Butters No Parsnips)


Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless

Season Five, Episode Two

This week Downton was abuzz with talk of the wireless. They set up a wireless at Downton and we hear the first broadcast speech by King George V at the opening of the 1924 British Empire Exhibit. The exhibit was a tribute to modern scientific achievements. Having the King deliver a speech over the wireless while at the event was, as one Times reporter wrote, “another marvel of modern science which helps to knit the Empire together.”

The wireless had potential for people of all backgrounds to come together to listen. As the Times noted after the event, “More wonderful still was to think that even while we who were present were hearing [the speech]…it was being heard…all over London, the United Kingdom, and the Empire.”

Header from the first issue of the Radio Times, September 28, 1923.
Header from the first issue of The Radio Times, September 28, 1923.

At the time of the King’s broadcast, the use of the wireless for entertainment was just taking off. The BBC formed in 1922 and, as Rose notes, broadcasts were improving in clarity and quality. Bowden and Offer (1994) note that the need for a radio quickly became seen as “imperative” (p. 735). With even this small snippet of Downton Abbey showing the discussion surrounding the King’s speech on April 24, it is easy to see why. If the King is supporting the wireless, so must the Crawleys…and all of Britain.

Diffusion of the Home Wireless

The home radio became the first entertainment consumer durable that penetrated the majority of households, regardless of class (Todd 2005). Bowden and Offer argue that this is due in part to the idea of the home wireless as a “status display.” Unlike other durables, like washing machines or vacuums, the radio (and later, the television) is on display for visitors and has important implications for the social standing of the household. Furthermore, as Bowden and Offer note, “as the medium became a staple of discourse…access to a radio…was required to avoid social exclusion” (p.740).

Diffusion studies, which track the spread of an innovation through a population, are used to gain insight to societies through examination of responses to and implementation of the innovation.  One of the most interesting things about the wireless is that home radios began to fill houses all over England, regardless of economic background. Compared to the diffusion of other home appliances, the diffusion of the wireless was rapid – within 10 years, fifty percent of British households owned a radio. The vacuum cleaner, on the other hand, took 40 years to get to that level of penetration in England and Wales (Bowden and Offer, 1994). Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless

Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Season Five, Episode One

“When did we last have a Prime Minister who understood the working class? Never. That’s when,” says  Jimmy as the servants sit down to eat.

The formation of the Labour Government in 1924 marked an unprecedented time in Great Britain. To the upper class, it indicated that their marriage of social and political power might be crumbling. No wonder Lord Grantham was unsettled by the village offering Carson chairmanship of the committee for the new war memorial: at the local level he was being cast aside for someone who more closely understood the townspeople, and on the national front he could no longer trust the government had his interests in mind. “What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he says.

Resolutely Working-class

Poster Issued by the Labour Party in 1910
Poster issued by the Labour Party in 1910, depicting the Labour Party ramming the doors of the House of Lords

Prior to the creation of the Labour Party in 1900, political (and social, and economic) power largely rested with the privileged. Indeed, membership in Parliament remained unsalaried until 1911, perpetuating the idea of membership as a gentleman’s occupation.

The working class remained a distinct social stratum in the early 20th century, separate and apart from the middle and upper classes, where perhaps lines blurred a bit more easily. For the leaders of the Labour Party, it was important to identify with workers and speak to their needs.

Leon D. Epstein (1962) argues that the working class background served as a source of pride and potentially even as an advantage for Labour MPs. This is in contrast to stories often told of people climbing the social or occupational ladder who shed their pasts to fit in. Typically those rising in the ranks make use of social and cultural capital, concepts heavily featured in academic work on social mobility. Sociologist James Coleman (1988) defines social capital as the quality and types of relationships that allow for otherwise difficult achievements. Cultural capital relates to the social assets and status of an individual (see for instance, DiMaggio 1982). It’s about who you know and how you act. Social and cultural cues are critical for integration into a group you wish to be a part of, and getting them right is hard to do. Remember when Sir Richard wore the wrong hunting tweeds in Season Three? As someone with ‘new money’ he could afford to dress to the nines, but the Crawley family – always appropriately attired thanks to their ‘old money’ upbringings – noticed when the clothes didn’t quite fit the occasion.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Economics of Downton Abbey: Introduction to Season Five


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.

Cast of Season Five; Image courtesy of
Cast of Season Five; Image courtesy of

 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).

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Introduction to Season Five