Countdown to Downton Abbey (1 day to go!) – The Rise and Fall of the English Country House

“History is bunk,” Henry Ford once said.

What he meant was that most history, as written in textbooks and taught in schools, has little to do with life as lived by ordinary people.  War and politics are on the periphery of most people’s daily existence, yet what we learn in history classes too often emphasizes dates and obscure treaty terms over more important things (in my opinion 🙂 ) like when indoor plumbing became the norm for rural Americans or when supersized backpacks became necessary for schoolchildren to carry all of their homework supplies.

One reason I love “Downton Abbey” is that it manages to capture the little details of history as lived in a way that paints the broader picture of life at the start of the twentieth century.  We get hints of standard historical events from the outside world (the Titanic, World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Ponzi financial scheme) but always in a way that is integral to the story of Downton’s upstairs and downstairs residents.  At the same time we see William ironing the morning newspapers to set the ink, see worries over the dangers of electricity and the Dowager’s dislike of electric lights’ glare, see awkwardness talking on the telephone even while embracing its convenience.

About fifteen years ago I attended a conference in a booming Southern U.S. city.  Its downtown buildings rose tall and gleaming, with no trace whatsoever of its history apparent aside from the occasional plaque affixed near the front entrance noting things like how on a certain site once stood a hotel where Jefferson Davis slept.

In the United States the 1960s brought waves of “urban renewal,” in which entire swaths of history fell to the wrecking ball to be replaced by new construction of dubious merit.  (Again, in my opinion 🙂 )  New York’s Grand Central Station, described in 2013 by BBC News on its 100th anniversary as “the world’s loveliest station,” nearly met that fate in the 1970s before its rescue by (among others) Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who said:

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?  If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?

The English country house epitomized by Downton Abbey similarly represents (in the aggregate) an historical epoch of European tradition,  the last vestiges of a feudal society and economy based on agriculture and landed nobility.

The English country house began to rise during the reign of the Tudors, following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, wherein the multi-married, newly-installed head of the newly-created Anglican church seized the property of the Roman Catholic church and gave it to his friends.  Downton Abbey, then, would have been built onto (or, as was the case for other houses, upon the site of) the former home of a religious order—hence, the “Abbey” part of its name.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the ascent of cities as centers of commerce and employment, the English country house lost economic significance.  We’ve heard Robert Crawley speak often of the importance of Downton as an employer in the county.  In their day, country houses were responsible for employing hundreds of people on and around the estate, not just the household servants but also farmers, doctors, and schoolteachers.  (For example, remember Mr. Collins, the smarmy clergyman who marries Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice?  His parsonage is “near” Rosing’s Park, the estate of his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh.)

The Reform Act of 1832 shifted political power from the countryside to rapidly-growing urban areas, which lessened the importance of the landed aristocracy in Parliament.  Prior to that, the local earl/duke/whatever not only had influence in national government commensurate with the amount of land he owned—which, through multiple titles like Earl of this, Duke of that, might be considerable—but also had tremendous influence over government and administration of justice in his own county.

Around the time of Downton Abbey (which begins in April 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic), the real death-knell for the English country houses began to sound.  In 1894 “death duties” inheritance taxes were introduced in the United Kingdom, with the effect of beginning to break up large estates for the first time.  In 1914 Estate Duty began, which appears to have followed the enactment of the “People’s Budget” in 1909/10, aimed at eliminating “poverty and squalor.”  The same class conflicts that led to the Russian Revolution and the rise of organized labor were also present in the United Kingdom.  One result was the figurative castration of the House of Lords in 1910-11 (largely in retaliation for preventing passage of an earlier version of the “People’s Budget”); another was a tax policy aimed at minimizing the ability of landed aristocracy to pass along inherited wealth from one generation to the next.

In May 1912, a month after our first encounter with the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, the British magazine Country Life carried an advertisement announcing that roofing ballustrade and urns from the demolished Trentham Hall were available for purchase.

(via Wikipedia: “Destruction of country houses in 20th-century Britain”)


This was only the beginning.  Since 1900 about 1200 country houses have been demolished in the United Kingdom.  A Telegraph article from 2002 chronicles the long decline, noting that when Parliamentary reform robbed the House of Lords of any real political power, many who lived in country houses began to wonder what for.  Seventeen houses were demolished in 1926 alone, and during the 1950s over 300 houses were demolished.  I’ve seen a statistic asserting that at the height of destruction in 1955, one house was destroyed every five days.

The tide slowly began to turn as the public realized how much of the country’s heritage was being lost.  Whereas government policy and public opinion were originally a main cause of demolition in the first place, by 1968 government policy in the form of a new Town and County Planning Act required owners to get permission from the authorities before demolishing (or making any changes to) a building designated by the government as having historical significance.

Shortly after this, and right about the time Jackie Kennedy Onassis was leading the fight to save Grand Central here in the U.S., the Victoria and Albert Museum opened an exhibition that similarly rallied public support around the idea that the English country house was worth saving.  “The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975” opened in 1974 and contained a “Hall of Destruction” filled with fallen columns and illustrations of the houses lost in the hundred-year period covered by the exhibit.  Inspired by the exhibit, SAVE Britain’s Heritage was formed, although too late to stop the Sotheby’s sale of Mentmore Towers’ contents and real estate over the next two years.

Unfortunately, the loss of England’s country houses continues even today.  Because owners of country houses are required to pay value-added tax (VAT) on any repairs or upgrades, destruction has now taken on the more insidious form of death by a thousand cuts, as the contents of country homes are sold off piecemeal to help fund their upkeep.  Robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were.  (Yes, another change in government policy could fix this.  But it’s not my government, so maybe also not my place to say so 🙂 ).

Is the demise of the English country house inevitable?  Is Downton Abbey doomed?  Stay tuned . . . .


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in History, Life, Popular culture, Television, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Countdown to Downton Abbey (1 day to go!) – The Rise and Fall of the English Country House

  1. paulrwaibel says:

    As a historian, I always mourn the destruction historical sites. In America it is often done by is called “demolition by neglect.” I, too, enjoy watching Downton Abbey, although I do not think it is as good as the earlier series, Upstairs, Downstairs. I often wonder what part the latter played in the creation of Downton Abbey.


  2. Reminds me of the house in the Pride and Prejudice movies!


  3. Have a happy and fruitful 2014, doc kath… 🙂 what an informative and fun discussion, thank you. will be coming back here, hoho… 😉


  4. At first, I didn’t want to read the beginning of the post, because I thought there might be spoilers! lol We are in the 3rd season of the show, and we need to get caught up! I remember reading in the NYT about how the real owners of the estate in the show have to give tours, etc., to keep up the place.
    It’s such a shame about all the demolition of all those historical English houses!


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