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Presidential Address: English Landed Society in the Twentieth Century IV. Prestige without Power?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


By hook or by crook, sometimes by both at the same time, great landowners, and many of the not so great, have survived into the final decade of the twentieth century. Some of the survivors are, no doubt, clinging on by their fingernails, huddled over a single-bar electric fire in a damp and draughty room of a family mansion that is slowly crumbling over their heads, living on baked beans and memories in the manner of an A. S. Byatt novel. Many, however, are extremely wealthy. Old-established landed families provide between a fifth and a quarter of the 200 wealthiest people in Britain in the early 1990s, a proportion which has changed very little since the 1880s. But what are they for? A hundred years ago it was unnecessary to ask such a question. Meredith Townsend, who with J. L. Sanford produced two volumes on The Great Governing Families of England, writing in 1865 had little need of argument or evidence to support his statement that the great landowners were the governing class. He was more defensive in justifying his selection of just thirty-one families as the core of that class, but in 1865 it was not unreasonable to prophesy that ‘in another hundred years these thirty one families will be the marked and ticketed families among two hundred millions of English-speaking men’, and to argue that: ‘The redivision of property may ultimately shatter their power, but short of that their dignity and consideration will probably for a century steadily increase.’

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 1993

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1 The Lincolnshire Baileys in Byatt, A.S., Possession (1990)Google Scholar.

2 Calculated from The Sunday Times: Britain's Rich, the Top 200, 14 April 1991. For the late 19th century it can be estimated from Rubinstein, W. D., Men of Property (1981)Google Scholar, tables 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3, that 43% of those dying 1880–99 worth more than £500,000 were landed, and 28% of those dying 1900–19.

3 Sanford, J. L. and Townsend, M., The Great Governing Families of England (2 vols. 1865), I, 1820Google Scholar.

4 The 31 families in Sanford and Townsend, Great Governing Families, were: Percies, Greys, Lowthers, Vanes, Stanleys, Grosvenors, Fitzwilliams, Cavendishes, Bentincks, Clintons, Stanhopes, Talbots, Leveson-Gowers, Pagets, Manners, Montagus, Osbornes, Fitzroys, Spencers, Grenvilles, Russells, Cecils, Villiers, Barings, Petty-Fitzmaurices, Herberts, Somersets, Berkeleys, Seymours, Lennoxes, and Howards. Oddly, there were no Churchills in the list.

5 Guttsmann, W., The British Political Elite (1963), 356–7Google Scholar.

6 Cobden to Hargreaves, April 1863, in Morley, J., The Life of Richard Cobden (1920 edn.), 946Google Scholar.

7 Cannadine, D., Lords and Landlords: the Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774–1967 (Leicester, 1979), 50–9Google Scholar.

8 Political and theoretical attitudes to inequality are summarised by Rubinstein, W. D., Wealth and Inequality in Britain (1986), esp. 12–43Google Scholar.

9 The Times, 22 Nov. 1988, speech by Nicholas Ridley to the Historic Houses Association.

10 The Daily Telegraph, 26 Nov. 1991, obituary of 3rd Lord Moynihan; The Independent, 1 July 1992, obituary of 6th Marquess of Bath.

11 Horstman, A., Victorian Divorce (1985), 118, 135–7Google Scholar. Fleming, G. H., Victorian ‘Sex Goddess’: Lady Colin Campbell (Oxford, 1990), 25–8, 212–16Google Scholar; Lord Colin, youngest son of 8th Duke of Argyll, already separated from his wife, in the end failed to obtain a divorce (1886), as did Lady Colin in her counter-petition.

12 Curious family trees of ‘notorious affairs’ and divorces, Horstman, , Victorian Divorce, 119–33Google Scholar.

13 The Observer, Magazine, 8 March 1992, ‘The Battle of Blenheim’. His marriage to Rebecca Few Brown, called by his father ‘a filthy little scrubber’, may have improved Blandford's public image.

14 Scott, J., The Upper Classes: Property and Privilege in Britain (1982), 177CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cannadine, D., The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990), 689CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Waugh, E., Vile Bodies (Penguin ed., 1938), 123Google Scholar. See Balfour, P., Society Racket (1932), 170–1Google Scholar for the actual antics of the ‘bright young things’, which were even stranger than fiction and included Russian, Mozart, baby, and pyjama parties as well as those noticed by Evelyn Waugh.

16 Balfour, , Society Racket, 127–8Google Scholar.

17 Thompson, F. M. L., English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (1963), 335–6, 339–40Google Scholar; Balfour, , Society Racket, 53Google Scholar; Cannadine, , Decline and Fall, 116–18, 643Google Scholar. The casualties also included Breadalbane, Chandos, Chesterfield, Devonshire, Hertford, Montagu, Lansdowne, Norfolk, Spencer, and Wimborne Houses. Northumberland House had vanished in a street improvement scheme in the 1870s (Northumberland Avenue) and significantly had not been replaced by the dukes. Apsley House survived, and was given to the nation by the 7th Duke of Wellington after 1945.

18 Estates Gazette, 27 Dec. 1924, 892.

19 Balfour, , Society Racket, 124–5Google Scholar.

20 Balfour, , Society Racket, 63Google Scholar. There is some mystery about the ownership of Dorchester House, but it appears to have been the residence of the Holfords of Weston Bin, Glos., untitled aristocracy with an estate of 14,596 acres worth £20,145 p.a. in 1878: Bateman, J., The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (1878 edn.), 205Google Scholar. Father and son resided there: Walford, , County Families (1888 edn.), 526Google Scholar, (1904 edn.), 497. The son, George Lindsay Holford, was a courtier, equerry in turn to the Duke of Clarence and George V.

21 Lambert, Angela, 1939: The Last Season of Peace (1989), 88–9, 214Google Scholar. There was talk of reviving the Ball in 1989.

22 Montgomery, Maureen E., Gilded Prostitution: Status, Money, and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870–1914 (1989), 8, 22–3Google Scholar.

23 Lambert, , Last Season, 45, 173–4Google Scholar. Lambert estimates that in 1939 there were 900 to 1,000 debs ‘coming out’, i.e. being presented, of whom 200 to 400 took a full part in the London season: 8–9. These figures may be compared with the 800 to 1,000 who were presented annually in the 1890s, of whom about 45% or 350 to 450 were debs: Ellenberger, Nancy W., ‘The Transformation of London Society at the End of Victoria's Reign,’ Albion, XX (1990), 641, 653Google Scholar.

24 Lambert, , Last Season, 5Google Scholar: the Bletso treatment did occasionally produce striking results, recalled by one ex-deb 50 years later.

There were perhaps half a dozen mamas each Season who were rich (very rich) nouveaux riches, and were on the prowl to find very eligible but perhaps impecunious husbands for their daughters. One very aggressive one had two daughters and a son for whom she, triumphantly, found members of the aristocracy. One is now a countess, another married a baronet of long lineage, and one of her grand-daughters is married to a duke.

25 Both cited in Cooper, A. F., British Agricultural Policy, 1912–36: A Study in Conservative Politics (Manchester, 1989), 71Google Scholar.

26 CLA papers [for period since c.1960], CLA office, 16, Belgrave Square, London SW1 (hereafter CLA London), ‘The Future of Landownership—a CLA Discussion Paper’, 6 Jan. 1976.

27 CLA papers [for period 1907–60], Institute of Agricultural History, University of Reading (hereafter CLA Reading), Executive Committee Minutes, 13 Feb. 1930, membership figures, 1908–29.

28 Fforde, M., Convervatism and Collection, 1886–1914 (Edinburgh, 1990), 104, 153–6Google Scholar.

29 Dewey, P. E., British Agriculture in the First World War (1989)Google Scholar, esp. chap. 16. Armstrong, , Farmworks: A Social and Economic History, 1770–1980 (1988)Google Scholar, chap. 7.

30 CLA Reading, Council Minutes, 30 Dec. 1922. Bledisloe had views on postwar agricultural policy as well as on landowners’ organization, and these were separately published as The Proper Position of the Landowner in Relation to the Agricultural Industry (1922). In the event while the NFU remained large and representative, growing from about 80,000 members to well over 100,000 in the 1930s, the NUAW collapsed after 1921, from 93,000 members to 22,000 in 1924, and remained at no more than 6 to 10% of the total number of agricultural workers throughout the interwar period: Armstrong, , Farmworkers, 169, 185Google Scholar.

31 CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 22 Feb. 1923.

32 CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 31 Jan. 1929, quoting Bledisloe to Morning Post, 21 Jan. 1929, and recording regrets that he had made proposals, ‘quite unacceptable to landowners generally’.

33 CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 22 March 1928, ‘Statement on Agricultural Policy Supplementary to Statement issued in 1925’.

34 Cooper, , British Agricultural Policy, 128–31, 169–72Google Scholar. CLA London, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 13 July 1967, preliminary consideration of ‘The case of the farmer's seed drill’ and the question of the CLA ‘taking on agriculture’.

35 On the transformation of the role of the NFU see Cooper, , British Agricultural Policy, 177–8, 216–18Google Scholar; Holderness, B. A., British Agriculture since 1945 (Manchester, 1985), 10, 16–21, 155Google Scholar.

36 Large landowners also benefit handsomely from the ‘set aside’ system: die Sunday Times, 1 Dec. 1991, listed the Dukes of Atholl and of Buccleuch, the Marquess of Northampton, Earl Spencer, and Lords Beaverbrook and Belstead, among the ‘landowners reap [ing] rich harvest from EC set-aside scheme’. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 entitles landowners to compensation for loss of profits on SSSIs they are not allowed to develop: some cases were reported in Estates Gazette, 22 Feb. 1992, and the Observer, 14 June 1992. Something for nothing of a more benign kind has also been available to landowners who obtain exemption from death duties in return for allowing public access, often purely theoretical, to their land or their works of art: the Observer, 14 June 1992, ‘Estate owners told to end tax-for-footpaths secrecy’; 5 July 1992, ‘Tax deals with wealthy cost nation £1 billion’.

37 For example, CLA London, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 4 Dec. 1969, on ‘inheritance’ of tenancies, urging branch secretaries to use their local influence to avoid cases of undue hardship in denial of succession to widows or sons.

38 CLA London, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 2 April 1964, Observations on NFU Report on Tenure of Farm Land.

39 CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 31 Dec. 1929, 13 Feb. 1930; CLA London, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 26 July 1967, 11 July 1968, 11 May 1978, Council Mins. 26 Oct. 1989.

40 The tenurial attraction of owner-farming is chiefly that of avoiding the ‘dual ownership’ of a farm with a tenant effectively entrenched for life (1947 Act) or for life plus two succeeding generations (1976 Act): CLA London, Council papers 22 Jan. 1960, Succession to Agricultural Tenancies by close relatives’, Council working papers 22 July 1980, negotiations with NFU on tenancies.

41 The Independent, 27 July 1990, ‘Ramblers lose battle over grouse moors’, 9 Aug. 1990, ‘Temperatures rise on the grouse moors’, 4 Feb. 1992, ‘Ramblers step up pressure on access rights’. Pressure by the Moorland Association led to the shelving of the Conservative 1987 Manifesto promise to legislate on access to the 1.4 million acres of common land in England and Wales. In 1930 the CLA had a policy for public access to open country through easements, to be so directed as not to damage sporting rights: CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 1 May 1930. In 1949 the President of the CLA had taken up the cause of historic houses, pressing for exactly the kind of tax concessions achieved only 30 years later by the Historic Houses Association: CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 30 April 1949.

42 CLA Reading, Exec. Cttee. Mins. 22 Feb. 1928, claiming credit, with the Land Union, for the 1925 death duty concession.

43 CLA London, Exec. Cttee. Report, 28 Jan. 1976, ‘The Future of Landownership’.