Why did we lose so many country houses?
Those who are regular readers of my articles will know that I have a thing about lost country houses. Why did we lose so many country houses?
The uncertain future of many country houses started during the First World War when a large numbers of sons and heirs were killed in the trenches. Who was going to inherit and maintain them? The next step came courtesy of the Second World War when country houses became victims of requisitioning. Many country houses were occupied by government departments and some housed prisoners of war.
Once these houses were returned to their owners the government paid them compensation but it was insufficient to return them to their former condition. So repairs were neglected whilst maintenance costs increased and wage levels rose. This also meant that country house owners could not afford to improve their properties. So many had no electricity and the heat-ing was out of date.
Landowners also came under political attack from the Liberal Party. Lloyd George wanted to ‘tax [them] out of existence’ and hit them with punitive taxes. Income tax was increased to 60% in 1939. Death duties were regarded as the most serious threat as each generation had to sell some property in order to pay.
Rental income also fell to half or a third. In 1871 land had sold at £53 per acre, during the inter war years it sold for £23 to £28 per acre. In Norfolk landowners were heavily dependent upon their agricultural rents. Income from non-landed sources became more important than ever. In 1921 following the repeal of the Corn Production Act cereal prices fell again and so did rents and land values.
Debt became part of the way of life for a country house owner. In the good years the cost of borrowing was low, however as income fell debts required a larger proportion of this income. By the 1930s almost half of Norfolk was owned by the banks because of foreclosure. There-fore with high taxation, reduced income and expensive debts landowners had little spare cash, if any, to maintain their house.
With all these debts and tax bills people tried to get rid of their houses. After the First World War 14 Norfolk estates of 800 hectares were put up for sale and in December 1921 the Estates Gazette reported that a quarter of the land in England and Wales had changed ownership in the three previous years.
Others tried to keep going. In Norfolk in 1880 there were 32 estates of 2000-3000 acres; 100 years later only five of these remained in their original families with 1000 acres. Many estates in Norfolk increased their revenues by letting the shooting rights, others felled trees, some just moved out. Generally, survival depended upon the strength of will of the owner.
Of those country houses that survived many have been put to different uses. They were easy to adapt to institutional use so some houses have become hotels, nursing homes, offices or old people’s homes. Of those still in private hands many of their owners have been ingenious, opening their houses to the public and allowing activities like horse trials, film sets, concerts, game fairs, converting buildings to holiday cottages, starting workshops and offices and selling estate produce. And finally, of course, we must not forget the National Trust, by 1960 they had taken on 75 country houses.
Until next time