In Dowton Abbey, Tom, Downton’s agent, disagrees with Lord Grantham’s plan to sell off bits and pieces of land to pay the estate’s death taxes. Lady Mary considers his argument, and the inescapable conclusion that without the land, how will the cost of the house be borne? Tenant farmers pay rent–that’s how the great house pays its way.
The decline and eventual destruction of Downton Abbey is hypothetical, but the fact remains a great many country houses and estates in England suffered such a fate. At least 1200 and very likely more were lost in the twentieth century.
What happens to houses and the humans who live in them during this period of change? Julian Fellowes has drawn on his own memories, mostly from the 1950s, when old retainers retired and new ones were not hired, the stables were empty of horses and there was nothing for it but to pack up the lot and sell it off:
“And you’d go into the attics of some of these houses and there would be lines of bedrooms, and in some cases, there’d be nameplates, and it would say ‘Mary’ on it, and inside was an old iron bedstead. And you had a real sense, then, of a life that you just missed. And sort of, cupboards lined with blue felt with nothing in them.” — interview with Julian Fellowes, Feb. 3, 2013
The first to sense an unease might be the guests who come for a shooting or hunt ball at the great country house. Remember poor Mabel Nesbitt from Fellowes’ other drama Gosford Park, wife of the Honorable (italics mine) Freddie Nesbitt. She had nothing to wear for formal events in the evenings but one frock, in green–“very tricky color.” What is not shown is her probable embarrassment before Elsie, the head housemaid who must stand in for the lady’s maid Mabel cannot afford, even though she was the heiress of a glove factory which went bankrupt.
By the 1930s, the great house had seemed very obsolete, even to its occupants, yet the Duke of Richmond recalled, “World War One didn’t make a lot of difference to life, except that people started disappearing.” Younger generations of owners liked their flats in London and wondered over the bother that came with the running of a great house in the country. Those that remained were clinging to the old ways or just needed a job in an era of high unemployment. The result was “spectral and superfluous” as noted by a guest visiting the Marquess of Bath in 1936. When he wished to go for a bicycle ride:
“A row of liveried footmen gathered in ranks on either side of the steps to see (the guest) bicycle away down the drive; one of them solemnly carried his bicycle to the front of the steps while his host stood at the top watching until he had vanished.” — Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain by Lucy Lethbridge
Newspapers and shoelaces were still smoothed every morning by flat irons heated in front of the fire. This and other observations were made by Margaret Powell, a cook and long-time servant, in her book Below Stairs. When others were making do with processed food like that newfangled margarine, the country house was still serving vast quantities of food from its home farm, including real butter in the servants’ quarters.
A strange warping of economies would occur, however. Feeding vast households was fine as long as one had the home farm, but paying for them was quite another. One lone baronet, served by ten servants, would demand the sixpence found in Christmas pudding be reused year after year. Everything was mended and even the thread used for such repairs had to be conserved.
How does it all end? One touching example is that of Holland House, whose last occupant was the dowager Lady Ilchester. An invalid, she still maintained a large staff, including a chauffeur, in what had used to be a house in the country, but now surrounded by London. One of her hall boys recorded the following as reprinted in Lethridge’s Servants:
“When I look back over my three and half years at Holland House, I can see now there was something particularly sad, almost unreal about them. We were propping up something that belonged to another age, trying to pretend that what had passed still existed or even if it didn’t that if we tried hard enough to keep the old order of things going, it might come back.”