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England's Lost Houses

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Giles Worsley explains why so many country houses were demolished in the last century.

The future of Tyntesfield, the remarkable Victorian house in Somerset, built by the guano-enriched Gibbs family, now seems secure. For a time it looked as if the house would be broken up and its contents sold. Now the National Trust is to buy it with money from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. But even if the National Trust had not been able to pull off the deal at least one thing was always certain. Tyntesfield would not be demolished. It is a fate that only a generation ago would have been all too plausible, for perhaps one in six of all English country houses were demolished in the twentieth century.

The latest research suggests that at least 1,200 English country houses were lost during the century, a figure that might rise to 1,700 if every county was properly studied. Why did so many country houses go?

The answer seems obvious, at least in folk memory. High taxation, and above all death duties, coupled with the tragic loss of aristocratic heirs in two world wars, forced all too many landed families to sell their estates, leading to a wave of country-house demolitions that could, and should, have been prevented if only the Government had acted sooner.

As the twentieth century slips into history that account begins to feel a little two-dimensional. After all, though many houses have gone, many more survive, often in private hands, most flourishing today as they probably have not for a century. If these survived, what was it that doomed the rest?

There is no doubt that the country house faced a crisis in the twentieth century that has no parallel, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For centuries power in Britain had lain with the landowners, with country houses the visible expression of their power. Anyone who was anyone owned a country house. Their scale and supporting acres brought local prestige and power, and consequently national power in Parliament.

But with the rise of genuine democracy, of county councils taking the place of magistrates and a truly representative Parliament, the power of the landowners was eclipsed. After a brief struggle in the House of Lords, landowners had accepted their reduced position by the outbreak of the First World War. But that reduced position brought with it a radical change in the role of the country house. No longer powerhouses, these were now just family homes. Where scale and opulence had once gone hand in hand with political influence, by 1918 large houses just seemed extravagant.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century it had seemed natural for dukes, for example, to live on an epic scale, so when the Duke of Newcastle’s Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire, was badly damaged by fire in 1879 it was rebuilt even more monumentally. But by 1908 the duke had retired to live in the suburban comfort of Forest Lawn near Windsor. His heir, the Earl of Lincoln, demolished Clumber in 1938, planning to build a more convenient house on a new site, but was frustrated by the outbreak of war and eventually sold the estate.

Aristocratic families have always been more ruthless with their houses than their nineteenth-century descendants would like to admit. In the second half of the seventeenth-century many families abandoned oversized Elizabethan and Jacobean houses for more compact Restoration models. The same was true in the twentieth century as oversized houses were abandoned, either for something more compact on the site or for a smaller, more convenient house elsewhere on the estate.

Even more vulnerable were houses on secondary estates that previously could have been justified because of the political influence they brought in the county. The Dukes of Northumberland, for instance, owned Alnwick and Keilder Castles in Northumberland, Stanwick Park in Yorkshire, Syon House in Middlesex and Albury House in Surrey. When money had to be raised for death duties after the death of the 8th Duke in 1918, the Stanwick estate, which had been occupied by the dowager duchess and then let after her death, was the logical sacrifice.

Underscoring all this was the agricultural depression that set in in the late 1870s. Land, never a good investment compared to stocks and shares, now performed even worse, but no longer brought the political benefits it once held. Unsurprisingly, great landowners offloaded large amounts of land during the brief land-price boom after the First World War. And when they did, the usual purchasers were tenant farmers, as was the case with the Earl of Strathmore’s Streatlam Castle estate in County Durham, sold in 1922 for £100,000. With the land divided up there was no need for the house, which was demolished in 1927.

The agricultural depression hit those with less ample acres, and no industrial or urban properties to support them, particularly hard. Falling prices led to declining rents and collapsing land values. For those who had lived well on borrowed money – as many landowners had during the nineteenth century when money was cheap – the squeeze was especially painful. Lower rents made it hard to meet interest payments and collapsing land prices meant that the value of the mortgage was in danger of exceeding that of the collateral against which it had been secured.

It was against this backdrop of economic vulnerability that rising income taxes and death duties proved so painful. For those with only a single, relatively small, mortgaged estate there simply was no slack to cut and if a substantial part of the estate was sold the rest was often insufficient to support the house, particularly if that house was large and expensive to run. Some demolished the house, hoping to hang on to at least part of the estate. Others simply sold up. Among the saddest cases was that of Sir Robert Gresley of Drakelowe Hall, Derbyshire, the 28th Gresley in succession to own the property, forced to sell in 1932. A power station was built on the site of the house in 1948.

At the same time many landowners who had grown rich on the profits of coal and iron found they had entered a Faustian bargain as the settings of their houses were ruined by coalpits and steelworks. As early as 1907 Oswald Barron commented of Methley Hall in Country Life that ‘All the discomfort of Yorkshire prosperity is at hand; the drift of smoke comes down the air from far-distant chimneys, collieries throw up their dark mounds and the water of Calder flows inkily foul from the washing of shoddy.’ No wonder the 6th Earl of Mexborough preferred the idyllic setting of Arden Hall in the middle of the North York Moors, although Methley Hall was not demolished until 1963.

Not that everyone who sold up was forced to do so either by pressing financial need or the sight of coalmines at the end of the park. Some, like the 11th Duke of Leeds, did not see why they should take on the responsibilities of being a landowner at a time of financial constraint when, if he liquidated his holdings, he could live a very comfortable independent life. So, despite inheriting half a million pounds after tax from his father at the age of twenty-six in 1927, he put his Hornby Castle estate on the market in 1930 and spent the rest of his life on the Riviera. Hornby Castle, bar one gutted wing, was demolished the following year.

The worst years came in the 1950s when at least thirty-eight country houses were demolished in England alone in 1955. These were years of despair after a Socialist Government had made it seem as if the age of the country house was over. Requisitioning had often broken the thread of occupation, leaving houses in desperate need of repairs for which there was no money. Much depended on the energy and vision of the owners and the degree of family loyalty to the house, but many, particularly those who were old, or had no suitable heirs, or lived in a part of the country that was increasingly unattractive, gave up.

Things began to ease in the late-1950s with the economic recovery, the introduction of repair grants, the revival of farming and the sudden rise in the value of contents such as paintings. But demolitions remained common. Much depended on fashion. Few were prepared to argue for Victorian houses, even ones of the importance of the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Hall, which had been designed on a massive scale by Alfred Waterhouse. 

It was not until the Town and Country Planning Act of 1968 forced owners to seek permission to demolish listed buildings that the wave of demolitions finally came to an end. The last two houses demolished that had been illustrated in Country Life both went in 1972, Warter Hall, Yorkshire, a massive, little-loved industrialist’s pile, and Detmar Blow’s charming Arts and Crafts’ Little Ridge, Wiltshire, built in 1904 but overextended in the 1920s. Neither was protected. Today they certainly would be.

Giles Worsley is the author of England’s Lost Houses, published by Aurum Press for Country Life.



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