Safe as Houses?
The Gowers Report of 1950 was the first step in the postwar rescue of Britain’s country house heritage.
Seventy years ago, a government-appointed committee published a report into the future of Britain’s country house heritage. The report is not as well known as the other achievements of the 1945-51 Labour government, such as the creation of the National Health Service or the formation of National Parks. Yet the findings of the report were to have a profound influence on the policies of successive postwar governments towards the conservation of the country’s most significant buildings, landscapes and collections.
The committee was chaired by Sir Ernest Gowers, an experienced public servant who, as regional commissioner, had been responsible for the safety of Londoners during the Blitz. Gowers assembled an eclectic mix of people for his committee. Among them were Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures (later exposed as a Soviet spy), Cyril Fox, archaeologist and director of the National Museum of Wales, Ava Anderson, society hostess and wife of Sir John Anderson, the architect William Ansell and the trade unionist Jack Little.
Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, set Gowers a brief to report on ‘what general arrangements might be made by the government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest’. The issue was timely. Many of the country’s finest houses had suffered considerable wartime damage. Those that had not been taken over for military use were often used as temporary schools or hospitals. Once their houses were returned after the war, owners frequently found themselves with colossal repair bills and only limited means of financing them.
Between 1948 and 1950, Gowers’ committee took evidence from many concerned organisations and individuals. The National Trust had reason to regard the committee’s remit with some suspicion, having recently been outbid by the government in its negotiations with Lord Braybrooke over the future of Audley End in Essex. James Lees-Milne, the secretary of the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee, had been in discussions with Lord Braybrooke’s trustees since 1942 to try to secure the house for the Trust. Once the war was over, however, the Ministry of Works offered to buy Audley End for £30,000, a figure that far exceeded the £12,000 that the Trust had been prepared to pay. Audley End is today in the freehold ownership of the state and therefore managed by English Heritage, not the National Trust. ‘All that matters is that that beautiful house should be maintained and looked after in the future, and I am sure the Ministry of Works will be the best possible guardians for it’, Lees-Milne wrote fawningly to Braybrooke. He was more scathing in his diary: ‘I am sorry that the NT has not got it ... because I am convinced that they will present houses better than the tasteless Ministry of Works.’
Lees-Milne’s diaries recorded genuine fear that Audley End would be the tip of an iceberg, ushering in a new era of state-owned country houses. It was unlikely, however, that such full-scale nationalisation was ever going to be a serious option. The more houses the committee visited, the more its members realised that the only viable future for these places was for them to remain in private ownership. There were simply too many of them for the state to be in any position to ‘save’.
When the Gowers committee’s report was published, on 23 June 1950, its findings may have come as a surprise to the Labour government of the day. Far from recommending the transfer of ownership from private owners to the state, the report called for important country houses to remain, where possible, as family homes. It concluded that the owners of these houses needed further support and it therefore proposed the foundation of Historic Buildings Councils, which could offer grants and advice. The report also suggested that owners ought to enjoy tax concessions, so that the death duty regime did not cause the further breakup of historic estates. Only where owners were still not able to keep a house going should takeover by the National Trust be considered. Rescue by the state was a matter of last resort.
The government was cautious in its response. Hugh Dalton, who had approved the acquisition of Audley End during his time at the Treasury, urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer, by then Hugh Gaitskell, not to concede the tax dispensations that Gowers’ committee had recommended. Instead, Dalton’s preference was for the National Trust to take more of a commanding role (his wife, Ruth Dalton, was on the Trust’s Council). Its acquisition of country houses reached its peak in the 1950s, often facilitated by financial support from the National Land Fund, established in commemoration of the fallen.
Nevertheless, many of the report’s recommendations were to become government policy in the years and decades to come. A Historic Buildings Council was indeed established in 1953 and continues to this day. (Its modern incarnation is Historic England, with parallel organisations in Scotland and Wales.) Another Labour government in 1976 extended the grounds for exemption from death duties to include buildings and landscapes of significance. The same government also introduced the option for private owners to establish heritage maintenance funds, bespoke endowments to provide for the long-term maintenance of individual country houses.
In 1974 a landmark exhibition at the V&A drew attention to more than 1,000 country houses that had been ‘lost’ in the preceding century. Benign fiscal conditions and general economic recovery meant far fewer country houses faced ruination. Often, they thrived, whether as popular visitor destinations or as venues for weddings, concerts and other activities. Nonetheless the health and vibrancy of country house heritage remains contingent on events and circumstances. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 saw the closure of hundreds of houses that would normally be open to paying customers. Coronavirus tests the resilience of accepted business models for country houses, as it does for other parts of the economy.
Ben Cowell is Director General of Historic Houses and Deputy Chair of the Heritage Alliance.