In stories set in the first third of the 19th century, when an estate goes to rack and ruin, it’s because of either profligacy or inheritance problems (which get the property stuck in the Court of Chancery). Decades later, though, what did in countless great properties was death duties and taxes.
The death duties started in response to a severe agricultural crisis in the late 19th century. According to Bill Bryon’s encyclopedic At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “the British government . . . invented a tax designed to punish a class of people who were already suffering severely and had done nothing in particular to cause the current troubles. The class was large landowners. The tax was death duties.”
These started out at “8 percent on estates valued at £1 million or more, but they proved to be such a reliable source of revenue, and so popular with the millions who didn’t have to pay them, that they were raised again and again until by the eve of the Second World War they stood at 60 percent.” Meanwhile income taxes kept going up and several new taxes were devised—all of them falling “disproportionately on those with a lot of land and plummy accents . . .
“Most lived within a semipermanent state of crisis. When things got really bad . . . disaster could generally be staved off by selling heirlooms.” —and marrying rich American women.
“For many hundreds of country houses there was no salvation, and the sad fate was decline and eventual demolition . . .
“By the 1950s, the peak period of destruction, stately homes were disappearing at the rate of about two a week.”
This sheds an interesting light on two stories which came to my attention recently. The first, in the Wall Street Journal, is about the current caretaker of Burghley House,* a granddaughter of the six Marquess of Exeter.
I invite you to compare and contrast her situation and the state of Burghley Hall with that of Francis Fulford. You can meet the colorful Mr. Fulford in this online video (warning: strong language ), and his blog, and learn about what progress he’s made since the time of the show at Patrick Baty's blog. Thanks to NHG Susan for the fascinating Fulford links!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.