Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The State of the Stately Home

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Loretta reports:

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!

If you find Mr. Fulford a little too colorful, you might choose instead to read about Queen Victoria’s visit to Burghley House (when the bed was shortened)—admittedly, a much tamer affair.

Illustrations:  View of Burghley House by Frederick Mackenzie, courtesy Wikigallery.
Great Fulford House, Devon, 1804. Courtesy Ancestry Images.


The Down East Dilettante said...

Fascinating post. But oh, what a kettle of fish. There are more angles to this discussion than a Frank Gehry concert hall. And frankly, the poor rich seem to muddle through---many of the impoverished landowners still get to live in the stately home courtesy National trust, AND keep nice flats in town and go on holidays in places many of us just dream about despite their 'straitened' circumstances---and England has land conservation policies far more advanced than ours here.

And it's worth pointing out that the 50's were a peak period of destruction for out stately homes here too---depression and WWII and a shift in domestic taste had as much to do with it as taxes. Perversely and conversely, in this country, with a far poorer preservation and conservation record than England's, the lifting of inheritance taxes and the resultant flow of unearned money into new hands has not in any way served to protect grand houses here, which are being damaged or destroyed daily in favor of McMansions.

Like I say, double edged sword, and many sides to the argument. These days England goes out of its way compared to almost any other country to protect its stately homes, and much as I love a stately home, there is a limit to how much unearned wealth should be passed from generation to generation.

And, of course, let's not forget those favorite characters in the novels (and real life), the profligate heirs who spend away the family legacy and lose the home.

Cheers. It really is an interesting question.

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

I just finished reading the Duchess of Devonshire's nearly stream-of-consciousness memoir Wait for Me. In it she discusses the lengths the family has gone to to secure Chatsworth's future.

Like the Down East Dilettante, I have misgivings about the lifestyle of the idle rich.(Although the duchess was/is anything but idle.) Reading the her book, it was hard to identify with anyone who went to Lismore Castle for a month of fishing and some other family-owned property for shooting grouse the next. I have no tiaras in the safe. I have no safe.

At the same time, the treasures amassed by these families and the houses themselves need to be preserved. I understand the magnificent house subbing for Downton Abbey is a horror inside. Who can pay for restoration when the economy is in such a state? Certainly not the government, when people are hungry and services are being cut back.Cue more period films to rent the properties.

Keith said...

At one time I was very tempted to purchase one of these properties and move back to England. Then I found out how hight the property tax was!!!
No way I would have the public traipsing through my home just so I could afford to pay the rates!

LorettaChase said...

I have to wonder if we're talking apples and oranges here when we equate big houses of the Gilded Age rich in the U.S. with England's stately homes. We've nothing in the U.S. comparable to Knole or Burghley House or Chatsworth--or a hundred other places. I'd hesitate to equate urban renewal (anywhere) or the U.S. penchant for bulldozing its history with what happened to centuries-old houses in England because of death duties and taxes. On the one hand, I can understand the motivation for the taxation--aristocrats can be darn irritating, to say the least. Yet I'm grateful, as an author, for those stately homes that still exist. They are repositories of history. Knole has preserved the actual furnishings--threadbare and faded, yes, but they are the real thing--objects touched by people who lived hundreds of years ago. These are treasures for a NHG and an author. The idle rich may not, for the most part, seem likable or admirable. Reading about them, I can understand why everyone wanted to tax them out of existence. OTOH, I know it took wealth and lots of free time to create those beautiful buildings, support artists & architects & landscapers, collect great works from all over the world--and by doing so, in many cases, preserving treasures from destruction. So I'm even cheering on Mr. Fulford.

LorettaChase said...

Le Loup, the Rolling Stones left because of taxes!

nightsmusic said...

I've often thought if I won a couple hundred million in our lottery here, I'd take the entire payout, move to England and try to save one of those stately mansions. I could live in one wing and allow the public to view their history in another. Small price to pay to preserve a dying heritage.

As to the death duties, we of course call it inheritance tax and it's getting worse and worse all the time here too. And the states are as much to blame as anything. We not only pay federal, but state as well. Sometimes one ends up with nothing at all.

What is that saying? The only two sure things are...

nightsmusic said...

And I'm going to take a moment to complain again about blogger! If you're not signed in, it will sign you in automatically when you post, but you have no option to subscribe to comments via email!!

Not your fault, but really, blogger can do much better than this. They really can.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Hmmm, since, as nightsmusic points out, there is no comment subscription, I thought I'd just check back in to see how things were fomenting.

No arguments at all about the importance of the survival of intact stately homes--on both sides of the Atlantic, regardless of the type or source of wealth. They are great works of man, and repositories of important treasures. But, frankly, the death duties have also had the salubrious effect of making the houses by necessity more available to an interested public. But philosophically, while death duties undeniably became confiscatory beyond fairness and reason, neither do I see why the poorer (that would be the majority of the population) should be expected to subsidize the rich. As I said, a very complex discussion, with many, many angles.

I do need clarification though. Nightsmusic says taxes are getting worse, when in fact income taxes are at the lowest levels in years, and inheritance taxes haven't been around for nearly a decade, and we've got the national deficit to prove it. But, I'm not here to be political, I'm here because I find the discussion engendered by Mr. Fulford's theories quite interesting.

nightsmusic said...

Our state unfortunately has inheritance tax and actually, the federal government does too though I'm sure most people here wouldn't qualify to have to pay it because of the cap. However, the cap on both our state's and the governments are always a matter of debate as to how far they can lower them. I think right now for us (and it's been almost 10 years since I had to worry about it) the cap is at $500K which, once you get a house and a couple cars involved pretty much pushes you over that in most instances. Then they take 40%.

I don't think anyone should ever subsidize the wealthy. I do think if the house is opened to the public as a national trust though, the residents/owners should not be taxed on the portion they no longer utilize. But that's just me.

In all reality for me, I think razing any house with some kind of historical significance is an abomination.

LorettaChase said...

Frankly, I figured Mr. Fulford would certainly trigger lots of debate--but maybe our readers are doing that behind the scenes. Subsidizing the wealthy is not high on my agenda, and I'm one of the rare few who don't object to paying taxes, yet the destruction of history breaks my heart. Well, even here in Massachusetts, when someone demolishes what they deem an eyesore of an old factory building, I grieve. Adding insult to injury, up goes a chain drugstore or fast food joint in its place. I think the UK destruction upsets me more, simply because "old" there means something very different than it does here. Knole & Burghley go back to Shakespeare's time...well, maybe I'll blog about some long-vanished buildings in the future.

nightsmusic said...

I agree with the difference in the "old" designation. We're a very young country compared to Europe.

I'm always fascinated to see old charts and maps and it grieves me to see often how little is left now from what was shown then. But I'd love to read a blog on all of it!

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket