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It’s a wonder any of our great country houses survived the 20th century

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the Post-war Country House Adrian Tinniswood

Cape, pp.416, 30

One of Adrian Tinniswood’s recent books, The Long Weekend, is a portrait of country house life in the interwar years. Hedonistic, carefree, fuelled by an army of servants, such an existence now seems a distant dream. In this companion volume he takes the story further, looking at what happened to the country house after 1945. (By country house, he does not mean ‘The Old Rectory’ or ‘The Elms’ but something that tends to end in ‘Hall’, ‘Park’, ‘Court’ or ‘Castle’).

Immediately after the war, the outlook for these splendid buildings was bleak. Some had been affected by the Depression of the early 1930s and many fell victim to the penal taxation brought in by the 1945 Labour government, with its top rate of 19s 6d in the pound. To keep a huge house afloat on a reduced income was a daunting prospect for anyone. There would be a large bill for refurbishment if it had been requisitioned for wartime use, coupled with the need for constant running repairs. Add in crushing death duties and it is a wonder so many survived at all.

One of those most deeply affected was Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who found himself caught by a double set of death duties (in total, around half a billion pounds in today’s money), as his older brother had been killed in the war and in 1950 his father died unexpectedly, prompting the Manchester Guardian to break into verse, poor even by doggerel standards.:

Though heirlooms must piecemeal be put up for sale, if
The Treasury decides to send in the bum- bailiff
The Chancellor, deploring litigious battles,
In lieu of cash payment may settle for chattels.

Fortunately, through determination, the selling of some properties and the business acumen of the Duchess, the wonderful northern palace of Chatsworth was turned into a going concern and a place to be lived in. ‘As soon as I arrived, I felt that Chatsworth was home,’ said the Duchess, adding, perhaps with reference to its 126 rooms, ‘and a perfectly ordinary home at that.’

Some large houses were abandoned, some given up by their owners out of desperation, others demolished when developers managed to get their hands on them. A few became museums, boarding schools or municipal offices, or were converted into apartments.


Occasionally a derelict house was bought by someone who could afford to restore it. The Queen Mother acquired the Castle of Mey for £100 (it was on the point of demolition) while she was staying, grief-stricken after the death of George VI, with friends who owned a shooting lodge on the most northerly point of mainland Britain. The castle’s history was as wild as its position: it had been built in the 16th century by the 4th Earl of Caithness for one of his sons, who was then strangled by his older brother, who in turn was starved to death by his father. The Queen Mother loved it.

Sometimes parts of an over-large house were pulled down so that the remainder, with the aid of a skilled architect, could be turned into a dwelling easier to run. When the big house at Bowood went, the sale of its fixtures and fittings fetched £45,000.

Owners hated the thought of being the one to dispose of a house that had been in the family often for centuries. Here James Lees-Milne, bicycling about the country because of petrol rationing, was able to persuade some to hand over their house, plus a sizeable endowment, to the National Trust, which would take care of its upkeep; in return they and their descendants could live in part of it, conditional on its opening to the public for a set number of days a year.

A certain eccentricity has always characterised country house owners. When the railway station at Shugborough closed in 1939, the 4th Earl of Lichfield, who lived at Shugborough Hall, continued to use it by simply pulling the communication cord at the right moment, handing the guard a £5 note to cover the fine, and walking down the line to where his car and chauffeur awaited him.

Simon Yorke, the owner of Erddig, the finest country house in Wales, was so reclusive that he had the telephone taken out, mail dropped at the lodge, and when the local hunt met there, any female member who dared to ask to use the lavatory was directed to the bushes. John Paul Getty put locks on his telephones at Sutton Place, because strangers and passing businessmen would think nothing of dropping in and making long and hideously expensive calls to the other side of the world. John Fowler, of Colefax & Fowler, the decorator for country houses, had taste so finely tuned that he used 12 different shades of white in the Adam marble hall of the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House.

Somehow these houses survived. Owners learned to keep estates going by letting their shoots for large sums to syndicates, usually composed of businessmen, days frequently ending with grand dinners reminiscent of the house’s glory years — black tie, family jewels and, if they had it, gold plate.

What the country house was definitively built for was entertaining. Some were rented out as venues for wedding receptions and balls; others made a handsome profit — or at least got free redecoration — from film companies; perhaps Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed, is the best example of this.

Still others have been the settings for some of the greatest postwar scandals. Inverary Castle saw the 1963 Argyll divorce, with the citing by the Duke of 88 co-respondents and the famous photograph of the ‘headless man’. This prompted months of dinner-party speculation until overtaken the following year by the Profumo scandal that helped to bring down the Macmillan government — and its equally iconic photograph of Christine Keeler sitting naked astride a chair (neither picture, alas, reproduced in this book).

There was almost as much fuss, of a different kind, when the Duke of Bedford introduced 50 lions to his country seat, Woburn. By 1974, 350,000 cars a year were pouring through the safari park. ‘For the first time, my bank balance is comfortably in the black,’ said the Duke. What-ever one thinks of inherited privilege, it is a joy to know that so many of these wonderful buildings have been saved, and to learn about them through this book.

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