Decline on Downton Abbey: Why the Nobles and Gentry Went Broke

Spoiler Alert: This post reveals details of Downton Abbey, through Season 6, Episode 1.

On Downton Abbey, Earl Robert repeatedly faces financial trouble. Many of his fellow nobles and gentry find themselves in even more dire straits. They cope by selling off their birthright — castles, houses, treasures, and land — and living humbler lives. Why do these apparently rich people teeter on the edge of financial ruin?

Earl Robert’s cousin “Shrimpie” is forced to sell his beautiful castle. (In the real world, this is Inveraray Castle, Scotland.)

For most of their history, Britain’s nobles and gentry lived off of the profits of farming. But by the early 20th Century, agricultural wealth had been dwarfed by the riches of industry. Farms still made money but proportionately much less, and they couldn’t easily support the upper class’ high cost of living or the tax burden of industrial society. And many nobles and gentry could not or would not supplement their income by working.

Industrial Society

Until the 19th Century, Britain was a paradise for landed wealth: for landowners who rented out farmland and did not work. The landed nobles and gentry played the dominant role in government, with a lock on the House of Lords and a consistent majority in the House of Commons. Plus, Britain was one of history’s least governed countries. The government didn’t do much, particularly in the countryside — so it didn’t tax much. Thanks to both factors, the nobles and gentry lived almost tax-free.

During the 19th Century, however, Britain became the world’s first industrial society. Power shifted away from the nobles and gentry throughout the century and beyond. In 1911, the House of Lords lost its veto over the lower house: its last key power. And by then, industrialists, workers, and the middle classes had seized substantial control over the House of Commons, thanks to the money they controlled and the expansion of voting rights. At the same time, governing and defending an industrial society had become extremely expensive, particularly once Britain began grappling with the debts of World War I. Taxes rose, and industry-focused Parliaments were happy to levy them on rich land-holders (among others). By the early 20th Century, the nobles and gentry paid crippling death duties and land taxes, as well as high income taxes.

Industry was far more profitable than agriculture. So the nobles and gentry faced wealthier competition for high status goods, just as their taxes were rising. In other words, the cost of fine living rose, while the relative value of farm rents fell. At the same time, industry and commerce created a competing market for labor, so the cost of servants and farm-workers rose. And World War I killed much of the workforce, from 1914 to 1918, driving labor costs even higher. So the nobles and gentry couldn’t afford the servants and other staff necessary to run their great houses and estates. That’s why fear of serving-staff reduction stalk Downton Abbey after the war.

Trentham Hall in 1880. Its owner, the Duke of Sutherland, was forced to demolish it in 1912.

For a nobleman with a title, one solution was to marry an industrialist’s daughter, often from America. The nobleman got a hefty dowry and the industrialist got a viscount or duke for a grandson. That’s how Earl Robert ends up married to Cora, the daughter of a Jewish American businessman. But even that wasn’t always enough because the nobles (and gentry) often did a bad job managing money, and even managing their own estates. Their culture taught few commercial skills. Earl Robert, for instance, only keeps his riches because his distant cousin Matthew Crawley applies his middle class skills to running the estate — and stumbles into yet another injection of inherited cash.

Many of the nobles and gentry weren’t so lucky.

Leisure Class

In Pride and Prejudice — set around 1800 — the sole indictment of Elizabeth’s Uncle Gardiner is that he’s “in trade.” Instead of living a life of leisure while farmers work his land and pay rents, Mr. Gardiner runs a business. Leisure was a mark of status in Britain (unlike in the U.S.), and a landed gentleman could not stoop to work — other than as an army officer or lightly employed clergyman, or in rare cases as an MP or statesman. Even by the 20th Century, the nobles and gentry couldn’t take jobs to supplement their income — at least, not without losing status.

In Episode 1 of Downton Season 6, Earl Robert’s neighbor is forced to sell his estate. Sir John says that, after the sale, he’ll barely have enough to get by. We’re not given any numbers, but I suspect most of us would consider whatever Sir John has left a hefty nest-egg. It’s just not enough to generate a comfortable lifestyle all by itself. You and I would get a job. But that would humiliate Sir John, and he probably has few marketable skills anyway.

Some nobles and gentry did adapt and became investors in industry, while others took the plunge and supplemented farm rents with jobs. But the 20th Century brought disaster for many others. They sold out and often ultimately joined the middle classes. And most of those who remained lived humbler lives, with smaller houses, less leisure, less purchasing power, less political power, and less status — as well as fewer servants, or none.



© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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