Anne de Courcy

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

Adrian Tinniswood describes how crippling ‘estate duties’ forced owners to demolish their properties, or carve them up, or turn them into safari parks

Chatsworth, the beautiful ‘palace of the north’, faced ruin in the 1950s as a result of crippling death duties. [Getty Images]

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.

By 1974, 350,000 cars were pouring through the newly created safari park at Woburn

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.

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