Decline and fall of English country estates

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ENGLAND’S landed estates have contributed a huge amount to the country’s prosperity and the physical appearance of our landscape, but in the last 100 years many of those estates have been sold and broken up, with some of them replaced by motorways, supermarkets, power stations, airports or housing. Many a motorist has stopped for a coffee at a motorway service station without realising that the tarmac on which they’ve parked was once the site of a sweeping drive leading to a graceful country house and parkland.

In the last century more than a third of the these landed estates have disappeared – their ancient woodlands chopped down for lucrative timber, the house demolished, and the deer park, cricket ground and home farm often ending up under concrete. If these estates, or parts of them survive at all as green space it is probably as relentless expanses of pine forestry or a golf course.

The fortunes of these tracts of lands and the aristocratic families that founded the estates followed the trajectory of the country’s mercantile and agricultural history, from fabulously prosperous peaks to desperate troughs. But sometimes the decline and dissolution was not due to agricultural change, say, but to the foolishness of individuals who liked to fritter away the family fortune on frivolous pastimes such as buying horses and gambling. Other estates came to grief through the sheer incompetence of those who inherited them at some point, and some were lost because the line of heirs simply ran out.

Although by the 1950s the National Trust was successfully saving and conserving great country estates for the enjoyment of posterity, it was already too late for the 1,000 landed estates that had disappeared. John Martin Robinson, eminent historian of the British country house and consultant to many of the great country house restorations, has researched the fate of England’s lost estates, and has told the story of 20 of them in Felling the Ancient Oaks – How England Lost Its Great Country Estates. The story of these properties is set against the backdrop of how they came into being, developed over many centuries, and contributed to the country.

“After the Norman Conquest existing owners of country estates were swept away and the land redistributed amongst favourite courtiers,” says Mr Robinson. “It was farmed but not enclosed. When the Black Death wiped out a third of the population there was a huge labour shortage, wages went up and landowners switched from arable farming to sheep, so the land was enclosed. Two types of landscape emerged – the tilled land worked by small landowners and communities, and large areas of enclosed land grazed by sheep.”

In the time of Henry VIII, vast ecclesiastical lands were seized and given to favourites or sold off to pay for expensive foreign policy. After the Civil War great forests were planted and farming boomed for 200 years, with vast sums invested in building and mechanisation.

Paternalistic Victorian landowners put estate churches and model villages on their land, but by the 1870s these estates were beginning to take a hit from the opening up of the Canadian prairies and cheap grain transported across that country by train and shipped to Britain to undercut domestic produce.

Meat was also brought in from Australia and South America. The great agricultural depression started in England, and those who had gone into debt to mechanise their farms began to go under. Between 1870 and 1914 land values fell by two-thirds. Alongside these problems aristocratic landowners found the new county councils beginning to impose red tape and the Liberal Party making noises about land distribution being unfair. Death duties were imposed, and some had to sell land to pay them.

During the First and Second world wars landowners were given subsidies to grow food, and during WWII more land was ploughed than at any time since the Black Death. After the war the Labour government gave grants for farms and forestry and introduced the listing of historic buildings.

Despite the revival of agriculture in the years around wars, today we again import overwhelming amounts of cheap food from China and elsewhere – food they may soon need for their own exploding population.

Thirkleby Hall near Thirsk is one of the few documented examples of an estate sold off as a direct result of the death of the heir in the First World War. For generations it was the seat of the Frankland family from Skipton, who arrived in the early 17th century. William Frankland twice represented Thirsk in Parliament, starting a family tradition that would last 200 years. Sir Thomas Frankland, who died in 1931, was responsible for the character of the estate, building a new house, stables and triumphal arch gate lodge to the design of James Wyatt in his best Classical style. In time the beautiful parkland incorporated a model Victorian estate.

The family reached a point where there was no son and the baronetcy passed to a male cousin, while the estate passed to a third daughter who married Sir William Payne-Gallwey. He died in 1881 and was succeeded by his eldest son Ralph, a leading expert on the crossbow. It was Sir Ralph’s son who was killed in the Great War, precipitating the sale of the estate in 1919 and the demolition of the house in 1927.

The site of the house is now a privately-owned caravan park, overlooked by Wyatt’s handsome stone stables and close to the private lake and attractive woodlands cared for by the Franklands for centuries.

As the remote secondary estate of a landed family seated elsewhere, Winestead was the obvious choice for sale and raising of capital for payment of death duties from the end of the 19th century onwards. Winestead, on the Holderness penninsula in East Yorkshire, was settled by the Hildyard family at the beginning of the 15th century. In 1579 the old manor was demolished and replaced by a modern mansion.

The Hildyard house was known as the Red House to distinguish it from the White House, the other grand house in the village.

The Hildyard family of Winestead became extinct after ten generations on the death of Sir Robert D’Arcy Hildyard, Baronet, who died without male heirs in 1814. He left his estate to his niece Ann Catherine Whyte, whose family were based in Nottinghamshire and used the Hall as an occasional residence.

In the 1890s the Hall was sold to Hull Corporation and demolished in 1936 so that a hospital could be built on the site. However the John Carr-designed of York stable block was retained as part of Winestead Special School, the 18th century walled garden and Keeper’s Cottage also survive, as does the 12th century estate church of St Germain. Some of the land sold in the 20th century and fittings from the old Red Hall are part of a new estate maintained as a perfect example of 20th century revived Georgian taste.

The loss of some of the country’s most beautiful estates for varying reasons has seriously damaged the local economy in some areas, says John Robinson.

“Employment has been badly affected, for instance, and it means more young people move to big towns and cities. At least some estates have been saved by transferring ownership of land and houses as well as art work to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. Other estates, such as Chatsworth are well managed and continue to be of huge economic importance, but lovely estates are even more likely to be lost these days. We are reducing everything to the lowest common denominator.”

Felling the Ancient Oaks – How England Lost Its Great Country Estates by John Martin Robinson is published by Aurum on February 4, £30. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 1053232 or go to Postage costs £2.75.