Decline and Fall

From Country Landowner and Rural Business Magazine, October 2007, reproduced with the kind permission of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).


Catherine Beale on landownership in crisis.


It’s a frightening thought that a man can be ‘the epitome of the English squire’, sitting on the council of the Royal Agricultural Society, implementing agricultural improvements, investing heavily in tenants’ farms, encouraging excellence on his estate, adhering to and even going further than changing legislation demands, and yet still lose everything; his tenants, his income, his private possessions, his estate, and ultimately his home.

A century ago, a generation of landowners was living this nightmare.  Johnny Arkwright of Hampton Court, Herefordshire was among them.  In my book Champagne & Shambles his experience is reconstructed from surviving estate records and personal correspondance. From 1858, the irrepressible and popular Johnny ran his 10,500 estate on exemplary lines.  However, from the 1870s he and his contemporaries were stripped individually of their assets while their class was stripped of its economic and political supremacy.  During their tenure of the nation’s estates, land ceased to be the bedrock of society, as Britain switched from an agrarian to an industrial economy. 


This upheaval still resonates strongly with British farming and landownership today.  The landed class was overthrown by a combination of its own determination to modernise agriculture, the dominance of the urban majority, the great British weather, the emerging global economy, and anti-landlordism.  The extent of the consequences remains breathtaking.  Between 1912 and 1920, about a quarter of England’s land (6-8 million acres) changed hands.  In Wales and Scotland the percentage was nearly a third, and in Ireland even higher.


Globalisation played its part.  The plains of America opened up as the railroad rolled west, and from the 1870s improvements in shipping facilitated the import of cheaper grain.  A decade later developments in refrigeration brought imported meat from Australia and New Zealand.  Thus, although grain and meat became scarce in the UK because of appalling weather and disease, prices refused to rise.  Instead, foreign produce poured in.  Tenants fled, leaving landowners unable to repay High Farming loans taken out in the 1850s and 60s. 

Contemporaneously, industrial output was outstripping agriculture - an irony for Johnny, whose great-grandfather Sir Richard Arkwright had invented the factory system.  Agricultural labourers fled from the land from the 1870s, until the urban population outnumbered the country-dwellers.  Their new employers’ fortunes, made in brewing, newspaper, shipping and soap contrasted painfully with landowners’ dwindling wealth, which plummeted with crashing land values. 

The response of landowners was individual indignation and corporate incompetence.  Johnny Arkwright wrote memorably to his wife, ‘I am in an awful state of depression, which nothing but champagne can remove.’  He and his peers understandably failed to comprehend the enormity of the changes underway.  Their inadequate political response resulted from electoral reform and the redistribution of Commons seats, which had robbed them of their political influence.  Their most positive reaction was the formation of the CLA’s forerunner, the Central Landowners’ Association, in 1907. 

Those landowners most dependent on agriculture succumbed first.  More resilient were landholdings that included mineral rights or property in growing cities or ports.  Diversification, even in the nineteenth century, was a wise strategy.  The survivors, though, had to endure the cold years of mid-20th century death duties before they could emerge into the relative warmth of the last 30 years, when house visiting has become remunerative.


The land surrounding the country house, however, has not been as fortunate.  Neither the recent crises in agriculture nor the farmer’s proposed metamorphosis from food producer to park keeper bodes well in the short to medium term.  But the landed estate is not as purely dependent on agriculture as in Johnny Arkwright’s day.  The redeployment of, for example, dormant buildings has produced residential or business rents.  In the medium term, acres may be diverted out of food production and into energy crops.  

Thereafter, as Jeffrey Warhurst has suggested (Country Landowner, April 2006) the growth of third world economies such as China and India may exert pressure on international food supplies, restoring the primacy of food production.  With an inelastic supply of productive acres and only modest expected improvements in yield, this may partially revive landowners’ influence.  Ironically therefore, the globalisation that ruined Johnny's pre-industrial peers may bolster their post-industrial landowning descendants - cause indeed to reach for the champagne.


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