The English Country House Between the Wars 1919-1939


Adrian Tinniswood, University of Buckingham, Visiting Fellow in Heritage and History, Bath Spa University


10 September 2018


On the cover of his well-received book The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House between the Wars (Jonathan Cape 2016), Adrian Tinniswood chose to feature Rex Whistler’s painting of Mr and Mrs Robert Tritton taking afternoon tea on the expansive lawn of their great house in Godmersham, Kent. This picture appealed strongly both to the author and to the publisher It is a stylised image of aristocratic, leisured calm, and appears also on page 253 of the book itself. Rex Whistler included a white dog, the wife leafing through the pages of a book, while her husband looks on, and the butler disappears over the lawn, back to the house with the tea-tray. The great Georgian house in the background is actually a modern house, built recently in the Georgian style - but in the traditional large-scale way, with wings and an orangery.


Adrian’s talk began by recalling a big party at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, home of the sixth Duke of Portland (1857-1943), in 1921. The gathering was to celebrate the coming of age of his younger son that year, but the Duke was not in an upbeat mood. He announced that ‘if the present high rate of taxation continues, and if the present scale of death duties is maintained, there must be a wholesale closing down of the larger country houses.’  Yet despite this pessimism, their great wealth, in property and cash, ensured that the Duke and his family continued at Welbeck much as before, right through the inter-war years, despite some sacrifices at the edges. Lavish displays continued, as the great and the good went on visiting Welbeck as welcome guests. In 1929, his tenants presented the Duke with an illuminated address, stating that ‘Your Grace’s relations with us have always been marked by personal interest in our welfare, unfailing encouragement of our work, and unusual kindness in all your dealings with us.’ This attitude was quite typical of workers on great English estates towards the landowners.


But not far away, Wollaton Hall, an Elizabethan country house, in Nottingham itself, was bought for £200,000 by the City Council in 1925. Ostensibly, the hall and parkland were the objective, but actually, the Council wanted the land itself. Wollaton Hall eventually became a Museum of Natural History, but the Council planned to recover most of its financial outlay by building houses fronting on the main Nottingham-Derby road (the A52), while other land was to be used for council housing, playing fields, and an 18-hole golf course. Wollaton was one of many houses (Heaton Park, Manchester, Temple Newsam, on the outskirts of Leeds, and Astley Hall, Chorley in Lancashire, were other examples) to pass into local authority control after the Great War. Most people at the time were satisfied that no harm had been done, and that these transfers of ownership were natural progress. Temple Newsam, for example, was left to the young Lord Halifax in 1904 by an aunt. He sold it to Leeds Corporation in 1923 for £35,000, much less than its then market value. Halifax had inherited Garrowby Hall (Yorkshire East Riding) from his father, and much preferred it.


Other great houses were not so lucky as Wollaton Hall. Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire, not far from Wollaton, a very grand 18thcentury Georgian house, had been bought by the wealthy dog breeder William Arkwright. In 1918 he tried and failed to let the house, then in 1991 put the whole estate up for auction.  It raised £100,000, but the house failed to sell; no one wanted it. Bought privately by ‘a syndicate of local business men’ after the auction, Sutton Scarsdale was stripped out, and its fittings were sold off to a London antique dealer, for sale elsewhere. The house was abandoned, and its roofless shell remains on the Derbyshire skyline, close to the M1, not unlike Bolsover Castle. Nuthall Temple (built 1754-1757) suffered an even worse fate. The owners, the Holden family, were faced with falling rents and death duties. They put Nuthall Temple up for auction in 1927, but it failed to sell. The contents were sold first (furniture, books, paintings) then in 1929, the fixtures and fittings were also sold. The shell was ceremoniously set fire to in July 1929, and the Nottingham Evening Express described the event as ‘a wonderful sight.’  Between 1918 and 1930, over 180 country houses were destroyed in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. May of them fell victim to fire, either deliberately or accidentally.


Some great houses, such as the late Elizabethan Montacute, In Somerset, in 1931, were put up for sale for scrap. Montacute was derelict for years, though it was lucky longer term, as the National Trust eventually bought it, and spent decades in restoring it.  Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire was the ancestral seat of the Earls of Essex, but because of the downward trend of the 7thEarl’s fortunes, was demolished in 1922 - and the very fine Restoration staircase, by Edward Pearce, was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


Agecroft Hall, Salford, Lancashire, was a fine late Tudor timber-framed house. It was put up for sale, and the entire house was dismantled, and transported piecemeal across the Atlantic, to be re-erected in Richmond, Virginia. Yet Ordsall Hall, another historic timber house, quite nearby in Salford, has managed to survive against many odds, and is now looked after carefully by the local council, for whom in 2018 it is an object of special pride.


Even in the 1920s and 1930s, while so many great houses were going under or disappearing altogether, others were thriving. There was also a great spate of restoration and rescue in the inter-war period, driven by people with money and the foresight to see that these architectural monuments were irreplaceable, and would be a legacy to posterity. Allington Castle, a moated structure near Maidstone in Kent, dated from the thirteenth century. It was altered by the Wyatt family in the sixteenth century, and was a medieval ruin by 1900. But it was saved by Sir Martin and Lady Katrina Conway, who bought it in 1905, and spent a decade restoring it. In much the same way, Ightham Mote, near Sevenoaks, Kent, was another historic property in terminal decline, until rescued by an American millionaire in the 1950s, who restored it and used it as his home. The much larger Hever Castle, near Edenbridge, Kent, bought restored and extended by the billionaire William Waldorf Astor, also comes to mind. Hever Castle was, of course, the one-time home of the Boleyn family in the Tudor period. Astor’s vast fortune enabled him to buy Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, in 1893, and acquire Hever in 1903, after becoming a naturalised British citizen.


Others which survived into the modern age included Castell Coch, outside Cardiff, Bodiam Castle, Sussex (rescued by the First Earl Curzon/ Fifth Baron Scarsdale, but left deliberately as a ruin), Sissinghurst, Kent (bought by Vita Sackville -West, whose family home was the great house of Knole, Sevenoaks) and Saltwood Castle, also in Kent, bought by the art historian and collector Kenneth Clark. Leeds Castle, yet another great moated house in Kent, was bought as a derelict brewery in 1927, by Mr and Mrs Wilson Filmer, and treated to a grandiose restoration under the supervision and inspiration of a French architect and designer, Armand Albert Rateau. Another house, Tattershall in Lincolnshire, dating back to the fifteenth century, was also saved by Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, though in this case the house became within an ace of being torn down and exported in pieces to America.

On the same lines, the Rev. Frederick Meyrick-Jones and his wife bought Woodlands Manor, near Mere, Wiltshire in 1919, when it was in a desperately poor state, and subjected it to an elaborate restoration programme in the 1920s. In this , Meyrick-Jones was in part inspired by Sir Walter Jenner’s restoration  of Lytes Cary, Somerset, and Westwood Manor, Bradford-on Avon, restored by the diplomat Edgar  Lister from 1911. Both these houses have long since been run by the National Trust. As Adrian Tinniswood has observed (The Long Weekend, page 92), all this very expensive restoration was part of an anti-urban, anti-industrial and anti-modern tradition, with a pedigree reaching back to nineteenth century Romanticism and its offspring , the Arts and Crafts movement.



In the second half of his talk, Adrian discussed the social background, the interchanges and conventions of country house behaviour, in relation to the central issue, which was, of course, social class, and the demonstration of ostentatious, excessive wealth. Essential to the maintenance of this was the automatic and expected deference shown to aristocratic landowners, not only by their tenants, but by anyone deemed to be a lower social status. Visits to great houses by invitation -the House Party - were the norm, and the term ‘weekend’ was avoided. Instead, guests were invited to a great house ‘Saturday to Monday’. For women guests, the great issue was ‘what to wear’ for these occasions. An instance was Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster, for whom ‘green chiffon was a singularly inappropriate choice for Eaton Hall (Cheshire) in December’.


In 1931, Mrs Wallis Simpson met Edward, Prince of Wales (David) at Fort Belvedere, Windsor Great Park, a ‘queer old place’, in the Price’s father, King George V’s description, which had been given to the Prince as a private retreat. Adrian’s chapter on the House Party in his book discusses For Belvedere in detail, and emphasises how the Prince’s informal approach to his weekend guests was not matched by many of the great ducal houses, where strict protocol was still the order of the day, and dressing for dinner (black tie) remained expected. Adrian includes an informal photograph of Mrs Simpson helping herself to lunch on the terrace at Fort Belvedere in 1935, very shortly before the Prince succeeded to the throne on his father’s death in January 1936. Elsewhere there is a full-page reproduction of Sir John Lavery’s painting of Syrie Maughan and Sibyl Colefax on the staircase at Sibyl’s home, Argyll House, Chelsea, in the 1920s. These two women were among the greatest and most active hostesses of their day, and were next door neighbours and rivals. Gloria and Thelma Vanderbilt, like most of these grand ladies, would take the train to the station nearest to the great house of their destination. They would see on arrival the usual extravagant spread of good food; Thelma, however, rapidly surveyed the groaning tables, and commented: ‘What, no quails’ eggs?’. Another regular pair of ‘party guests were Eva and Constance Gore-Booth; Constance was famous as Constance Markevitch, an early female MP.


At formal dinner parties in the 1930s, the norm was six -course meals, to us a model of gross excess and self-indulgence, Warnings were issued, a typical one being ‘Young ladies don’t eat cheese at parties’ (for fear of halitosis?). This was a world of nine-hole golf courses on the great estates, and places such as the Earl of Lonsdale’s Lowther Castle, Westmorland, where the Lonsdale coat of arms was built into the centre of the stable yard, and a formal ritual conducted around it every morning. 


Despite all the complaints and expressions of impending doom during these years, the aristocratic landowners actually did very well. They were largely untouched by the privations elsewhere in Britain of the Great Depression; events such as the 1932 Jarrow March of Durham miners from Tyneside to London would have made little or no impression on them. The poverty of the working classes belonged to another world entirely, which had nothing to do with them, or their place in the social hierarchy. Examples of survival through this turbulent period were the Marquess of Bath at Longleat, the Devonshires at Chatsworth, the Dukes of Buccleuch at Drumlarig (one of several houses owned by the Buccleuchs) and the Lygons at Madresfield in Worcestershire.


The ‘host with the most’ was undoubtedly Philip Sassoon (1889-1939), cousin of the poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Philip Sassoon was immensely rich by inheritance, but, it was said, ‘not quite at the heart of things’ - though everyone wanted to go to his parties. Sassoon’s main country house was Port Lympne in Kent, which stood in fifteen acres of gardens. He had, however, inherited the leasehold of Trent Park, Middlesex, from his father, and remodelled it at great expense in 1923 after he bought the freehold. Flowers were delivered daily to Trent Park from Covent Garden Market. 


Philip Tilden (1887-1956), the architect of Chartwell’s (Kent) not very successful rebuild for the Churchill family after 1918, was an important part of Sassoon’s circle. Apart from his well-known work on Chartwell, Tilden also worked for Beaverbrook Lady Ottoline Morrell, David Lloyd George and Gordon Selfridge. Philip Tilden’s house at 25 Park Lane, London could apparently accommodate a thousand guests. In 1923, too, the new Duke and Duchess of York (Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the future King George VI) honeymooned at Polesden Lacey, Surrey, now run by the National Trust, but then the home of Dame Margaret Greville, daughter of a Scottish brewer, and a prolific, much-disliked party goer and hostess. Despite her notorious snobbery and haughty behaviour, Dame Margaret tactfully moved to a house in Mayfair for the duration of this famous royal honeymoon.


Inevitably, sexual assignations and attempted seductions were a part of the county house weekend scene. Some were successful, even routine, while others were unexpected and thwarted. Rose Harrison, lady’s maid to Lady Cranborne, then Lady Astor, once slammed her bedroom door on to the valet’s hand, to keep this predatory member of the domestic staff out of her room. Meanwhile, at Hanbury House in Worcestershire, home of the Vernon family, Sir George Vernon JP, a man ‘of his class and of his time’, was on the edge of Fascism during the 1930s, and knew Oswald Mosley quite well. Despite this, he was a typical English squire outwardly, though irascible and angry for much of the time. Sir George took his own life on 14 June 1940, and the only mourner at his funeral was his much younger mistress, Ruth Powick. Hanbury Hall, Vernon’s home, is described by Adrian as ‘an exquisite essay in red brick with dormers and white sash windows, the interiors filled with murals by the court painter Sir James Thornhill. Victorian Vernons added to the estate, and by the 1920s, Sir George owned and managed five thousand acres of good Worcestershire farmland.’


In 1919, the central aristocratic / country house relationship was that of Master and Servant. But by 1939-45, amidst the great social changes brought about by the Great War, this had mutated to that of Employer and Employee - more fluid, less feudal than before. In 1901, the total number of people in service was 1.1 million, in a population of some 18 million. All but 50,000 of these were female. However, domestic service ceased for a woman on her marriage.



The National Trust magazine, issue for Autumn 2018 (pp. 49-51) published an illustrated interview by Sally Palmer with Richard Broyd, a businessman and entrepreneur, founder of the recruitment consultancy Accountancy Personnel. As a young man, Mr Broyd had been to the 1974 V&A exhibition The Destruction of the Country House, which highlighted the many fine country houses across the UK which had been wantonly demolished before and after 1945, for want of any real public or private concern. These great houses had been irretrievably lost. Some years afterwards, he founded his Historic Hotels company, and began to look for suitable properties, needing urgent repair and restoration, so as to turn them into upmarket hotels. Mr Broyd said that he wanted the guests to experience the traditions of service associated with country houses in the past.


In 1980 Mr Broyd bought, in quick succession, Bodysgallen Hall, near Llandudno in North Wales, and Middlethorpe hall, right beside York Racecourse. Bodysgallen opened as an hotel in 1981, and Middlethorpe, which had needed a lot of work, in 1984. In 1986, his firm acquired Hartwell House, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on a long lease from the Ernest Cook Trust; it, too, opened as an hotel in 1989. After running them in this form for ten years, Richard Broyd gave them to the National Trust in 20018, thirty years after he had founded his company. That had, it seems, been his ultimate intention all along. All three of these houses, and others like them, are now run by the National Trust as Historic House Hotels, with history tours of each garden and house available. Three National Trust directors joined the Historic House Hotels Board in 2008. The plan was that all profits would go to trust funds to provide for the care of these three great houses. 



The career of James Lees-Milne (1908-1997) has long been of great fascination to those of us who love and support English country houses. He had worked for the still growing National Trust before and during the Second World War, and his main job was to go round great aristocratic houses and estates, in an attempt to persuade the owners to hand them over, under carefully regulated conditions, to the Trust. In some he was welcomed, though in many he was not. But many years later, he began to publish his now celebrated Diaries, which can be recommended warmly to anyone reading this. They are detailed, sharply observant, very frank and often wildly funny. As a whole, they offer a uniquely intimate portrait of the English upper-crust class system in the mid twentieth century, a time of very considerable social and economic change. There were originally twelve volumes, each of them with a title from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The first seven were:

Ancestral Voices, 1942-3  (Chatto and Windus, 1975)

Prophesying Peace, 1944-5 (Chatto and Windus, 1977)

Cave of Ice, 1946-7 (Chatto and Windus, 1988)

Midway on the Waves, 1948-9 (Faber and Faber, 1985)

A Mingled Measure, 1953-72 (John Murray, 1994)

Ancient as the Hills, 1973-4 (John Murray, 1997) 


Through Wood and Dale, 1975-8 (John Murray, 1998, published posthumously)

Another five volumes, covering Lees-Milne’s later years, were edited by Michael Bloch, after James Lees-Milne’s death in 1997. They are as follows:

Deep Romantic Chasm, 1979-81 (2000)

Holy Dread, 1982-4 (2001)

Beneath a Waning Moon, 1985-7 (2003)

Ceaseless Turmoil, 1988-92 (2004)

The Milk of Paradise, 1993-7 (2005)


A selection of entries form the 1940s diaries appears in Penguin’s English Journeys series, under the title Some Country Houses and Their Owners.  Michael Bloch’s fine biography, James Lees-Milne “The Life” was published by John Murray in 2009.


©  Dr Robert E. Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, Bath, drawing on notes made at Adrian Tinniswood’s talk, with some additional material.