Room at the Top

Rosalind Mitchison

At some time in the 1730s Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, Midlothian, wrote down advice on the building of what he called ‘a family house’. This should consist of a central main block and two side pavilions, as a precaution against destruction by fire. ‘The main or chief Body of the House ought to be at Least double the Bigness of each pavilion and may serve chiefly for lodging the Master of the family and the better kind of Guests who come to visit him. One of the pavilions ought entirely to be appropriated for women and children and the other ought to contain the kitchen with apartments for Men servants and such like conveniences.’

Many of the assumptions of upper-class 18th-century society he exposed in that paragraph. The most obvious is the male view that all guests come to visit only the master of the house. This enables Sir John to forget to locate his wife. Is Lady Clerk allowed to occupy the central block with her husband? He will be rather lonely when guests are absent if she does not. Or is she squeezed into a side pavilion with maidservants and children? Above all, though, stands the upper-class belief that the only type of house in which families live is the Big House. Members of these families are the only people who count.

Some traces of these assumptions run through this fascinating book by the Stones. It is a study only of the landowning élite, based on a sample of three diverse counties, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Northumberland. All decisions or ventures are firmly ascribed to the male heads of the families. Of course, as the authors state, this is a study of the owners of big houses, and these owners were men. Yet instances exist of female intervention over building, enlarging, defacing or abandoning houses, so it is reasonable to wonder if there should not be some discussion of family views about family houses. The construction of Blenheim and Dalkeith palaces owes much to dominant women, and in the cases where a family owned two or three houses and demolished one, or allowed it to decay, it would be odd if the wives had not participated in the decision Perhaps in the course of an academic lifetime spent among the papers of the wealthy and powerful upper classes from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the authors have unconsciously absorbed some of the social assumptions of their subjects.

This book is really three books bound up together. The title indicates the thesis of one – the issue of whether, as historians have tended to believe, the English aristocracy was unusually open, a group into which enterprising men from trade, finance or government could find their way provided they had enough money. The obverse of this theory has been the tenet that primogeniture kept the membership of this élite group stable by forcing younger sons to go out into the world to make their way: privileged, not by title or wealth, but, often, by personal links and contacts resulting from the position of their fathers in politics. The open élite system has been held responsible for the relative tranquillity of politics in England – barring a few unpleasant decades in the mid-17th century – and for the close links between social prestige and economic activity.

This thesis receives some nasty knocks here, and clearly, insofar as it can continue to be held, this will only be with modifications. People did get through to join the dominant group: the names of prime ministers are prominent among them, and here one must emphasise the variety in the linkages between landed wealth and political achievement. Few prime ministers were without estates, but for some the land came only after political influence, or was expanded under such influence. Lord Liverpool was a man from the political civil service; Walpole, who spoke so warmly about the open aristocracy in the debate on the Peerage Bill, came from an important landed family, one on the margin of the true élite. Gladstone, whose father as a boy walked from Leith to join a merchant firm in Liverpool, was of a family to whom land was merely a temporary investment. If we adjust our ideas to a lower level of successful social climbing, we still have to recognise that politics and trade could and did bring forward some families into the élite. In Hertfordshire, the most open of these three sample counties, new entrants never came to more than a third of the owners of big houses, and elsewhere they were almost always under a fifth. And these new names were not usually enriched by industry, but by government office, the professions, particularly law, or by finance. Only in brewing, as we already knew, was there a close link between industry and landowning. The relatively small business entry into the élite was most conspicuous in the 17th century. All through, though younger sons went into the worlds of trade, business, government and the law, in all three counties only some 42 of them, in three and a half centuries, made enough to return to the status of big landowners. Instead, those who were successful became lesser landowners, the group the Stones call ‘parish gentry’, or remained in the world of professional service.

But, as the Stones show, this persistence of the great families was not left to the whims of casual inheritance. There is the material of another book in the detailed study of the aids and mechanisms that kept these houses linked with the family name. ‘Strict settlement’ was a device developed by lawyers in the later 17th century. It allowed a landowner to tie up his estate for two generations, and these knots could be renewed generation by generation provided a man lived long enough to see, and manipulate, the marriage of his heir. By this device the widows, daughters and younger sons were assured of specific sums, but the estate as a whole was never truly owned by its owner: instead it was assigned to the family interest rather than personal wishes. It was a wonderful instrument to prevent the wasteful squandering of resources by a young inheritor.

Besides the settling of the family lands on the younger and even the unborn generations, there were other devices which preserved family landed identity. The main element here was kin, real or nominal. Any family of lengthy lineage possessed a large network of relatives in landed society, to whom an estate might pass by inheritance. Inheritance through the female link might lead to a change of name; perhaps the use of a family surname as Christian name, perhaps a complete change or the adding of extra surnames to make it clear where the wealth had come from. The Stones give some good examples of surname accretion – some of them, such as Cavendish-Bentinck or Spencer Churchill, in high layers of society. The process culminated with Smith-Dorrien-Smith in the later 19th century, and with Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax in the early 20th, but there was also the fine example of orthographical nuttiness (not in these sample counties) of Newdigate-Newdegate. Inheritance might be made conditional on name change, and this became increasingly the way that families asserted their landed identity, so that by the mid-19th century, 20 per cent of all the Northumberland great families had accepted new surnames.

The third book here, to my mind the most interesting, is a study of the periodisation of house-building. This expands the long chapter on the same subject for Hertfordshire alone which the authors published in W.O. Ayedelotte’s Dimensions in Quantitative Research in History in 1972. It uses the same measuring techniques, assessing the scale of house-building and the size of individual houses by assessing the floor space of the main parts of the house – excluding semi-basements, offices and garden features – in units of 100 square feet. These units do not relate directly to cost, for the quality of ornamentation and finish went up in line with the scale of the house, so that a palace of over 150 units might cost more than double per unit what a ‘simple’ family house of 40 did. Park walls at over £1000 a mile, terraces, fountains, follies and grottos could be as expensive as the house itself. In the 18th century there developed a taste for redesigning the whole landscape, to show Nature what she ought to have done, from which the most sensational survivor is Stourhead. The economic historian would really wish to have an index of total expenditure year by year, which this index does not give, but even so the graphing of the units built in each decade provides a framework for the consideration of when were the likely periods in which landowners were relatively free to invest their money in economic ventures. After all, the cost of a mile of waggonway to transport coal and so open up wider markets was almost exactly the same as that for a mile of park wall.

The picture given of the relatively tranquil periods of house development is by no means what might have been expected. Building was at a relatively low level in Northamptonshire for a century from 1760, but high in Hertfordshire and fairly high in Northumberland. W.W. Rostow wrote in his slim classic of 1960, The Stages of Economic Growth: ‘At the core of the Wealth of Nations – lost among propositions about pins and free trade – is Adam Smith’s perception that surplus income derived from ownership of land must, somehow, be transferred out of the hands of those who would sterilise it in prodigal living into the hands of the productive men who will invest it in the modern sector.’ Well, it doesn’t appear that in the classic period of the Industrial Revolution much of this transference of funds was happening.

Instead the graph shows us what we can anyway infer from the changing ideas of house type which have been described so well by Mark Girouard in Life in the English Country House. The two Southern counties went in for vast houses in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Those were the days when political ambition dictated a pattern of house with a big suite of state rooms which might be only occasionally used. This was the time of the original Audley End, imprudently described by its owner to a monarch who was trying to cut down on gross corruption as ‘too big for a King’ but not too big for a Lord Treasurer. Today only a fragment of it survives, to convey, still, the impression of mass. The Border area remained disturbed into well on in the 17th century, and the farmland on the English side was poor, so Northumberland landowners did not indulge in extravagant building till later, and anyway, at this distance from Court, there were not many families of élite status till later. The 18th century saw the stress on privacy: houses were for entertaining your equals in; the corridor came to remove the need for marching through other people’s bedrooms; the military functions of the aristocracy had gone, so there was no need for a vast hall stuffed with weapons. The Georgian house proclaimed moderation, and building activity was low to moderate in all counties in the century from 1660-1760. Yet it is in this period that the political domination of England by the great Whig families was achieved, as their presence in cabinet after cabinet shows. The Russells, Montagues and Cavendishes who made the Revolution of 1688-9 were never ousted by a later clique.

After 1760 the counties diverge. In Northamptonshire house-building was at a low level for the next century. Of course the county already possessed a large collection of sumptuous houses. Somehow the Sir Thomas Bertrams of the day resisted the urge to build extra wings for male recreation – smoking and billiards – to enlarge and systematise the laundry and kitchen quarters, to house an enlarging bevy of servants in separate blocks, whereas in the other two counties these tendencies, shown at their most extreme and vulgar in the industrial tycoon’s Cragside, took over.

This three-in-one book links up with the other major works of Lawrence Stone: The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 gives the setting for the first part of the period, and the family papers he studied for that book and for his more loosely structured. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 give many of the instances of family decision-making, spendthrift heirs and complex marriage policies which figure here, and the basic information of demographic constraints which made their setting. We already knew from the first of these that the great landowning families had learnt, before the Civil War, how to adjust to the economic stresses produced by the price revolution. Here we see how they firmed up their estates and kept within fairly narrow bounds the membership of the landed élite as it had been, at least until the renewed economic stress of the last quarter of the 19th century. Fewer than 10 per cent of the families fell out of the sample in any period of 60 years. In Northamptonshire under 40 per cent of the houses were ever sold, in Northumberland under 20 per cent, but in Hertfordshire, a county open to London money, 60 per cent went on the market. Yet even so, in 19th century Hertfordshire, over a quarter of the houses had stayed in the hands of one family for at least six generations.

The book dives into the attitudes and behaviour of inheritors or purchasers of great estates. We would still like to know something of the obverse, the opinions of those who became wealthy but did not pump their money into land and social standing: certainly in the 19th century there was the opportunity of being a great man in London and not bothering about membership of the county élite. There were also people who had a country villa, and such a house could be very large, but were not landed by élite standards. And there was the lesser élite, the parish gentry, who furnished some recruits to the ranks above, whose ethos could be explored. But in a generous work, with over fifty pages of tables, it is not fair to gripe at the boundaries laid down.

An unexpected source of enjoyment in the reading is the way in which the houses themselves take over. Some of the names have a sense of independent identity, particularly those in Hertfordshire, the Golden Parsonage, the Lordship, Gubbins, Poles, Theobalds, Tyttenhanger, Wolthorpe. There are stories of wildly extravagant building, at Claydon, at Ashridge. Panshanger with its lake. The Stones comment on the 19th-century outbreak of gigantism in Northumberland. ‘there were, it seems, more guests, more weekend parties, more mass slaughter of animals, more reckless gambling.’ But indulgence in house-building was a particularly tempting form of self-assertion in expenditure. The builder could always claim, unless his mania ended in bankruptcy, that he had done it all for the benefit of future generations. One after another the separate items – side pavilions, stable block, terraces, kitchen space, lodges, bowling greens and deer park – could all be labelled either necessary or there for the encouragement of wholesome recreation.