Why were so many houses lost?

Fire, folly, finances, and fashion

'I am sorry, but it's the horses you know'

...said Arthur Basset, wearily. He was sitting on the step of one of his farmhouses in 1915, explaining to the tenant farmer why the once extensive Cornish estates of the Bassets were, after 700 years in their family, being broken up and sold off. Their mansion at Tehidy, built on the mineral wealth of the region, would be sold in November 1916 at a knockdown price to become a hospital, before burning down in 1919.1 Whilst there is a temptation to imagine that all the houses were lost due to such extravagance, Arthur Basset was an unusual example (though there were others, such as the fabulous Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey). However, although the exact combination of reasons for the loss of hundreds of country houses was specific to each one, similar situations were replicated across the country. This summary is an overview of this tragedy of architectural losses.

What is a country house?

Well, it depends who you ask. In the post-medieval era, as the need for defence receded, houses shifted to emphasise their role as a showcase for the wealth and taste of the owner. The architectural choices and design incorporated subtle clues about the owner, including their politics, religion, or education. The landscape the house was set in also played a role, providing a physical demonstration of their power, particularly through the allocation of unproductive gardens and parkland. So, a country house could range from a huge edifice surrounded by hundreds of acres of parkland, to a small ancient house at the centre of a large estate. Each though held a central position in the local area; a seat of power, an economic lynchpin, and a hub of society.

Changing times

Although gambling certainly was the cause of a few losses, it was rarely that alone. Apart from the random, sudden extinction through fire, the decline of houses often took years, sometimes decades. For some, the location of the house meant that urban growth or industrial expansion overwhelmed them. However, in many cases, the underlying cause was a failure to plan for change - or accept the need for it when it became inevitable. For some owners, their financial survival had always been a careful, sometimes even frugal balancing act. At the other end of the scale, the lavish, cossetted world of the country house, particularly in the Victorian and Edwardian era, was an outcome of an ideal set of conditions: social acceptance, disproportionate wealth, cheap labour and material costs, security, an abundance of high-status goods, and the insatiable desire to demonstrate status.

Agricultural depressions

The demolitions where the result of a complex set of economic, social, and political factors, but for many estates, their eventual demise had its roots in changes in agricultural income in the nineteenth-century. The land has always been at the heart of both the perceived and actual status of owner, their source of power and often their primary source of income. Often, the owner would build a lifestyle around a particular level of income but would be inflexible when falling rents would otherwise demand reduced expenditure. Agriculture, especially corn production which had such an unshakeable status,2 is a fragile foundation on which to build such a lifestyle. Weather, pests, disease, and external influences such as imports, all can have a dramatic, year-on-year effect on the ability of the farmer to produce and sell his crops - and therefore his rent. The nineteenth-century experienced all of these at different times, creating two distinct agricultural depressions, firstly between 1875-84 and then again between 1891-99.3

The houses fall

Financial pressures can be subtle at first, then catastrophic. A certain optimism and perhaps stoicism given the length of time that families had lived in a house perhaps meant they thought that as they had survived previous downturns, so they would survive again. This can work - except when there are multiple factors which can come in quick succession, or at least without enough of a pause to allow the family to recover. Financial crisis can reach in the heart of their income, wars consumed multiple generations creating substantial death duties, and one bad harvest can follow another. Some factors are also regional, with risks such as subsidence from the mining which generated the wealth which built the houses, also being the agent of their destruction.

The storm passes - for now

Throughout the latter part of the twentieth-century, legislation created new legal protections. Initially focused on monuments, the listing process extended to cover residential buildings. The landmark V&A exhibition in 1974, 'The Destruction of the Country House', also played an important role in swaying public and political opinion that more had to be done to preserve the architectral heritage which had survived. It has been argued that the economic forces which had led to so many losses were already turning and the salvation of the country house was going to come anyway as new wealth sought old homes. However, the legislation has remained a valuable backstop and dramatically reduced the rate of losses. Wilful neglect paired with ineffective legal enforcements and the ever-present risk of fire are now perhaps the greatest threats the country house faces today but climate change and economic downturns may yet take their place. In the meantime, constant vigilance, research into conservation best practices, and a national pride in our glorious architectural heritage remain key to helping ensure that the list of the lost houses doesn't grow in the future.

  1. Tangye, Michael. Tehidy and the Bassets (1984)
  2. Fletcher, T. W. “The Great Depression of English Agriculture 1873-1896.” The Economic History Review, vol. 13, no. 3, 1961, pp. 417–32. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2599512.
  3. Prothero, Rowland Edmund, et al. English Farming, Past and Present (London: Heinemann, 1962)