The Decline and Future of the Country Estates

The seeds of decline can be seen in the 19th century. Ownership of a country house and estate had already ceased to be a requirement for the exercise of power as far more money could be made from business, industry and trade than from the ownership of land, but the country house still had enormous appeal.

estate decline
Newtown Park in about 1970 when it was owned by John Howlett. At this point the building was starting to fall into disrepair and the observatory had been removed.

The agricultural depression of the 1880s drastically reduced the income from land, though even in the boom years most estates, unless they were very extensive, had been subsidised by other investments. Families reliant on income from land sold off outlying farms and reinvested the wealth (or paid off debts), married ‘new money’ or sent their sons into the City in an attempt to fill the coffers. While the agricultural depression was over by 1900, the 1920s and 30s brought a further slump. Taxes also increased, especially death duties. While the latter had existed through the 19th century they did not apply to inheritances passing from parent to child, so houses such as Pylewell, Newlands and Walhampton remained within the same family for more than a hundred years. However in 1909 Lloyd George introduced higher death duties in his People’s Budget to fund welfare reforms. When two family members died in quick succession, the double death duties could prove crippling.

estate decline
Walhampton, photographed in the 1910s after it was sold off. Dorothy Morrison bought the estate with ‘new money’ and remodelled and rebuilt the house.

In the early 20th century many estates were sold off completely, including Newlands and Walhampton. Interestingly, many others were extended or indeed new houses were built as the newly rich wanted to be part of the potent romance of a ‘house in the country’, though they no longer necessarily wanted any land to go with it.

The two world wars brought enormous social changes which had a profound effect on country house life. The death of so many soldiers left some estates without an heir. Moreover women who had the opportunity to try different jobs for the war effort were no longer prepared to put up with poor pay and hard work as a servant and found less arduous and more lucrative employment in offices and factories. This lack of staff and money often drove technological advances and an improvement in working conditions, but servants were still difficult to find and retain.

estate future
Pylewell House is still privately owned, but is now also a wedding and event venue.

Country houses and their large estates remain expensive to own and run without considerable resources. Houses such as Hinton Admiral, which still function as a private house and have been in the same family for generations, are an exception. While a few estates remain as private homes, most have had to find a use that fits the modern age but is financially sustainable. Many houses are now listed buildings, which means that redesign and development work is restricted and repairs have to be carried out in a way that is sympathetic to the original building. This adds to the cost of maintaining large country houses as well as restricting the options for their use.

estate future
Visitors at Palace House, Beaulieu

The country estates surrounding Lymington have each taken a very different route in response to these issues. Some owners have sought to generate income by developing their facilities as museums or wedding venue ventures. Others no longer function as a house and have been converted into flats, schools or hotels.

As demand for housing land has grown in the 20th century, estates with unsustainable buildings and extensive gardens have been ripe for redevelopment. Portions of estate land have been sold off for development, whilst other houses such as Pinewood in Hordle and St Austins in Shirley Holmes have been demolished altogether for new housing estates. Others remain in limbo, their buildings decaying as a future is sought for them.

estate future
Chewton Glen hotel

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