British Aristocracy

Downton Abbey Economics: Upstairs

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 26, 2013    •    1564 Views

When Matthew Crawley, the new son-in-law investor/savior of Downton Abbey is invited to look at the books after handing over his inheritance to keep the financially sinking estate afloat, he discovers egregiously poor management. He also finds out that his father-in-law, Robert, Earl of Grantham really does not care.


Not at all. The Lord’s attitude was the norm. Business was for the nouveaux riches. For the aristocracy, it was crass.

Perhaps “tradition” sums it all up. Preserve the past. Serve in the royal courts and politics. Entertain. Maintain your London Palace and your country estate. I have to mention windows here. One of the largest British estates, Wentworth House, had 1000 windows (365 rooms). Imagine just keeping the windows clean?

And here we have the inherent conflict. While the cost was massive, the attitude toward making money was, at best, condescending.

After an 1870s pinnacle, the British aristocracy started to struggle. With agricultural rents steady from 1800 to 1936, expenses skyrocketed. Then, add to these rising maintenance costs, “death duties” that, starting in 1894 were 8% and by 1939 rose to 60%. Meanwhile, during World War I, not only did servants leave for the battlefields but also, with a traditional duty to serve, so too did the upper classes. But, at 1 in 5, the upper class endured more fatalities. At home you have rationing and skeleton staffs. No more sugar and cream for the swan ice cream sculptures that climaxed sumptuous meals and not enough people to make them.

For some, the solution lay across the ocean. Sell your paintings to Newport robber barons. Marry American wealth. Including Consuela Vanderbilt with a $2.5 million dowry for the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, in 1895, 9 American heiresses married British aristocracy. At approximately the same time, Lord Grantham married Cora, the daughter of Isidore Levinson, a Cincinnati dry goods millionaire.

But the fix was only temporary.

Struck by the perfect storm of change, each character in Downton responds. The Lord and his daughter Mary resist while her husband, Matthew, embraces the new world. Mary’s sister Sybil marries their former chauffeur, an Irish rebel, and it appears that the third sister, Edith, will become a feminist journalist.

At Downton Abbey, the elephant in the closet is the economy. Resembling a seismic shift, the economic plates that underpinned the English aristocracy were reshaping the landscape and transforming the lives of everyone who lived upstairs.

Tomorrow, we look at downstairs.

Sources and Resources: A great read, this Vanity Fair article by Charles Spencer, the Ninth Earl Spencer, provides all you want to know about the lives and demise of the British aristocracy. For some specifics on those ice creams swans, you could look at this NPR segment, and The Economist provides some good insight about remaining attitudes toward wealth in Europe.

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