Despite the many social changes brought about by increasing trade and industrial growth in Britain, the ownership of a country house in its own estate was still a desirable status symbol even towards the end of the 19th century. Land, though, no longer necessarily conferred power as it had done in earlier times, although it still undoubtedly conveyed prestige. Whilst industrialists such as William Armstrong of Tyneside or bankers such as the Rothschilds enjoyed power in their own spheres of activity, they still wanted a country house as a symbol of their improved social status. It has frequently been pointed out that, on the whole, the landed gentry and aristocracy of England had long accepted new members into their ranks so long as they obeyed the rules which governed that level of society. As Richard Wilson and Alan MacWey have put it:
So long as newcomers lived by the unwritten rules of the old landed gentry, enjoyed hunting, shooting and, before the 1770s, cock-fighting, were not extreme in politics or religion, so long as they were hospitable, appeared at the local assemblies and race meetings, treated their tenants generously and fairly, educated their children like those of other landowners, generally showed the good manners of polite society, they were soon accepted in the county. 
However, certainly by the 19th century, the new aspirants to landed status could rarely buy enough land to set themselves up as large landed proprietors and enable them to enter the ranks of those listed in Bateman’s Great Landowners, for which a minimum of 2,000 acres was necessary for inclusion.24 Many did not wish to do so, seeking instead a house in the country with a reasonable estate of several hundred acres around it where they could indulge in a luxurious lifestyle, entertaining their friends to the hitherto more aristocratic pursuits of hunting and fishing. Mark Girouard analysed the building dates of 500 country houses from 1835 to 1889, and Jill Franklin supplemented this with her survey of 380 country houses selected mainly on architectural grounds, extending the date to 1914. They both observed similar trends, with the number of houses built by new families (those who had not owned a country house for at least two generations) starting well below that for the old families, passing them in 1860-4 and pulling away from them after that. The agricultural depression of the late 1870s hit those reliant on their landed incomes hardest, and after then ‘old’ families accounted for less than one-quarter of the building activity. Franklin also showed that from 1895 to 1914, the builders of two-thirds of the new houses in her survey possessed fewer than 150 acres of land, and concluded, ‘The survey illustrates the decline of the country seat from 1895 to 1914 and the triumph of the large house in the country.’ This did not, of course, preclude ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ families adding substantially to their existing houses, something that had always happened but was accelerated in the late 18th and 19th centuries by social and technological innovations that required new structures, such as servants’ wings, bachelor wings, billiard rooms, gentlemen’s cloakrooms, as well as, for example, gasworks and buildings for electricity generation. . . . Some of the old aristocratic families, such as the Dukes of Devonshire, Northumberland, Westminster and Portland, were at the forefront of such developments — technological innovations were by no means the prerogative of those who had recently acquired their houses in the country.
- Social class
- Women's Social and Economic Status: Class and Occupation
- Wages, the Cost of Living, Contemporary Equivalents to Victorian Money
- Newman on the Gentleman
- Race and Class Overview: Parallels in Racism and Class Prejudice
Palmer, Marilyn, and Ian West. Technology and the Country House. Swindon: National Trust and Historic England, 2016. [Reviewed by George P. Landow]
Wilson, Richard, and Alan Mackley. Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House, 1660-1880. London and New York: Hambleton and London, 2000.
Last modified 22 July 2002