England_Changing_Hands_Land_Sales_in_En

England_Changing_Hands_Land_Sales_in_En - England Changing...

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‘“England Changing Hands”: Land Sales in England 1918-1921 and the Decline of English Landed Society in a European Context’ In 1921 The Estates Gazette announced that around one quarter of land in England and Wales had ‘changed hands in four years’, which, if accurate, equated to around 6- 8 million acres. This figure, first estimated by F.M.L. Thompson and more recently re- examined by John Beckett and Michael Turner, represented the most extensive transfer of real property since the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century, possibly since the Norman Conquest. This would be, if accurate, a ‘revolution in landownership’, one perhaps akin to the continental revolutions that had removed the nobility from their exalted positions, albeit one of a more peaceful and capitalistic nature. The sales, mainly to sitting tenant farmers on these estates, ushered in a new cohort of owner-occupiers in British agriculture and a sharp decline in the rentier system of landownership and farming. The land sales between 1918 and 1921 reflected, it has been suggested, a declining confidence amongst landed society, declining confidence in the economic returns from rentier landownership and in the social status of country house life, a decline that had started back in the early 1870s. This was a decline predicated on agricultural depression, democratisation and the threat of land nationalisation from new radical politicians and parties, a decline catalysed by the First World War, which had robbed the landed establishment of so many of its sons and witnessed the victory of industrial brute force over honour. By the 1952 edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry two thirds of families had sold their estates. The ‘Old Order’ had witnessed its own demise. Such has been the historical orthodoxy in our understanding of English landed society in this period since Thompson first noted the surge in sales in the early 1960s. With hindsight, in his Presidential address to the Royal Historical Society in 1990 and during a period of better conditions for those landowners who had survived, Thompson retracted his estimate of the scale of these land sales and suggested the collapse could have been more muted. The data on land sales after the First World War, when analysed by John Beckett and Michael Turner, was found to be incomplete and flawed. It has been noted by me and others elsewhere that the mortgages through which farmers purchased their estates were frequently provided by their previous landlords, looking to maintain or even augment their share of landed wealth, part of a broader strategy of diversification rather than of declines in overall wealth. Estates were sold off in pieces, landowners often retained the core lands and country houses remained open for the business of conspicuous sociability. As Thompson himself noted, the process actually looked like more one of a group self-liquidating itself rather than of an embattled elite making its last stand, an intelligent manipulation of
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