The survival of aristocratic wealth and power into the late 19th and early 20th century, when their agricultural base had been in relative decline for over a century, is something that has puzzled numerous observers. Michael Thompson raised the question among economic historians nearly twenty years ago, and whole generations of political historians have offered alternative solutions. It is something which occurs, different in detail but similar in outline, in many other European countries, and it is a question well worth pursuing.
Part of the answer must lie simply in the delay with which, in the absence of violent revolution, the social structure adjusts to underlying economic realities: it will take time before ordinary people stop paying deference to a lord even after he has been impoverished. But another part of the answer is to be found in the fact that landlords were the beneficiaries of rents from urban as well as agricultural properties, and as towns and industry began to grow, so did some landlords’ incomes. This growth, it is true, was selective – a lucky family here, a fortunate Oxbridge college or public school there – but altogether, when the new towns, or the city extensions, the railways, docks and harbours, the coal mines and the quarries are added up, they provide a vast income potential for the landlord stratum as a whole. The classical economists were right to divide all income streams, not just agricultural ones, into rents, returns on capital, and wages; and the supporters of Henry George, among whom were included much of the Liberal Party in the last third of the 19th century, had got hold of a real issue when they inveighed against the urban landlord’s ‘unearned increment’. Urban capitalism of the British variety enriched not only the capitalists: it proved to be just as profitable for large numbers of landlords, and included among them were some of the most noble families in the land.
This theme is not entirely neglected in David Cannadine’s book – it inevitably rears its head on many occasions – but it does not form the main focus of his interest. This is a pity, for there can be few historians equally familiar with both the general social history and the particular details of urban rent rolls in the context of the landlords’ total property and income. The focus here is not so much on the landlord as on the towns, and on the large urban estate in particular, developing as a single, consciously-managed unit within the growing town over the past two hundred years. Briefly, the central question that interested the author is this: did the fact that parts of some cities and towns consisted of large estates owned by wealthy and influential landlords who were in a position to develop them according to a single master plan, make any difference to the kind of town or suburb that developed on them? Did the form of ownership, in other words, determine the shape of urban growth?
When Cannadine began to write his book, the overwhelming consensus among historians was that it did. From the work of Maurice Beresford and his colleagues in Leeds, to that of Harold Perkins and his disciples investigating the seaside towns of the Northwest, the result of much painstaking local research seemed to be that there was a direct connection between the two. Urban development, they had found, even the street pattern, followed the pre-existing form of land ownership: broadly speaking, where land was held in large units, owners managed to keep up the social level of the houses or hotels put on them, but where ownership was fragmented, Gresham’s law operated – sooner or later someone would put up an inferior property and the whole area would be dragged down in sympathy. Cannadine shows that this view is greatly oversimplified, and by skilfully marrying case-studies with general considerations based on the detailed work of others, he arrives at a synthesis which is certainly more plausible than received opinion.
Both of his case-studies, the Calthorpes’ Edgbaston estate in Birmingham and the Devonshires’ estate in Eastbourne, have fascinating features of their own. In Edgbaston’s history there is, of course, a cultural as well as a town-planning dimension. The earnest, mostly Nonconformist merchants and manufacturers of Birmingham, whom worldly success had given sufficient leisure and sufficient means, and who formed the backbone of Edgbaston society, cultivated education and the arts in their own self-conscious way, and developed an ethos which was often in deliberate contradiction to that of the class of Lord Calthorpe, the landlord who had made it all possible. The high noon of Victorian prosperity, which was also the golden age of Edgbaston, saw the last efflorescence of an independent provincial culture in modern times, and Edgbaston was one of its chief components.
The emphasis here, however, is less on culture than on town-planning. Laid out for the wealthier middle classes at a time when the extent of the city of Birmingham was still limited, Edgbaston managed to preserve, remarkably close to the town centre, a quiet, elegant, desirable residential area even after urban sprawl had elsewhere pushed the better-off families more and more onto the periphery. Even though the city’s privileged classes were never large enough to fill the whole of the estate, its managers, by careful zoning and lay-out of the streets and parks, succeeded in preserving the attractions of the largest houses while using some of the space for more modest dwellings. Amenities were provided judiciously, but never in such profusion as to affect materially the vast annual income from rentals, which, incidentally, formed by far the largest element in the Calthorpe family’s income. This island of privilege held out remarkably well even after inferior suburbs were developed to the left and right and even beyond it, although, by the early 20th century, through-traffic boosted by tram routes began to diminish its desirability and led to the exodus of the top families, to be replaced by institutions, commercial developments and blocks of flats.
Eastbourne, largely the property of the Devonshires (though the Gilbert family had a substantial holding further inland), was also planned as a whole, this time as a holiday resort on what was practically a green field. It took longer than Edgbaston to catch on, but its character was preserved for far longer: indeed, it survives even now. Unlike Edgbaston, however, it added practically nothing to the Devonshires’ vast incomes: a surplus of £37,000 on an income and expenditure account of £748,000 in 43 years (1850-93), or less than £1,000 a year, and even that achieved only by selling off the capital asset (the land), is wholly derisory and represents an actual loss when the capital account is added in. What had happened there was that the estate ploughed as much into infrastructure and amenities as it derived from rentals and land sales. Cannadine’s comments on the local bailiffs, agents, master builders and the like who waxed rich on this development, while the Duke had much trouble and no net income and was obliged to sell off his inheritance, can only be termed restrained.
It is worth noting, when feeding the results of these two detailed investigations into the pool of other studies to arrive at some general conclusions, that both of them deal, in some sense, with exceptional cases. While most large city estates belonged to immensely wealthy aristocratic families, such as the Westminsters, Bedfords, Derbys, Portlands and Norfolks, the Calthorpes were rather small fry; and while, conversely, most seaside towns which had a single-estate sponsor were developed by smaller units, the Devonshires in Eastbourne were among the half-dozen richest families in the land.
Before referring to the conclusions, it should be mentioned that Cannadine also devotes some space to the social and official role of the aristocratic estate-owners in their townships. These are the least successful parts of the book. Who, a hundred years after, can pick out from the mush of sycophancy that accompanied the opening of a park, the start of a noble mayoralty, or the coming of age of a scion of the family, any genuine feeling that may have existed? Nor is the periodisation of the popular image of the urban aristocrat offered here altogether convincing, if indeed a periodisation that would hold good for all or most towns ever existed. But the discussion of the role of the large estate, centrally planned as a unit, has wide application, because in one way it deals with nothing less than the role of the individual in history. How far did the noble landlord shape his town and its development? Would scattered ownership or different personalities have led to different results?
Cannadine’s answer, supported by a wealth of evidence, is clear. From the point of view of a particular property, of the timing of a particular action, the angle of a particular road, the influence of an aristocratic owner or his agent was of overriding importance, and details of this kind can be ‘explained’ in the end only by the quirks of individual decision-making. But where the general character of an estate and its suburb, or indeed its whole resort town, was concerned, the role of the family or its management decisions, if any, seems to have been negligible. If the natural lie of an area was such that it would attract, say, middle-class housing, this is what would be built, and it would protect itself by having compatible neighbours, whether the land was in scattered ownership to begin with or under unitary control, and whether the latter was active and purposeful or lethargic and uninterested. Similarly, the best and most active management could not make, say, the areas around the Euston-St Pancras-King’s Cross stations into anything but inferior working-class and industrial property. Exceptions are few. Henry George was right, after all: urban landlords did live on unearned increments.