Lecture Details and Reviews

Survival of the County House in the 20th Century

2nd October, 2012 Dr. Malcolm Airs
Dr Airs was SODC's first conservation officer, safeguarding many of our historical buildings and conservation areas. His doctoral research was published as "The Making of the English Country House, 1500-1640" in 1975 and he has subsequently published widely on architectural history and historical conservation.


Reviewed by Valerie on 2nd October, 2012

At the well-attended October meeting members heard from Professor Malcolm Airs, who began his story, with plentiful illustrations, of the problems arising for the English country house, by remarking on the l870s agricultural depression and the institution of death duties in the l890s.

All this predated the great heyday in Edwardian times of the country house weekend (Saturday to Monday), aided by the introduction of rich American brides into wealthy English families. Then the motor car opened up the country house to short visits rather than long stays. Large numbers of domestic staff were needed to maintain such houses, but with the outbreak of the war in 1914 domestic staff found employment in enterprises supporting the war effort.

Many country houses were used as hospitals during the war and this signaled the end of an era when mass slaughter in France saw the death of many heirs to estates, forty seven in the first year alone. So to those returning it was a different world, with previously contented staff reluctant to return to domestic service. Despite the introduction of mod cons into country houses in the l920s, the focus had now turned from the country to the delights of London. With the shortage of staff and natural heirs, many country houses were put up for sale but, being impossible to sell, were rented out. Upkeep became a problem. In the l930s, following the Wall Street crash, municipal authorities bought some up cheaply, mainly for the associated estate land.

During the second World War, most large country houses were requisitioned and suffered consequent degradation from troops etc. This led to a large number of country houses being demolished in the decade after the War when the Labour government considered a redistribution of wealth appropriate. But in the 1950's public funds were made available to private owners for restoration, with a proviso that the public should have access. By 1953, six hundred such properties had opened their doors. Another turning point in the fate of the Country House was the Victoria & Albert Exhibition in l973 on “Destruction of the Country House during the 20th century”. Many examples were shown encapsulating the vicissitudes of country houses; some fell into the hands of developers, who sub-divided them into apartments and changed their use to schools, hotels, care homes etc. Such alternative uses, although providing a breathing space for retention of the building, provided no permanency. However, new money from industrialists and pop stars have enabled many former country houses to revert to domestic use after much restoration, e.g. Basildon Park, Thame Prebendary and Friar Park; Also there has been a resurgence in demand for country houses from Russian oligarchs, oil rich Sheiks and City financiers.

So Professor Airs feels that the country house has come full circle in the 2lst century.

Valerie Alasia

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