Country House Society; The private lives of England's upper class after the First World War.


The late Dr. Pamela Horn lectured at Oxford Brookes University for some twenty years before retirement. She was also a keen speaker at and supporter of, local history societies. This is her last published book before her untimely death in 2014.

Country House Society was originally published as a hardback edition in 2013.

Many commentators would have it that as a result of WW1, death duties and increasing taxation, the English landed gentry in particular and the upper classes in general were extinguished. Some have suggested that pre-war everything was strait laced, that society was strictly controlled and that the young knew their place. So the story goes the war changed all this for ever. Pamela Horn in this slim volume puts the record straight. Her scholarly, in depth, study using many primary and secondary sources examines and records, what really happened.

Although the title includes ‘after the First World War’ Horn first examines the impact of the war during the years 1914-18. In the early months of 1914 the notion that Europe was soon to be in turmoil and Britain engulfed in a conflict in which some three quarter of a million of its subjects were killed was little considered. The threat of civil war in Ireland was of much more concern. Some 13 percent of Britons who served in WW1 were killed, while some 31 per cent were wounded. However, of the British and Irish peers and their sons who served the mortality figure rose to 20 per cent. Yet for all this terrible slaughter only three titles from the 558, who held at least 3,000 acres in 1914, were extinguished by 1919.

In the run up to the war, Horn points out the instances of drug taking, especially chloroform. The prevalence of high stakes gambling; Alfred Duff Cooper once lost four times his annual Foreign Office salary in one night playing chemin de fer. The far reaching joie de vivre. The Season, which ran roughly from Queen Charlotte’s Ball in May until August, involved a non stop round of balls events and parties. Events at this time were strictly regimented but as ever there was always a posse of bright youngsters willing to kick over the traces.

During the war landowners put pressure on their estate workers, tenants and other employees to join up. Upper class women volunteered as nurses, and many of their houses turned into hospitals for the wounded; wounded officers that is. Many of the original house staff would be employed as orderlies.

The main thrust of Horn’s work is, as it says, post war. There was change in all aspects of social life. In the immediate post-war period, a change due mainly to the patriotic hysteria of victory. “The men of the moment were the ex. officers…and a large proportion of them men of a class which, before the war, had no place in the social world” (p55). The social world went dance crazy with the new Rags and Jazz the ‘in’ dances. “Prime Ministers hardly earn in a year what a black jazz band now rakes in in a season” (p56). Perhaps unsurprisingly the divorce rate rose. In 1919-20 there were 4,874 compared with 965 in 1911-13.

Naturally Horn deals with the land. At the end of 1921 the English Gazette reported that during the previous four years around a quarter of the land of England had changed hands. Horn examines expertly the reasons for the sell off. Noting the uncertainty with prices, rising taxes, low rentals. For many the sale of estates was expedient. Many also sold town property and works of art. Lloyd George’s sale of honours, plus the existence of some who had had a ‘good war’, provided a ready market. Some country houses were turned into luxury hotels, especially near spa towns. In Scotland vast expanses of moor were sold to shooting syndicates. Horn does not mention it, perhaps it was outside her remit, but the sale of farms to sitting tenants also had a deleterious affect on British agriculture. Instead of small farms all being part of something approaching a co-operative now they were completely independent. The average size of a British farm is now some 130 acres a figure which is skewed upwards by bigger Scottish set ups. In time they would struggle to compete with the rest of the farming world.

Sell off, downturn, notwithstanding the higher social classes still enjoyed slaughtering things. Holding shooting parties, riding to hounds or even going on safari to shoot big game. Socially the ‘Season’ was revived, it was the done thing to receive the right invitations, attend the right events, have the right friends. Although the divorce rate had risen divorced women were still not allowed in the Royal enclosure at Ascot. Also revived were Debutants. Young ladies were again to be presented at court in all their finery and ‘to come out’. It was all carried out to strict rules and regulations, many unwritten. It was always possible to find someone, perhaps someone not too flush with money, who would school, supervise and chaperone one’s daughter. Having a daughter of a certain age was a worry and not only from the monetary angle.
It was an age where many of the landed gentry hostesses, ladies who had been brought up to the job, were replaced on the social scene by the nouveau riche. They might well be considered not quite the thing. Horn deals with the in and outs of all this aspect of upper class social life in detail. A section worth reading for itself.

Of course the twenties were a time of great social change. However, as Horn demonstrates the oft promoted notions that the all landed gentry suddenly got involved in trade and that their womenfolk all went to work in high class shops is somewhat over drawn. Some did. Some ladies found journalism or at least writing columns for newspapers and periodicals. Nancy Mitford claimed to be making four to five guineas a week in late 1920s and early thirties by writing gossip columns for some of the better publications.

There was change for the underlings of the country house as well as for the family. Many servants, of all ranks, lost their livelihoods. Although a first class butler was worth his weight in gold, if only for his address book and connections; most important for the newer gentry. Some ex servants indulged in other occupations while at the same time moonlighting at there old calling. Horn details the case of Gordon Grimmett an ex Astor footman. While working as a floor manager at a Lyons Corner House he would often be employed as a matched footman. Matched footmen were of the same height and build. For an evening’s work at a dinner and ball such footmen would receive £2-5s, a little more if they had powdered hair. £2-5s is about £80 today, in those days it was certainly between a quarter and half of a man’s weekly wage. It was the done thing to return the 5s to the butler, this brought forth a ‘Look forward to seeing you again’ response.

Of course no work on the aftermath of WW1 would be complete without at least a mention of the ‘Bright Young People’ and their high jinks. As before there was no shortage of young men and women with too much money and too little sense, intent with kicking over the traces. It became hard work having fun and annoying the rest of the populace, not to mention annoying the law. They danced, they drank, they took drugs, they drove noisy fast cars, sometimes all at the same time. However, hedonism like most things becomes boring when indulged in excessively. They were a small part of a period that in total, lasted a mere ten years. A period that has been called the ‘roaring twenties’ and so they might have been for those with the time and the money to roar. Clouds were forming on the horizon. Britain devalued its currency, there was a brief mutiny among navy personnel at Invergordon, the Slump was on its way. The country society would continue in a muted form for another decade when all hell would break loose.

The late Pamela Horn has written a fine commentary on a section of the British people. A class who for many years ruled Britain, who decided its etiquette, its timetable, who controlled much of its industry, virtually all of its agriculture. A class who survived the loss of a quarter of its number who served in wartime. A class that was resilient. Pamela Horn’s Country House Society holds its place in the company of her many other works. It would make a worthy addition to anybody’s library on its subject. The now released paperback edition is priced at a cover price of £9-99 less on some on-line sites. To be able to buy a work such as this for a ‘tenner’ is akin to finding money in the street.

Don Vincent
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2015