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English Country Estates and their Owners
Country houses and landed estates are
a central part of Jane Austen’s Pride and
Prejudice. In the real world of 1813
The landed estate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grew out of the feudal system of the Middle Ages and was seen as a sign of power well into the twentieth century. They were often passed from generation to generation—and some are still in the possession of the same family that owned them centuries ago. Many estates began when a family was granted a tract of land by the current sovereign. There was a peak in this activity during the Tudor and Stuart regimes (Littlejohn 19). Estates were successful and multiplied over generations as the result of proper management and frugal spending, well-plotted marriages, and obedient elder sons (Broad 199). The estates typically consisted of a large manor house, in which the landowner and his family often resided (though they might also have a residence in London), many fields for crops and livestock and sometimes mines, a few smaller farms maintained by larger tenants, a tiny village of tenants who worked smaller plots of land, and a church and rectory that served the landowner’s family and villagers. The parson of the parish was above the tenants and villagers and was appointed by the landowner. Sometimes one village would serve more than one manor, and some landowners owned more than one estate or an estate that was divided among various counties (Ditchfield 12-13). The landowner, regardless of rank, would serve as the local magistrate, administrating justice right from his house to his tenants and villagers (Littlejohn 19). A tenant on a large estate would rent plots of about 100 acres from the landowner. In return, he was sometimes provided with a cottage rent-free and shared in the annual harvest. The children of cottagers were not typically educated until an 1870 act made education mandatory and landowners and clergy began setting up country schools. Landowners often hosted annual feasts and entertainments for tenants, villagers, and poor townspeople of their parish and neighboring parishes (Hughes 120-121). The landowner might also find employment for the poor of his village and parish as servants in other parts of the country (Broad 165).
The administration of an estate of any size was a task that could be compared to the running of a company. The size of a typical country estate fell anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 acres (Littlejohn). The management of country estates differed depending on the size of the estate and personal management choices of the landowner. The Bennets’ estate, Longbourn, in Pride and Prejudice appears to be a small estate—probably in the 1,000-acre range, or even smaller. On an estate that size it was not uncommon for the landowner to collect rents himself and keep his own records. A landowner of a small estate might also choose to hire a bailiff—often a larger tenant—to collect rent for him and aid him in keeping up the estate. A small landowner might also keep a solicitor to take care of legal business such as writing up deeds. It was not uncommon for the solicitor to be someone closely connected to the family, such as a relative (Spring 4-5). Mr. Bennet’s brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner, likely took care of his legal business.
The owner of
a slightly larger estate of about 3,000 acres would likely delegate more of his
estate’s management to a land agent. The
term “agent” used in this sense, and the occupation of land agent, began to
crop up in the eighteenth century. The
men who took on this occupation were often distantly related to landowners, but
were themselves middle class. They often
lived in a nearby town, but sometimes came from
containing between 5,000 and 10,000 acres were considered fairly large and
required more organization in their management.
The landowner of an estate this size generally delegated all duties to a
bailiff or a resident land agent who was also a tenant. This person’s duties would include collecting
rent, keeping accounts, dealing with tenants, and undertaking improvements of
the estate grounds and buildings. A
supervising agent brought in from
Large estates—those over 10,000 acres in size—almost uniformly contained a resident land agent who took on most of the administrative burdens of the estate. The landowner also employed an auditor or acted as one himself 9SPRING 7-8). Rosings and Pemberly may have fallen into this size range, as they appear to be the only major estates in their general areas within Kent and Derbyshire, respectively.
Finally, the great estates—those in
the 100,000-acre range—such as the 150,000 acre Alnwick Castle owned by the
Duke of Northumberland, head of the Percy family, required much more complex
arrangements. These estates were quite
probably out of the range of anyone in Pride
and Prejudice. While the running of
any estate was comparable to running a company, the running of a great estate
was akin to running a small—though dictatorial—country. The Duke of Northumberland made his home,
Into the twentieth Century to be a landed estate owner in England still meant to have power, even though legislation in late nineteenth century began giving more and more power to new local governments in country towns and less and less to landowners. By 1885 the country landowners had little to no political power. The idea of the hereditary house, often accompanying a title, had begun to waver even earlier, in the eighteenth century, as successful merchants and tradesmen began to buy country houses and estates, as well as titles. After the industrial revolution, the estate owners declined from being the richest men in the country. No longer seats of regional power in the various counties, by the beginning of the twentieth Century the landed estates began to morph into places signified by mere aesthetic beauty, nostalgia, and tourist appeal. By the completion of the two world wars, this is all that they were (Littlejohn 21). Today, many country estates are still owned by the families that have owned them for centuries—including the Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick. Others have passed into the hands of those who have made their fortunes in the twentieth century. Some serve both as homes and tourist attractions. While they still hold some significance to their neighboring towns and villages, they will never hold the political power and societal influence they once did.
Broad, John. Transforming English Rural Society.
Ditchfield, P.H. The Manor
Hughes, Kristine. The Writer’s Guide to Everday Life in
Regency and Victorian
Littlejohn, David. The Fate of
the English Country House.