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Christina Pilkington

ENL 4122

April 4, 2005

Historical Annotation

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 England—as well as for many centuries before and nearly another century afterwards—landed estates were a central part of the structure of English society.  Between 1660 and 1867, England contained somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 country homes owned by the powerful landowning class.  These houses and estates were of varying sizes.  Some were owned by members of the aristocracy; others by the wealthy gentry (Littlejohn 19).  By the middle of the eighteenth century, many country houses (and titles) were also being purchased by wealthy tradesmen and merchants, as is the case with the Bingleys of Pride and Prejudice (Littlejohn 31).

            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 London depending on the preference of the landowner.  The land agent was responsible for collecting rent, keeping accounts, and supervising the bailiff, who was beneath him.  Sometimes the land agent doubled as a solicitor (Spring 6).  Mr. Bingley’s Netherfield may have fallen into this category of estates, or may have been slightly larger.  The business, however, was likely taken care of by someone else—the owner—since Bingley was only leasing the house.

            Estates 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 London or another town would oversee the bailiff or resident agent and would generally double as a solicitor.  Landowners of estates with diverse resources might also bring in an auditor, and estates with mining resources also required a mining engineer (Spring 6-7).

            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, Alnick Castle, the central office of his estate.  He kept many land agents who were divided into bailiffs, or resident agents, and commissioners, who were supervisory agents.  He divided the estate into bailiwicks, each lorded over by a bailiff.  The bailiffs collected the rent, dealt with the tenants, monitored the farms, and kept a watch over the boundaries of their specific district.  They submitted annual reports to Alnwick.  The commissioner, or group of commissioners depending on the particular Duke of Northumberland, was above the bailiffs.  The commissioner or commissioners kept track of the different bailiffs and kept the Duke informed of estate business.  At one point it was suggested that the bailiffs be replaced entirely with outside agents because they would have a better knowledge of business and be less likely to be emotionally tied to the tenants.  In the end it was decided that it would be better to keep the bailiff system because they knew more about agriculture and had a greater respect for the land and estate since it was also their home.  Other positions on the estate included a surveyor and a clerk of works who were responsible for improvements in building and draining, a wood bailiff, and a colliery bailiff who was in charge of letting the mines (Spring 8-14). 

            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.

Works Cited

Broad, John.  Transforming English Rural Society. Cambridge:  University Press, 2004.

Ditchfield, P.H. The Manor Houses of England. London:  Bracken Books, 1910.

Hughes, Kristine.  The Writer’s Guide to Everday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811 to 1910.  Cleveland:  Writer’s Digest Books,1998.

Littlejohn, David. The Fate of the English Country House. New York:  Oxford University Press,            1997.

Spring, David. The English Landed Estate in the Nineteenth Century:  It’s Administration.           Baltimore:  The John’s Hopkins Press, 1963.