At first glance, tourism and “death taxes” don’t appear to have much in common. Most people enjoy touring; no one enjoys taxes. Yet, in the twentieth century, Britain found a way to link the two.
The financial costs of World War I nearly crippled the British government; World War II left it entirely bankrupt and heavily in debt to the United States (a debt that couldn’t be paid off until 2006). Most regular citizens were impoverished by these wars, so the only people who had any sort of wealth were the aristocrats. Accordingly, a necessary but crushing tax was levied on inheritances to the tune of 80% of everything a noble owned.
Unfortunately, the aristocrats’ wealth was bound up in things like art. They just didn’t have cash to pay taxes or to maintain their great houses.
Not all owners were savvy or they did not have sufficient resources to succeed. In the decade between 1945 and 1955, five hundred country houses were simply demolished. Derwent Hall and the village surrounding it were flooded in order to make a reservoir; the foundations now lie at the bottom of a lake. Streatlem Castle was used for target practice by the Territorial Army. Aston Clinton was torn down to build a vocational training center. The rotunda of Nutall Temple was dynamited to make way for the M1 motorway. By 1955, they were disappearing at the rate of five per week. Thorington Hall was pulled down as well:
Some estates like Chatsworth survived because they learned to cultivate tourism:
Longleat in Wiltshire added a safari park to the estate to attract families:
Others like Highclere Castle eventually found film makers who would rent their houses for period dramas such as Downton Abbey:
Castle Howard gained fame and tourism because of the film series Brideshead Revisited:
Now most great country houses survive precisely because their owners have found the path from taxes to tourism.
Next time: A Ramble Around Castle Howard
Photo credits for Thornington Hall, Longleat, Castle Howard: open sources
Highclere and Chatsworth photos: Nancy C. Parrish
My book The Downton Era is now available through Barnes&Noble, Amazon, and other online sites.