Guy: Burnt to death, blown up, stripped and beaten up, knocked to the ground, dismembered or just abandoned and left to a slow undignified demise. This was Golden Age murder in a world of wealth and privilege. But the murder victims were not people; they were country houses — those historic houses that will be so familiar to readers of Golden Age detective fiction.
These houses died at an alarming — or possibly pleasing — rate through the 1920s and 1930s. In this episode we will be looking at country houses, the challenges and changes they encountered between the wars, and how books of the period responded. Join me on a tour of the stately homes of Britain, those that survive and those that have gone, and those that only lived in books.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I am not Caroline Crampton. I’m Guy Cuthbertson, Caroline’s husband. I’ll be your guide today — please wear sensible footwear, don’t touch anything and don’t scream if there’s a body in the library.
Country houses are so familiar to us from the novels of the queens of crime, and then in the film and TV adaptations and stage plays. Cluedo too has made the country house synonymous with the murder mystery. They are the large old homes of wealthy families — houses that might also be identified as the manor house, the hall, a tower, a castle, a palace even. They are remote, and many-roomed, with many potential victims and culprits coming and going, residents or dinner guests or servants.
The country house is all set up for committing a murder and getting away, with back staircases and hidden passages and priest holes. They have a suitably violent and threatening atmosphere — some of them were castles and others mimic castles with their battlements, towers and Gothic windows. The houses are easily cut off from the police and the modern world, and are filled with suitable murder weapons, from swords to guns to daggers and candlesticks and with even the occasional bit of lead piping lying around outside. They easily create that closed circle of suspects that the classic whodunnit requires. They also contain things worth stealing or protecting — jewels and works of art and antiquities — and the houses are themselves worth murdering for if you can get yourself to the front of the inheritance queue.
I suspect lovers of Golden Age detective fiction also love visiting country houses. Imaginative visitors no doubt people the house with murderers and victims — maybe you imagine a bleeding body in the drawing room, a drowned gent in the lake, a screaming house maid in the bedroom; or there’s a will burning to ashes in the fireplace and some specks of fresh blood on the sword upon the wall. Agatha Christie fans are probably likely to be members of the National Trust — which looks after Christie’s own home, Greenway.
One of the great attractions of the houses of course is not just that they were the homes of the rich and powerful, filled with beautiful things. They are also little microcosms of the class system — with servants below (organised into their own distinct strata, with the butler as the senior servant), then nannies and governesses and land agents and stewards and tutors somewhere in the middle, and the owners and their relations at the top. Tourists visiting these properties today are often more interested in the servants than the upper class owners. The same goes for readers and writers of detective fiction — our sympathies are often with the servants and they are often the focus of the story.
A long time ago, in the last millennium, I worked an afternoon a week as a room steward at a National Trust property. A scrofulous teenager in an M&S tweed jacket holding a folder, I would stand quietly in the room keeping an eye out for touchers and pilferers until someone came to ask me a question. What I was frequently asked was not who designed this or who painted that but ‘where are the kitchens’? People wanted to see where the work was done — and of course, many people in Britain will be descended from those who worked as servants in the kitchens of big houses or in some other form of domestic service; or as gamekeepers, or stable lads and so on, or as agricultural labourers on estate land. Both Caroline and I have recent ancestors who worked on country estates. My grandmother grew up on one and went into domestic service.
Incidentally, that National Trust property I volunteered at didn’t have any kitchens on display. A large part of the job was managing disappointment (the pictures were copies, or just not very good, and what looked old usually wasn’t or wasn’t in situ). The house was really a product of the 1920s and 1930s, because the owner turned a nice old farmhouse into something much grander, buying in furniture and fittings from elsewhere, from country houses that were struggling financially, creating a great hall out of the farm’s barn, building a Long Gallery in 1931 and so on — it was pretty much all of it not as old as it looked, a kind of knock-off pseudo-Tudor mansion, but nonetheless it was donated to the National Trust in 1941.
The National Trust has helped to preserve historic houses for the nation and its efforts intensified in the 1930s. During the 1920s and 1930s these historic homes of the wealthy were being demolished or left to rot or they were given up by their owners and took on new identities as hospitals, golf clubs, hotels, or apartment blocks — or, like the great Stowe House (which was sold in 1921 and again in 1922), they became schools. In 1934, the Marquis of Lothian suggested that the National Trust should extend its protecting arm over the historic country houses of Britain threatened with destruction from taxation and death duties. By that year, death duties had risen to 50 per cent for estates valued at over £1m. The National Trust did create the Country Houses Committee in 1936, and began to seek to take on certain houses where their owners no longer had the money to run them. There then followed the National Trust Act in 1937 and 1939.
Even those families who were able to cling onto their ancestral seats, life was not what it was. They could never again go back to ‘before the war’. So what brought about this demise of the country house during the 1920s and 1930s? Well, taxation was certainly part of it, and got plenty of the blame — more than it deserved. The Marquis of Lothian said that the victims were ‘under sentence of death’. And: ‘The axe which is destroying them is taxation, and especially that form of taxation known as death duties.’ Death by tax axe.
Death duties were also combined with other taxes at a time of falling rents and then the economic slump of the Depression. And as another observer said, ‘the richer a man is, the speedier the extinction’. Many of you will know that Caroline and I have a Clumber spaniel called Morris — no Hound of the Baskervilles he, but Clumbers came originally from Clumber Park, the large Nottinghamshire country house of the Dukes of Newcastle, with more than 70 bedrooms and a park of more than 4000 acres. The contents were sold and the house was demolished in 1938 because the Duke had debts and a tax bill that needed to be paid. The parkland later went to the National Trust.
A 1931 article in the magazine called The Bystander commented on the Knell of the Country House as it called it, listing all the great houses that have been lost or converted to new uses, which meant ‘the severance of ancestral ties between landowners and the countryside’. The Bystander blamed death duties (ie inheritance tax) plus income tax and the increase of local taxation. It told its readers that ‘Under our present laws, a fortune created entirely by brains, years of hard work, and enterprise can easily be swallowed up piecemeal in three generations.’ It’s a ridiculous article really — we all know that in most cases vast estates were not simply the result of brains, hard work and enterprise, far from it. Some atrocious behaviour lurks in the histories of many country houses.
Indeed, the death of the country house could be blamed on the greed and stupidity of the owners. Owners who got into incredible debt or entered into regrettable business ventures. In South Lanarkshire in Scotland, Hamilton Palace and Douglas Castle were left chronically unstable by coal-mining, and then had to be demolished. The huge Hamilton Palace was demolished over a period of several years from 1921 to 1926; then, a lesson having not been learnt, Douglas Castle was demolished in 1938. At Hamilton Palace, the damage had really already been done before the coal-mining began, because at the end of the previous century the 12th Duke of Hamilton had acquired vast crippling debts by spending so much money on horse racing, gambling and an extravagant lifestyle. The 1920s and 1930s were often just the final blow for families that were already reeling. Since the 1880s, landowners across the country had been selling off heirlooms in order to pay their debts — many of Hamilton Palace’s treasures were sold in 1882.
America could be blamed for undercutting the profitability of British agriculture. Flashy American tycoons bought British treasures when they went up for sale. The First World War had also played its part — it helped to plunge families into financial problems, many houses were taken over by the military or became hospitals and convalescent homes, and sons were lost. If we look at Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1928, and if we look beyond the sex, we see a story about a country house, Wragby Hall, and two sons of Sir Geoffrey — one, Herbert, who was killed in the war, and the other, Clifford, now the owner, who was injured in the war, which means he cannot produce an heir for the estate. He has also been left with insufficient income. That estate had also suffered in the war when Sir Geoffrey chopped down so many of his trees for trench timber:
‘Sir Geoffrey, Clifford’s father, was intensely ridiculous, chopping down his trees, and weeding men out of his colliery to shove them into the war; and himself being so safe and patriotic; but, also, spending more money on his country than he’d got.’
Now we’ve mentioned Lady Chatterley’s Lover though, that novel about an affair between a gamekeeper and her ladyship, we should mention the servant problem. It was harder to get servants to work at the big houses after the war. Many men died in the war or came back unfit for work. Others were often better-educated than their predecessors and had more options. If people didn’t want to work in these houses and would rather work in an office or shop then that tells its own story — it was not an idyllic life for the servants. Women, in particular, found that they had more employment options after the war — a war in which many women had taken on jobs that had previously been seen as jobs for men. They didn’t have to go into domestic service. In 1926, the comical Earl of Denbigh suggested reluctantly that servants should be allowed to have a wireless set as an incentive for staying in service. There’s often a hint of this servant problem in the detective fiction of the period — as it became harder to get staff and the youngsters from local village families stopped working on the estates, that naturally fuelled the idea that servants were more unreliable, inefficient, untrustworthy, even criminally-minded. Perhaps the butler did do it? You just couldn’t get the right staff.
This was also a time when towns and cities were spilling out across the countryside, especially because of the growth of motor-car use between the wars, which enabled the suburbs to spread out further and further. Country estates that were once some distance from the town were now absorbed, with houses built on the parkland and the big house knocked down or converted to another use. Suburban street names often recall the estates they gobbled up — borrowing the names of the families, the houses, the meadows and woods.
So it wasn’t just a time of the death of the country house — the countryside itself was being killed off. Even in peace time, England seemed to some to be in decline. It was a slow chase scene, as the suburbs crept nearer and nearer, opening their jaws ready to swallow the country house. The countryside was then read about by the residents of the suburbia that had destroyed it of course, and in the new suburban houses families read detective novels set in country houses.
The one thing that didn’t happen — although it was feared — was some form of revolution where people stormed the big houses and took them over. But for some people, then as now, progressive taxation represented the rise of the mob — tax that robbed the rich and gave to the great unwashed. In The Wind in the Willows in 1908, Toad Hall is taken over by socialist stoats and weasels — but that never really happened in England, although in Ireland hundreds of country houses were burnt down during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. Perhaps by the 1930s Toad would have been struggling to pay a hefty tax bill, and the stoats and weasels would have won in the long run. Maybe Toad Hall would have been handed over to some woodland version of the National Trust where the stoats and weasels could go visit for a shilling, and moles and badgers would serve as room stewards.
After the break: we will return to the tour. Do not spend too much time in the gift shop.
On the whole, the detective fiction of the period celebrates the country house or just takes it for granted, with little hint of its imminent demise. Detective fiction — like the aristocratic world of Jeeves and Wooster — is often detached from social change, and economic or political contexts are not allowed to muscle into the story, so the focus is on the human victims, not the bricks and mortar.
In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, the house has been re-mortgaged because the owner is hard-up, but perhaps it’s not explicitly a story about the death of the country house. Equally, we do find that same sense of decline at the start of Margery Allingham’s 1929 novel The Crime at Black Dudley. We’re told that the dreary thousand-acre estate has been neglected, that the grass is mostly left to the cows, and that inside the forbidding house itself there is evidence of further neglect — the furniture unpolished, nothing modernised, and the place smells of damp. George Abbershaw says to himself that ‘These old places need a lot of looking after… shouldn’t think the sanitary system was any too good. Very nice, but I’m glad it’s not mine.’
In There Came Both Mist and Snow, from 1940, Michael Innes gives us a country house, Belrive Priory, which has lost its countryside and the modern industry is menacingly on its doorstep. From the same year, Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie involves trying to sell a big house called Hunterbury to an MP at a time when, as it says, ‘Large properties are extremely difficult to sell at the moment’.
Later, the 1953 detective novel Too Soon to Die by Henry Wade is about an attempt to avoid paying death duties on a country house called Brackton Manor. Later still, by the time of Catherine Aird’s 1969 novel The Stately Home Murder, the plot employs the regretted fact that a country house has been opened up to the public.
In 1931 The Bystander commented that:
‘The toppling over of Continental thrones and the gradual disappearance of the big English country house through taxation have deprived the novelists of two prolific fields of plot-making. … Novelists know that … unless they make the owner a millionaire their readers would scoff at any presentment of country house life on pre-War lines. So now, if they want to write about country house life they must take the reverse of the medal and show the former “rich and great” in impoverishment.’
It praised Andrew Soutar’s novel Strange Bedfellows in which a Sussex baronet faces financial ruin and has to give up his family estate, Highfield Court, so he takes to the road with a caravan.
Certainly, beyond the realms of detective fiction there’s plenty of evidence of the impoverishment of the rich and great. In Brideshead Revisited, written by Evelyn Waugh in 1944, the big house is not sold off or anything quite that drastic, but they have debts and their way of life is doomed. The financial situation, the life-choices of the family and then the second world war ensure that things are not as they were in 1914. We are left with a vision of paradise defiled as the army take over Brideshead, and, as the quartering commandant says, soldiers are ’destructive beggars’.
The central character of that novel, Charles Ryder, becomes an artist specialising in capturing country houses before they disappear forever. He is conscious that these old houses are coming to the end of their lives — or the end of their grandeur, at least. He says, ‘Englishmen seemed for the first time to become conscious of what before was taken for granted, and to salute their achievements at the moment of extinction’. Charles benefits financially from this financial decline of the old families who can’t afford the upkeep and commission an artist’s record of what is to be lost. As they lose money, Charles gets more work. He says, ‘I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneers, a presage of doom’. The Flyte family of Brideshead own a grand second home in London, which is sold off and pulled down but, just before it is, Charles produces some paintings by which it can be remembered.
Incidentally, detective fiction plays a part in Brideshead Revisited. I wonder whether detective fiction of the period was doing what Charles’s pictures were doing — saluting their achievements at the moment of extinction. The country house murder mysteries seem to be recording a way of life that was itself dying at that moment; they are a way of celebrating the houses as they go, while refusing to believe that they were going. I feel Virginia Woolf’s wonderfully inventive novel Orlando of 1928 does the same thing, being a book about the house called Knole in Kent which was, within two decades, to be given to the National Trust. The Marquis of Lothian had asked, ‘Even if the old order has passed away, is it not possible to preserve the peculiar beauties it created for the joy and edification of posterity’. Writing — like painting — became that act of preservation.
As a democratic socialist, George Orwell would not be expected to admire the country houses of England or the inequality they represented. He admired Brideshead Revisited though, telling crime writer Julian Symons in 1948 that he thought Brideshead was very good. He did however object to the book’s ‘snobbery’. In George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, published in 1939, the big house has also been taken over, like Brideshead, but not by the army — it has become a mental hospital. The estate has also been eaten up by houses. Orwell tells us:
‘I looked over to the right. It was all houses, houses, houses. One might as well have been in the outer suburbs. All the woods that used to grow beyond the pool, and grew so thick that they were like a kind of tropical jungle, had been shaved flat. Only a few clumps of trees still standing round the houses.’
Perhaps the most famous destruction of the big house is in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, a murder mystery of a kind, in which the house isn’t destroyed by taxes or modern life — maybe it’s Rebecca or fate or chance that destroys it. But it’s certainly memorable, the last dramatic event in that thrilling book. The novel famously begins with the house: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’. And it ends with the house in flames, the horizon ‘shot with crimson, like a splash of blood’, as if the house is a bleeding corpse.
Beyond the 1940s, the houses continued to be demolished or converted to other uses. In 1959, for example, Marple Hall in Cheshire was demolished after many years of neglect and abandonment— it was a house with a double literary connection. It was owned by writer Christopher Isherwood, and more importantly it is said to have given us the name Jane Marple. It was a familiar story — the house really ceased to be a family home in the 1920s, a caretaker was left to look after it and the contents of the house were sold off in 1929.
Perhaps Brideshead would have been pulled down or more likely it would have ended up as a National Trust property along with Toad Hall. Evelyn Waugh expressed surprise at the revival of interest in these old houses after the war (a revival that his best-selling novel had no doubt contributed to), and he noticed the emergence of what he called the English country house cult, imagining that Brideshead would be open to trippers. Many thousands of people spent their weekends visiting National Trust properties, waiting in traffic jams in narrow country roads and carriage drives, then leaning over red ropes in order to peer at severe portraits, before eating scones, and buying tea towels and leather bookmarks — and probably reading an Agatha Christie on a bench in the garden.
Not all of the country houses disappeared by any means. One might even wonder how much detective fiction helped country houses to survive — they are used as film and television locations — for Poirot, Marple and so on, and admirers of Golden Age detective fiction may well want to go visiting country houses of a weekend. Or it’s a symbiotic relationship — the houses and the books keep each other alive. Readers are drawn to the houses, and the admirers of the houses are drawn to the books until we cannot separate them. Where would Poirot and Marple on the screen be without the lavish houses that, for a fee, gladly open their gates to cameramen and actors?
You can decide for yourself whether we should regret the loss of hundreds of country houses — not everyone was sorry to see them go. Not everyone who worked on a country estate loved their job. When you hear about some of the things that the aristocracy did, you wonder why there wasn’t more murder committed (that’s where crime fiction can help). Some properties today still seem to expect you to pay homage to the aristocracy: Caroline and I went to a horrid one in Scotland in 2021 — an extortionate entry fee and then you’re supposed to be grateful, and admire people who plundered Scotland during the Highland Clearances. In that case I would not have regretted the loss of another country house.
Unlike some historic properties fleecing tourists, detective fiction does not shy away from showing that the upper classes can be awful, evil even. And what we can’t doubt is the literary importance of country houses, and the country house mystery is a genre in its own right, and one that’s still very much alive. Houses died, but the fictional houses live on.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Guy Cuthbertson, and produced by Caroline Crampton. You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thedeathofthecountryhouse. We publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.