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Stories of the gentry

Adam Nicolson tells the tale of three landed families in Yorkshire, Kent and the West Country and, in doing so, traces the rise and fall of a class of people that for centuries "formed the bedrock of English life". Plus he asks, could the return of localism trigger a renaissance in the fortunes of the gentry in the 21st century?

A c15th-century vellum shows the Squire from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For Adam Nicolson, the essence of the gentry was “government-through-networking”. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Published: December 11, 2011 at 4:38 pm
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This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


Who were the gentry?

The gentry have always resisted definition and that was one of their virtues. They were, in a way, a lesser nobility, untitled and eligible for the House of Commons. They were propertied people with a sense of their role as natural governors of the country, but open to recruitment at both ends, from yeomen and merchants to the younger sons of the aristocracy. The gentry consisted of anyone the gentry were prepared to consider gentry. They essentially disappeared under all the pressures of an urbanised democracy in the early 20th century.


The Oxindens 1630s–60s

By the 17th century, the gentry wielded influence in all corners of society, as letters left to us by a poor country squire reveal

Through the 16th and 17th centuries, as the influence of the aristocracy waned, the gentry moved centre stage in national life. The mid-17th-century correspondence of Harry Oxinden, a minor littérateur who lived in the village of Denton in the downs south of Canterbury, provides an extraordinary social map of one small section of that governing class. Their landscape in the dry valleys of those downs is still there: every mile or two marked by a small manor house with its gardens and closes, a small park occasionally, an orchard or two, the lanes between the hedges and woods forming the threads and links of an intricately woven web.

The Oxindens of Kent wasn't just a family but an intricate self-support network that included rakes, soldiers, drapers and highwaymen among its number. Although the role of highwayman (as in his son, Thomas) was often the last resort of gentry ne’er-do-wells, this was a web stretched almost from the top of society to the bottom. They borrowed money from each other, they stood surety for each other, they went hunting with each other, they became godfathers to each other’s children, the country squires bought goods from the city merchants and they gave each other presents. They governed the country as magistrates and sheriffs. They sent each other medicines and cooking tips – “the Sparagus must bee but a little more then scalded” – it was ruined if boiled.

The lanes were alive with family traffic. Footboys (“my little Mercurie”) took notes from one house to another, even in the middle of the night. Sir James Oxinden recommended a gardener and sent his “cotch” in the evening so that Harry could visit him for lunch the following day. The essence of the gentry world in full flood was this government-through-networking, a phenomenon which lay at the bedrock of English life deep into the 19th century.


The Aclands 1890s–1950s

The fate of the Aclands mirrors the decline of landed families in the face of rapid urbanisation. But could the next chapter in the gentry story be a happier one?

The standing of the gentry suffered a disastrous decline from the 1870s onwards, hammered by agricultural depression, a loss of political power and the increasing irrelevance, in a rapidly urbanising and industrialising country, of their traditions of localised government. More than 80 per cent of those families who in 1880 owned estates of 3,000 acres owned no land at all a century later.

Until the 1920s the Aclands of Killerton and Holnicote in Devon and Somerset had played the conventional gentry role of local governors. Nine of them became members of parliament, first Tory then Liberal, while conducting the affairs of more than 30,000 acres between the Bristol and the English Channels.

In 1939, Sir Richard Acland, 15th baronet, inherited the giant property. But this Acland did not fit the gentry mould. He had become a radical Christian socialist, for whom private property was at the heart of society's ills. In Unser Kampf, Acland's great testament of faith written in 1939, he bemoaned the fact that Britain was a society in which "1½ per cent of our population are drawing one quarter of the national income… There is no ultimate reconciliation except in a system of common ownership."

Through Common Wealth, the political party he founded in 1942, Acland promoted the idea of common ownership as the answer to Britain’s social and spiritual problems. In mid-1942 he decided to rid himself of his inheritance and in February 1943 it was announced to a great fanfare that he was giving the estate to the National Trust.

Giant legacy

What was not revealed at the time, and is only apparent from papers in the National Trust files and the Acland archives in Exeter, is that Acland did not give away his property but in large part sold it to the National Trust. They had just come into a giant legacy from Mrs Ronnie Greville, the opulent McEwan beer heiress, and stumped up some £180,000, perhaps equivalent to £18m today, for the Acland estates. As for Acland, he spent the money on funding his political party, paying off debts and acquiring a London house.

Common Wealth collapsed in the Labour landslide in 1945. Acland’s sons, meanwhile, had been too young to be consulted at the time he disposed of their inheritance but his actions caused the family pain for decades to come. Sir Richard Acland continued to be portrayed as the baronet who had made the ultimate gift. Yet, at home, in a house whose use they had retained on the Killerton estate, a certain bleakness prevailed.

This might be seen as one symbolic end of the gentry story. Certainly through the late 20th century the gentry continued to seem irrelevant either to the functions of a centralising state or, from the 1980s onwards, to the heroising of the entrepreneur.

But in the 21st century, dissatisfaction with both those approaches to government seems to have given gentrydom a new lease of life. The ideology of the Cameron-led coalition looks like something of a return to gentry style: communities, localism, families, networks and neighbourhoods, all bound together in the metaphor of the fabric. One, single, woven social structure: what else was the gentry ever dedicated to?


Adam Nicolson is an author who writes about English history and landscape. His latest book, The Gentry: Stories of the English, was published by HarperPress in October 2011.


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