The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

Thisisa popular picture of the twentieth-century aristocrat much promoted by plays and films — asad, impoverished man, living in a flat in a crumbling Tudor mansion, helping to collect half-crowns* and serve the ice-cream, while the public in thousands come out of charabancs, their plastic raincoats squeaking together, to gape at armour, four-posters and tables laid for imaginary banquets.

But it is a misleading picture. In the first place, the aristocracy are, in general, much richer than they seem. Their London palaces and outward show have disappeared, but the countryside is still full of millionaire peers: many of them, with the boom in property, are richer now than they have ever been. Their individual wealth cannot compare with the new corporate wealth of industrial giants or insurance companies: but members of some of the oldest families are still among the richest men in Britain.

Death-duties, gambling, drinking and building had reduced many noble fortunes which could only be revived by marrying money. The British aristocracy kept itself rich by the ruthless custom of primogeniture, by which the estate and the title passed only to the eldest son, and other sons had to make their own way in the army, the Church or business, or vanish into obscurity and poverty. It is still common to find a rich peer living grandly in the family mansion and his younger brother or his dowager mother living in a three-room flat: before the war there was even a second sons’ club founded to protest against it. The favouritism for the eldest son has kept the old estates intact: peers could never maintain their pomp if every son of a lord was a lord.

Among the peerage, dukes have always been regarded as a Class by themselves. None are salaried employees, and most of them have succeeded in hanging on to much of their fortunes. At least half are millionaires.

Into the discreet and sheltered world of the traditional dukes there burst in 1953 a disturbing new presence — the new Duke of Bedford, who came from South Africa. The Russell* family, of which the philosopher was a reluctant member, have always been unpredictable. The new duke was no exception.

Faced with the problem of paying four and a half million death-duties, he set about establishing himself as anew phenomenon — a showman-duke — and came into the middle of the cosmopolitan whoopee* world. He pushed the financial assets of a title and estate to their legitimate conclusion, opening up his eighteenth century mansion with every kind of ballyhoo and sideshow, including a private zoo, a park with bison and eleven kinds of deer, a playground, two million pounds’ worth of pictures, a chinese diary, and occasional nudist camps.

“T soon found to my embarrassment’’, he blandly explains in his autobiography “that one of the principal attractions is myself’’. But his embarrassment has not been over-apparent; his genial bespectacled face stares out from advertisments to attract visitors. He offers special lunch-parties for Americans to have lunch with a duke for ten pounds and he shows no sign of disliking his duties: “being a showman is more fun,’’he wrote, “than sitting about in dignity or potting pheasants’’. :

Nowadays it must be said that the tangible advantages of a title are very few. A peer can claim  six-and-a-half guineas for every day he signs in at the House of Lords, and receives Hansard (official report of Parliamentary debates) free every day: he can let everyone know he is a peer by having a badge on.his car saying “House of Lords Motoring Club.’’ However for anyone in occupations where social prestige is important, a title is still invaluable, particularly in showmanship and salesmanship.

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