British Country Houses in the First and Second World War – October 27, 2014

Once there were thousands of large British manor homes scattered across Great Briton. Many have been razed, destroyed, fallen into ruin, but even into the 20th century they still had a storied history.

During the First World War, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a hospital, and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. She became an adept nurse and a skilled healer and hundreds of letters from patients and their families bear testament to her untiring work and spirit of generosity.

The Castle returned to a private home and in 1922 when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, the first global world media event.

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle

During the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing of Waddesdon Manor, leaving the main House to children evacuated from London.


Before the 19th century, the British upper classes enjoyed a life relatively free from taxation. Staff was plentiful and cheap, and estates not only provided a generous income from tenanted land but also political power. During the 19th century this began to change, until by the mid-20th century they had no power and were suffering heavy taxation. The staff had either been killed in two world wars or forsaken a life of servitude for better wages elsewhere. Thus the owners of large country houses dependent on staff and a large income began by necessity to dispose of their costly non-self sustaining material assets. Large houses had become redundant white elephants to be abandoned or demolished. It seemed that in particular regard to the country houses no one was prepared to save them.

There are several reasons which had brought about this situation – most significantly in the early 20th century there was no firmly upheld legislation to protect what is now considered to be the nation’s heritage.[26] Additionally, public opinion did not have the sentiment and interest in national heritage that is evident in Britain today. When the loss of Britain’s architectural heritage reached its height at the rate of one house every five days in 1955, few were particularly interested or bothered. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, to the British public still suffering from the deprivations of food rationing and restriction on building work the destruction of these great redundant houses was of little interest. From 1914 onwards there had been a huge exodus away from a life in domestic service; having experienced the less restricted and better paid life away from the great estates, few were anxious to return – this in itself was a further reason that life in the English country house was becoming near impossible to all but the very rich.

The slow decline of the English country house coincided with the rise not just of taxation, but also of modern industry, along with the agricultural depression of the 1870s. By 1880, this had led some owners into financial shortfalls as they tried to balance maintenance of their estates with the income they provided. Some relied on funds from secondary sources such as banking and trade while others, like the severely impoverished Duke of Marlborough, sought American heiresses to save their country houses and lifestyles.

The ultimate demise began immediately following World War I. The huge staff required to maintain large houses had either left to fight and never returned, departed to work in the munitions factories, or to fill the void left by the fighting men in other workplaces. Of those who returned after the war, many left the countryside for better-paid jobs in towns. The final blow for many country houses came following World War II; having been requisitioned during the war, they were returned to the owners in poor repair. Many estate owners, having lost their heirs, if not in the immediately preceding war then in World War I, were now paying far higher rates of tax, and agricultural incomes had dropped. Thus, the solution for many was to hold contents auctions and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling. This is what happened to many of Britain’s finest houses.

During the World War II years (1939 – 1945), numerous British country houses were requisitioned by the government or lent by their owners for use as barracks, homes for evacuees, schools, hospitals, works of art stores, strategic and military headquarters, billets and training sites and even prisoner-of-war camps. Unfortunately, this use led to the destruction of over a thousand of these grand homes, rarely as a result of enemy fire, but more likely being irreparably damaged by their wartime occupants. “The 1945 Labour government injected extra venom by setting the top rate of tax at 98 per cent and ratcheting up death duties twice in four years.”

Highclere, Blenheim, Waddesdon and thousands of other manor homes were converted for wartime use.


Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire

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Blenheim Palace during World War II

Blenheim Palace during World War II

Bill Powers is author of The Pharm House a debut suspense/thriller from DonnaInk Publications.

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