Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English Country House After World War II by Adrian Tinniswood

The annual Flower Show in Corsley, a village on the Longleat estate in Wiltshire, was a scene of timeless English rusticity: sultana scones, egg-and-spoon races, tug-of-war, prizes for the Best Potted Begonia, dancing in the village’s Reading Room. It was all terribly Mrs Miniver. Shelved for six years by war, the flower show returned in August 1945, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. And at the next year’s show, the villagers’ new landlord, Henry Thynne, the 6th Marquess of Bath, dropped a bombshell of his own; he told them he was selling off the village.

The reason was simple: death duties. Henry’s father, Thomas, had died without gifting the bulk of his estate to his son, who now owed the Inland Revenue $950,000 (about $136 million today) in inheritance tax. And the new Labour government was raising the top rate of tax to 95 percent. “The days of the large estates,” Henry told his neighbors, “are over.”

Adrian Tinniswood, the author of 16 books on English country houses and their histories, explores the desperate adjustments made by their owners in the three decades that followed this shocking blow. He describes the committees, the political lobbying and special pleading; some brazenly argued that stately homes could “fulfil their true purpose” only if they continued to be privately owned, funded by the state. He shows how, although many houses were demolished, scores of others were remodeled by a new generation of architects, or bought by the raffish new aristocracy of Swinging London.

But his main aim in Noble Ambitions is to tell splendid tales of the lengths to which house owners went to turn old grandeur into new cash. I admired the audacity of the 11th Duke of Argyll, who, desperate to raise $680,000 to pay death duties on Inveraray Castle, sold his name to the US Burlington Hosiery Company. They advertised his tartan socks as “styled for Bur-Mil by the Duke of Argyll” with a photograph of the duke beside his noble hosiery — “filled”, the advert alluringly claimed, “with the very flavour of Scotland”.

Some country families rented their houses to film companies. When Major Benjamin Hervey-Bathurst let MGM park their lighting equipment and film trucks on the forecourt of Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire to make the atrocious Rat Pack comedy One More Time, he was shocked to find Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Jerry Lewis careering across his grounds on mopeds “to save their legs between takes”.

The 11th Duke of Argyll, desperate to raise $680,000 to pay death duties on Inveraray Castle, sold his name to the US Burlington Hosiery Company.

It was only a matter of time before country home owners found themselves joining the tourism industry. Blenheim Palace grudgingly welcomed 126,000 visitors in 1951, Chatsworth 205,000 in 1954. By 1972, British stately homes were letting 6.5 million strangers a year mooch around their ancestral fireplaces.

Some noble lords revealed themselves as natural “showman-peers”. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, sent down from Oxford after his Bullingdon Club friends smashed up his college rooms, went from charging 40,000 visitors one shilling each to inspect the ruins of the Cistercian monastery at Beaulieu to charging them 2/6 to nose around his family heirlooms. A vintage car enthusiast with a single vintage car of his own, he created the UK’s first motor museum by borrowing others from friends.

The 13th Duke of Bedford, faced with death duties after the 12th duke shot himself, opened Woburn Abbey to the great unwashed in 1955. A year later he turned the stables into a milk bar and offered his butler, James Boyd, as the prize in a “Win a Butler for a Weekend” competition. “I have been accused of being undignified,” he wrote. “That is quite true, I am. If you take your dignity to the pawnbroker, he won’t give you much for it.”

High society was suddenly in déclassé turmoil. J Paul Getty, the richest man in the US, bought the magnificent Tudor mansion Sutton Place in 1959 after a dinner invitation from the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, who dropped hints over pudding that it might be for sale. The Duchess of Devonshire lectured New Yorkers about the appeal of Chatsworth, like an upmarket carnival barker.

The 13th Duke of Bedford offered his butler, James Boyd, as the prize in a “Win a Butler for a Weekend” competition.

The county set were shocked to find, in their ranks, a dead-common intruder, Lady Docker. Born over a butcher’s shop in Derby, the former horizontale Norah Collins married three millionaires, the last being Sir Bernard Docker, owner of a 2,000-acre shooting estate in Hampshire. Their fleet of cars included the Golden Zebra, with its dashboard cocktail cabinet and zebra-skin upholstery. (Why zebra skin? “Because mink is too hot to sit on,” she said.)

When body-swerved by county society, they enjoyed wild times on the Riviera until the night when Norah, extremely drunk, climbed onstage at the Casino nightclub, insulted Prince Rainier, called Grace Kelly “the Irish navvy’s daughter” and ripped the Monegasque flag in half. They were banned from entering Monaco ever again.

As we enter the 1960s, the stories of rock stars buying stately homes (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Roger Daltrey all bought one between 1966 and 1971) and of mansion-based sex scandals (Lord Montagu’s gay orgy, the Marchioness of Argyll’s “headless man”, John Profumo and Christine Keeler) feel a bit vieux chapeau, but Tinniswood finds intriguing tales elsewhere. Such as the evening in 1971 when the septuagenarian Frances Partridge, last survivor of the Bloomsbury Group, was taken by the daughter of the Marchioness of Bath to dine with Michael Caborn-Waterfield, a former gun-runner for Batista in 1950s Cuba and a friend of the Krays. When Partridge met him, he’d just opened a sex shop near Marble Arch, named after a former manager of the Sedgehill estate: Ann Summers.

The book ends in 1974 with a notable victory. Harold Wilson’s Labour government proposed a wealth tax on individual assets, a shocking imposition for the owners of estates and mansions; but it was withdrawn after the Victoria and Albert Museum staged a polemical exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, in reply. Its climax was the “Hall of Lost Houses” which displayed a huge façade of a collapsing stately home: each lump of masonry showed a photo of one of the 1,000 houses that had been lost since 1875.

Adrian Tinniswood’s rollicking study perfectly captures the combination of decadence, pathos and brazen cheek that kept the English country house alive when it faced disaster.

John Walsh is a former literary editor of The Sunday Times and editor of The Independent Magazine