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Downton Abbey: Why we love it— and where it went

By Editor Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 14, 2012 
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The colonnade called Jackdaws Castle was built to make a pretty view from the house.
The colonnade called Jackdaws Castle was built to make a pretty view from the house.
It's a grand house indeed. It ought to be. Designed and built by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, Highclere is one of England's showcase Victorian mansions. Certainly the ground floor reception rooms are recognizable from the series. You won't see Lady Mary or Carson gliding out of the dining room—but it's easy to imagine.

Downstairs, the old servants' domain has long been turned to more functional service space. The path of the house visit takes you downstairs to the tearoom and out into the carriage house yard and gift shop. Vestiges of the old service quarter remain. In the lower hall, the old bell board still hangs, where maids and footmen could be summoned by bell to any room in the house. I counted the named rooms signaled on the bell board. There were 64.

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The other question about the series that I've received time and again still remains: "Whatever happened to the world of Downton Abbey?"

Part of the enjoyment we derive from period dramas like Downton Abbey is our understanding that these are, indeed, images of times past, from a world that no longer exists and will never exist again. The halcyon life of the British landed aristocracy reflected at Downton Abbey, though, is less than a century old. Why did it disappear so quickly and so completely? Where are Britain's Downton Abbeys today?

Well, they write books about that. There is a short answer, though, and part of it is found in the series itself: The Great War. Among other effects of the war, Europe's conflagration virtually drained Britain of a generation of young men. For the men remaining as well as for women, new avenues of employment quickly opened up that competed well against the option of domestic service.

Britain's economic engine had already changed, however. Wealth no longer lay in the land that supported the old aristocracy; it lay increasingly in manufacture and in commerce. Social and political power had shifted as well. Through the early 1900s, the working classes increasingly realized the power of their voice and vote. The social institution that best represented community for nonagricultural workers became no longer the church or chapel, but the trade union. The unions provided workers with social clubs and institutes, a small measure of economic safety net and incrementally a better working life. And the unions exercised the political power of their united working-class voice.

When the Labour governments came in between the wars, they began a systematic program to dislodge the landed wealth of the hereditary peerage and gentry. Among the primary means of doing so was the establishment of death duties at deliberately confiscatory levels. It was, after all, the land that provided the principal income to the estate—in the form of ground rent. As the old baron died, his family had to sell up significant quantities of land to pay the death duties. That left measurably less rental income to maintain the estate and the family.

After a couple of generations, there was just nothing left—or not enough left to maintain a home like Downton Abbey. From Devon to Durham, hundreds of families were left with these huge, magnificent, historic albatrosses around their neck. From the 1920s-1960s scores of such stately homes were simply torn down. Dozens of grand country homes were gradually ceded to the National Trust, who do a monumental job of conserving them for the nation. Most of those still in private hands open their gates, gardens and doors to paying visitors—whose admissions serve to provide the vastly expensive maintenance costs on such arky mansions. In many cases, that's not enough, and enterprising old stock have enhanced their entertainment appeal with everything from safari parks and farm stands to hosting weddings.

Whatever happened to Downton Abbey? It became Highclere Castle. The series has raised the profile of Highclere Castle just as Brideshead Revisited did for Yorkshire's Castle Howard. That the cast and crew of Downton Abbey has already shot more than 100 days of filming on location there is no small matter in itself. The swell of visitors this spring is undoubtedly only a foretaste of the paying guests the house will receive during the summer season. The rest of us will patiently await our return to Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic coming this winter on PBS.


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2 Responses to “Downton Abbey: Why we love it— and where it went”

  1. 1
    Rudy says:

    It has been a good while to remember this.

  2. 2
    Kathryn says:

    My husband and I just finished watching seasons 1&2 over the past few weeks. I just found myself so depressed after each segment that if he wants to watch season 3, he will be doing it alone. The high point was INNOCENT Mr. Bates getting his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

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