Why did the British landed gentry start to decline in the late 18th/early 19th Century?

If you’ve ever read Thackeray, it’s full of shabby-genteel characters like Lord Bareacres and Viscount Castlemouldy, impoverished (compared to their ancestors) aristocrats clinging to their social status, and snubbing new-rich London merchant families like the Sedleys. And this was before the rise of new-superrich industrialists. (Eventually, the gentry would deal with the parvenus by marrying them, and sending their sons to be Eton, etc., to learn genteel manners and morals.) Barry Lyndon decries the dull “merchants cant” of the early 19th Century and pines for the old gay, bawdy, reckless, cruel life of the “gentleman.”

But, why and how did that happen? IIRC, in the 18th Century the gentry-dominated Parliament enacted laws of “primogeniture and entail” expressly designed to assure the continued existence of the gentry as a class, by making sure every big estate would be passed on intact from one generation to the eldest son of the next, never divided among heirs or sold off piecemeal to pay creditors. Why didn’t all that work?

They were overtaken by widespread industrialisation, this created a new class of entrepreneur that had not existed before, well thats an exaggeration, there were merchant classes but the manufacturing owners were still something fairly new.

Many of the landed classes had their wealth based upon…land, however they also had huge influence in municipal politics, and they were pretty much replaced, or in many cases their offspring married into the industrial wealth.

In quite a few cases, the entrepreneurial types were actually the second and third born to the wealthy landed familes, they were not tied to the land, since they did not inherit.

Contrary to popular thought, though not to those in the know, industrialisation has gone on for millenia, the Romans had it, but the scale of it truly expanded in the 18thC right the way through, its possible to trace the roots of some of the main manufacturing centres to some time before that.

Industrialisation did not start with the advent of steam power, the earliest ‘manufactories’ on large scale relied on water power, and in some mining and extraction industries, it relied on hand and beast power - there are one or two lead and tin extraction museums in Cornwall for example that show eactly how these soul destroying processes were carried out - you can even have a go at it yourself if you like getting cold and wet from hammering ore bearing rocks using hammers that crushed the ore in water tanks - all powered using human effort only.

for your homework project, you really should be looking for article about the early stages of the industrial revolution, but you may also wish to add in matters such as the changes in politics as I have alluded to.


I would add that it would be more true to say that the gentry did not really go away until after WW1, and for the most part they became investors, factory owners and the like, only the first born landed sons clung onto the large estates, their siblings moved on.


The usual cause of the decline of gentry is often attributed to the rise of manufacturing and the consequent increase in the middle classes, their activism has generally been seen as transferring power away from the gentry, I think its overstating the case a little, since many of the gentry made fortunes out of the extraction of minerals and coal from their land, and the gentry also had a great deal of investment in some of the nascent industries.

I think you can look at political changes, such as the 1832 reform act as being the slow erosion of the power of the gentry, perhaps even the settlement terms of the English Civil war which placed Parliament in the ascendancy over the Monarch.

But, why would the emergence of a new-rich class make the landed gentry any less rich?

I’m reading “At Home” by Bill Bryson and I get the impression the answer to your question might be “because land became worth less” along with a major migration of people from the farms to the cities.

He discusses how the position of ‘Vicar’ went from being a well-paid fairly easy life to near-poverty-level.

(Not sure on the timing off-hand; I have to go back and re-read some earlier chapters.)

Because wealth, by and large, is a relative measure. What matters is how your wealth compares to the price of what you want to buy – be it physical goods, services, or influence. If others are wealthy, it pushes up the demand for all these things and hence the prices. That means you can afford less of it.

Bill Bryson talks a lot about this process in At Home, but I can’t for the life of me recall enough to sum it up for you. Sorry!

The repeal of the Corn Laws (agricultural tariffs on the importation of grain) in the UK sharply reduced domestic grain prices and the value of agricultural land with it. This was more the last nail in the landed gentry’s coffin than the first, though, I think.

Those landed gentry were certainly wealthy, however the remnants of the lower levels of the manorial system melted away.This in turn was the last vestiges to the feudal system. In both these set ups, wealth was derived solely from the activities of an agrarian society, built upon a system of taxes and dues such as soke taxes and incomes from other rights that had been granted such as the rights to pannage and many other such archaic practices.

The waves of plagues throughout the 12th and 13th centuries put the price of labour up, as it had become much scarcer and manorial incomes fell quite dramatically, plus the labourers were not as tied down as they previously had been, it meant that local Lords had to find ways to retain or even in some cases, to attract occupants of their land holdings, this again brought down maniorial incomes.

A dual trend emerged where ‘enterprise’ settlements were set up, and many large towns have their roots in these early entrepreneurial activities.These were generally a liberalised form of the manoorial system, the inhabitants were exempted from the service of the Lord and instead paid rents for the right to conduct their business in land specifically set aside - these were subject to a differant court system and were run by a town council system on behalf of the Lords.
The other trend that also emerged was that many many villages were cleared of their populations and the land given over to sheep, as the income was greater than from crops based agriculture - both of these ran right through to the 16th Centuries, the sheep clearnaces were commeneted upon by the church, not because of the sheer injustice of turning people out of their homes to die on the road as vagabonds, bu because this loss of population also led to loss of congregations and of income and prestige.It also forced people from the land and into towns, which you could argue came back to haunt the country estate land holders in the form of industry and increased labour costs as a result of that industry.

The income that could be derived from the enterprise settlements was greater than agriculture, and this in turn generated a life of its own, attracting and creating new trades and services. Once you have a critical mass of activity, industrial activities follw, to supply these nascent towns and also eventually, the towns themselves became first sellers, then finishers and finally manufactuers of products using raw materials that had been imported from the surrounding lands.

Many of these towns were incorporated during the 16th and 17th centuries, which freed them from the last traces of the manorial systems.Some towns bought out these rights, bit by bit from various parties, such as the rights to appoint the town vicar, or the right to hold their own council formulated in the manner that they chose, instead of it being made up from representatives appointed from , say, the church or local landholder.

Power slowly transferred through parliamentary representation, but the 1832 reform act is critical in this process and it began the process of removing and reducing the undue influence of the gentry - this would still take another century to be complete.

As for why gentry declined, well thats just the land holders the ones who owned the great country estates, their siblings went off and pretty much built the British Empire, and others did become inviolved in industry and made fortunes for themselves.

The income that these activities generated was far greater than the largely agricultural life. Power goes where the money is, and wealth is relative, those with the greatest incomes ended up with the greatest influence, they could pay to get their choice of candidate into parliament, and they could pay to have those representative advocate their own causes, and yes, the British parliament was that corrupt.

You have to be careful not to exaggerate the decline of the gentry, it depends upon the level of which you speak, it was a relative decline but really they were quite influential right up to WW1, and its really only after WW2 that you could truly say that they were gone in terms of power.

What I learned was that the power of the aristocracy throughout Europe declined during the nineteenth century because of a drop in food prices and land values.

By coincidence I’m reading a book,The Ascent Of Money by Niall Ferguson, that addresses this question in one chapter. His argument was that the landed gentry was done in by two things: the rise in interest they had to pay on loans, and the decline in the (price) yield of agricultural land.

Essentially lenders could get a better return on their money from government bonds or stocks so if they wished to continue to borrow money they had to agree to higher interest on the loans. At the same time food got cheaper due to increased technology and (as Tom Tildrum mentioned) the repeal of the Corn Laws.

I’m not sure I’d take Mr. Ferguson’s word as gospel. It’s been a while since I took macroeconomics but some of the arguments and facts in later chapters make me go :dubious:. But it could just be that my history and/or macro is rustier than I thought.

A good example of this is domestic help. Not only were the newly wealthy industrialists able to outcompete the gentry in hiring servants, but those of the rural working class could now find much better opportunities in the cities, than staying in the provinces and becoming servants to the local squire.

If the facts of life in domestic service, as presented in The Edwardian Country House* are to be believed, it was an extremely grueling existence that no one would stand who could find anything else to do. At least, such was the case for those who did most of the physical work in a great house.
*yes, I know the Edwardian era is somewhat later than when all this really started happening in earnest, but still.

Check out David Cannadine’s “The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy”.

The British landed nobility began a long decline in the 1860’s-when cheap wheat and other foods from N. America began to show up in european ports. This was a consequence of the Clipper Ships, and later steamships. British farms were too small to be mechanized, and American farmers (aided by reaping machines) bombed the pricing for wheat. The gentry responded by borrowing-by the time of the first world war, many were heavily in debt-then the war taxes killed them-which is why many great country houses fell into disrepair, and could be had for a song, by the 1930’s. Menawhile 9as was mentioned) agricultural workers moved to the cities, where they could get better wages working at factory jobs.

Then of course there was a little thing called WWI. The British aristocracy died by truckload in each battle.