Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Guess Who’s Coming to Visit -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 6

Folks certainly are cranky at Downton Abbey. Daisy is jealous of the burgeoning friendship between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason. Edith and Mary both have charming suitors, but can’t stop sniping at each other about it, even with the Great Irish Peacemaker (and capitalist) standing between them. Mr. Carson, I suspect, is having Feelings about married life, and he’s working them out by complaining about Mrs. Hughes’s cooking and cleaning abilities. And finally, there’s the Dowager Countess’s righteous fury at being out-maneuvered on the hospital board and forced to step down in favor of her daughter-in-law.

Just about the only people who weren’t driven to distraction with envy, jealousy, and greed were the ones who were supposed to be feeling all of those things: the ordinary visitors who paid six pence to see Downton Abbey and support the local hospital. Bertie Pelham, the Brancaster estate agent who has become chummy with Edith, warns the family that the guests will need guides “if you want them to go away happy, and leave behind what’s not theirs.” Carson thinks the glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich could foment revolution, as curiosity leads to envy: “The next thing you know, there’s a guillotine in Trafalgar Square.” Mr. Molesley, ever the educator, wants to let ordinary people “enjoy fine craftsmanship and beautiful paintings,” but even he admits: “they’re bound to start asking, ‘Why have the Crawleys got all of this and I haven’t?’”


Country house visiting has a long and surprising history. It dates to the eighteenth century and the desire of estate owners to show off their growing collections of art and artifacts, accumulated through expanding networks of global trade and empire. But only the well-connected and the well-off could visit, or rather, be shown around discreetly by a servant. This sort of visiting is familiar to the readers of Pride and Prejudice, where it sets up a climactic encounter between its protagonists. Isobel Crawley recalls: “Even Elizabeth Bennett wanted to see what Pemberley was like inside,” to which Violet tartly replies: “A decision which caused her a great deal of embarrassment, if I remember the novel correctly.”

Democratization and popularization came, though, in the 19th century, when a limited practice became a widespread fashion. In the words of historian Peter Mandler, “The older houses were viewed, much like the châteaux and Schlosses, not as private homes but as common property: they were the ‘mansions of England.’” There’s a hint of this in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters: the annual ‘treat’ at the local manor, though a grand affair, is accepted as a right by the townspeople. George IV ordered, in 1822, that the apartments belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots, at Holyrood House in Edinburgh should be “preserved sacred from every alteration,” and turned them into a hugely popular 19th-century tourist destination.

After the wave of sales and disruptions around the First World War, country-house tourism hit a low point in the 1920s and 1930s. Partly, this was because owners were discouraged and demoralized; as we have seen, grand houses were an increasingly uneconomical proposition. By the 1920s, it was difficult to sell them for more than the price of the land on which they stood. If they were converted from homes, it was most often into schools or other institutions, not yet museums. Mandler estimates that fully half of the houses that had been open to Victorian visitors were closed by the 1930s. Owners were defensive as well as strapped for cash. Lord Granby, the heir to Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, restored the home and opened it to visitors in the 1920s, but grew increasingly disturbed by the litter and bother. When a fire broke out in the tearoom in 1925, he shut the hall entirely to tourists, even planting a row of shrubs to block it from the eyes of the curious. Although other stately homes remained open, at set hours and for a fee, proceeds from country-house tourism were generally low.

Haddon Hall Haddon Hall

Country houses were not in fashion; their owners did not, yet, understand how to market them to the 20th-century tourist. The English middle classes turned enthusiastically to the delights of the countryside as an escape from their urban and suburban daily grinds. But they came to frolic and recreate, not to gaze deferentially at the homes of the landlord class. Indeed, landlords were more likely to be seen as an obstacle than an attraction. Speaking about the Downton visiting day, Daisy asks: “What gives them the right to keep people out?”

It was a question that was being frequently asked, not about the houses themselves, but about the land around them. “Ramblers” claimed the right of access to open land across ancient footpaths and rights of way that had often been blocked by landlords enclosing their property. In 1932, ramblers famously trespassed on Kinder Scout, in the Peak District west of Manchester. Most visitors, of course, were more amiable, enjoying picnics, festivals, and visits to rustic pubs. They were interested in arts and crafts, but in the popular rather than the grand tradition: Morris dancing and folk music rather than the Reynolds painting over the stairs.

The men and women who queued up to see Downton were expected to be envious and larcenous. Instead, they were serious-minded and inquisitive. In a series of quick vignettes, we see Cora, Edith, and Mary all stumped by basic questions about art, architecture, and history. Asked why the shields carved into the chimney-piece are blank, Cora replies: “Do you know, I’ve never really noticed that before? Isn’t that strange. I haven’t a clue, is the answer!” Awkward and clueless, preoccupied with their own problems, none of the family seems to be an adequate custodian of national heritage. Only Molesley, standing in the background, seems to know who painted the paintings, but he is silenced by his position in the hierarchy.

Beginning with the National Trust Act of 1937, it became possible for owners of great homes to give or bequeath them to the National Trust, a charity which would run historic buildings and properties for the national good. By 1945 it owned seventeen properties; today, it runs 350 historic houses, gardens, and monuments. Transferring property to the trust became a way of avoiding death duties; other owners took advantage of government programs that awarded grants and loans for maintenance in return for opening the home to the public. If Violet was horrified by Downton’s mild fund-raiser, it’s hard to imagine her reaction to this kind of state-sponsored tourism. Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed, is itself open to the public between sixty and seventy days a year. Like Downton Abbey itself, all of this is part of the larger process that preserved country-house heritage by turning it into a commodity. It’s also a process that often handed control of that heritage to men and women like Molesley — which suggests that, beneath the glossy, genteel surface of its brochures and tea-rooms, interest and knowledge might be better qualifications for stewardship than birth.


Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (Yale University Press, 1997)

V. Morton, In Search of England (London, 1927)

Adrian Tinniswood, The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting (The National Trust, 1998)

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