Magazine article The Spectator

'Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War', by John Martin Robinson - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War', by John Martin Robinson - Review

Article excerpt

Credit: Richard Ryder

Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War John Martin Robinson

Aurum Press, pp.288, £25, ISBN: 9781781310953

Servicemen used paintings as dartboards.   Schoolchildren dismantled banisters and paneling for firewood. Architects from the Ministry of Works acted like pocket Stalins. Sarcophagi were dumped in gardens beside beheaded statues. And overhead, Luftwaffe Dorniers droned with menace. Such hazards ravaged requisitioned country houses during the last war. Yet nothing imperilled them more, in the 20th century, than super-taxes and the rattle of death duties.

When the country houses were handed back, the majority were defiled as well as decaying from leaking roofs and dry rot. Cash-poor owners, already penalised by towering taxation, could not afford to carry out major repairs to their caves of ice -- to borrow from Coleridge and James Lees-Milne.

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. Simultaneously, the West German finance minister, Ludwig Erhard, advanced in the opposite direction, by slicing taxes. While he engineered an economic miracle from rubble, hundreds of British country houses were reduced to it.

The British tax system crushed entrepreneurial spirit. Scarcely one new wealth creator rose from the mire to buy a cave of ice. Even the spate of Edwardian dollar princesses, whose dowries had bailed out houses like Blenheim, sank to a dribble. Supply outstripped demand. By 1970 one third of Britain's country houses had yielded to gelignite or the wrecking ball.

Casualties of demolition included the French Gothic Eaton Hall in Cheshire, designed by Alfred Waterhouse. This is one of 20 outstanding country houses featured in John Martin Robinson's latest book, which comes on the heels of his much-praisedFelling the Ancient Oaks, and again blends scholarship with elegance of style, as well as black-and-white photographs of historic consequence.

The 188 rooms of Eaton Hall, belonging to the Duke of Grosvenor, were requisitioned for a military hospital and later for the Royal Naval College. When the house was razed and replaced in the 1960s the Duke of Bedford remarked drily: 'It seems that one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish stately homes. …

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