Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 3, 2014

World War I and the Decline of Downton Abbey's Aristocracy

The First World War had a devastating impact on the British upper classes. Those sons of the British upper classes fortunate enough to survive the First World War returned to find a country in a state of flux and their place in it no longer automatically assured. Their diminished numbers — until late 1917 the upper classes suffered proportionately greater losses in the fighting than any other class — ensured that a resumption of the prewar status quo was physically impossible.

"The apprentices for the postwar were no longer there; they were lying in Flanders Fields," says Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London. "This had a devastating impact: the prime minister's son was killed, a number of cabinet members' sons were killed and this meant that in the immediate postwar, those apprentices who were expected in the natural order of things to become leaders – particularly in politics and business – were no longer there."

But not only were the numbers of the male upper-class members severely diminished; there was also a fall in the number of those willing to serve them and their families as they had done for hundreds of years. Many of the women whom the war effort had forced out of domestic service and into factories found themselves unwilling to relinquish their new independence [and better pay].

"You get the delegitimisation of the whole structure that maintains upper middle-class life," says Bourke. "In the past, the servant class in upper middle-class homes were those people whose family tradition was to work there. When someone left, the cook would recommend her niece — and that no longer happened, so there's a real crisis in terms of the labour that's required to keep up these lifestyles."

The decline of the upper classes was further hastened by the passing of the Representation of the People's Act in June 1917, which gave the vote to an additional 5 million men and nearly 9 million women. The extension of the franchise, coupled with an explosion in trade unionism, afforded the working classes greater social representation and with it the freedom to challenge the power of the establishment parties and question the wisdom of those who had sent so many soldiers to their deaths.

But perhaps the greatest harbinger of the decline of the upper classes emerged from the mud and blood of the Western Front as the institution charged with protecting the traditional British way of life became the unwitting agent of its dissolution. The introduction of conscription in 1916 turned a professional army into a civilian one and flooded its ranks with middle-class men whose mothers and fathers occupied powerful places in society and used those positions to demand that their children's sacrifices were not in vain. It also led to the rise of new officers from humble backgrounds who, like so many thousands of female Britons at home, were not prepared to abandon the possibility for social advancement that the war had brought them.

As Bourke puts it: "These people came back — some of them with medals — and they weren't going to go back to being shopkeepers."  

Written by Sam Jones,  presented in the Guardian 15 January 2014


  1. Don't forget the heavy taxes that Lloyd George put in effect. The titled aristocracy could not longer afford their large estates after they paid their taxes.
    T. Morgan

  2. Well, as you csn see today, 2020 the nobility still own over 50% of sll British land. So what has changed? I think your title is misleading, another point is the nonsensical statement about men "giving their lives" they didn't their lives were stolen from them by politicians.

  3. I agree with the above comment. The aristocracy still own the bulk of the land in this contry and possess immeasurable wealth and influence....