The Gentry: Stories of the English

If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.

Adam Nicolson, HarperCollins, 2011

The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.

The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.

What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.

However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.

While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.

Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living.  Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.

The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.

In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

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