Downton Abbey Economics

by John on October 14, 2012

Celebrating the Height of Empire as Queen Victoria Opens the Great Exhibition of 1851

How much do Public Broadcast Service viewers understand about the economy that led to the lifestyle of the wealthy Edwardian-era family in the hit series Downton Abbey? If one watched only PBS historical dramas, the British history leading up to the Abby era seems to run to the understanding that Horatio Hornblower  (born imaginarily in 1771) and the Royal Navy defeated the French, and somewhere in there, Jane Austen came to her Sense and Sensibility (1811), and didn’t James Watt (1736-1819) invent the steam engine and thus power the Industrial Revolution upon which England built a mighty Empire on which the sun wouldn’t set until World War One came along and upset the elegance and gentility of the Edwardian Era?  Well, there may have been a couple of social issues here and there, along with the Titanic, providing the PBS drama with some good plot points.

The historical truth is markedly different.  The span of relevant history starts out with a major bailout of the landed gentry and the banking system, and ends with the rise of the financial sector providing much of the income for the Downton Abbeys of the time. It progresses through the Industrial Revolution to a late-Victorian English ruling elite that was smug, narrowly educated and scientifically illiterate, rich from the financial sector but with a manufacturing base that had been increasingly starved for the capital to keep up with the technological pace of change.  It spans a time of tectonic social shift from an agrarian economy to one where a rising industrial middle class needed workers for its factories. Because of that fundamental change, the working poor were largely cut off from the land and social structure which produced the food they ate, making them dependant solely on the factories that provided their wages.

The bailout occurred when Parliament passed the Corn Laws, a steep tariff on cheap imported grain   As the eminent British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “The Corn Laws which the farming industry imposed on the country in 1815 were not designed to save a tottering sector of the economy, but rather to preserve the abnormally high profits of the Napoleonic war-years, and to safeguard farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms.” The linkage to the sub-prime debacle and subsequent bailouts is obvious. Then, as now, making risky loans based on bubble-inflated real estate was a recipe for trouble.

The costs of the tariffs literally took bread out of the mouths of the newly emerging class of factory workers, who then needed higher wages just to eat. This would mark the emergence of three distinct economic forces: the landed gentry, who at the time controlled Parliament; the rising industrial middle classes, (the true job creators of the time, who at that time did not have the right to vote) who felt that the tariffs were restricting economic growth by forcing them to pay more for workers and thus consume capital for expansion, and third, the working class itself.  Thus, the simplification of social tensions to class warfare between the rich and poor was, and still is, simply wrong . The fundamental battle was the landed gentry against the combined job creators and the working class.  This can be seen from the early 1800’s alliance formed between the workers and the growing class of industrialists.

There were several attempts to formulate social structures to which would bring about political reform.  A significant example was the Birmingham Political Union, whose goal was reform of the House of Commons ‘to be achieved by a general political union of the lower and middle classes of the people’.  At the same time, the Cooperative Movement, largely started by Robert Owen, who operated his mill at New Lanark, was having a significant impact.  (It’s well worth visiting the New Lanark World Heritage site to see the relevance of his ideas to the modern day, including the environment, health and child care, housing, and education.)  Pressure from these social movements, including a mass meeting 200,000 members of the Birmingham Political Union, pressured the House of Lords, afraid of violent social unrest, to pass the 1832 Reform Act.

The Reform Act would extended the voting rights to the middle class industrialists, which lead to weakening of the Corn Law and increasing calls for free trade.  After eventual repeal in 1846, the imports of grain from the prairie farms of North America expanded rapidly, supplying the U.S. and Canada with earnings to buy the output of increasingly industrialized England, led by Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) and his advances in machine tool design such as his screw-cutting lathe, and micrometer, which had made possible precision manufacture and thus mass production. The results were celebrated by Queen Victoria’s multiple visits to the 1,851 foot long ‘Crystal Palace’, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, celebrating Victorian manufacturing and scientific prowess.

However, Britain began to rely increasingly on trade, overseas investments and financial and insurance services while starving her home industry of capital improvements to take advantage of subsequent technological advances, many of which were British.  There is no clearer example than that of the steel industry, where the British developed literally all of the major advances, from the Bessemer Converter (1856) to the Siemens-Martin open hearth furnace (1867) to the Gilchrist-Thomas process (1887) which was almost instantly adopted by American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who paid $250,000 (a fortune at the time) for the U.S. rights.  By 1910, the U.S. was producing twice the tonnage of steel as Great Britain, who had formerly supplied over half the world’s steel yet was starved of capital to adapt more efficient technology.

When assessing the economics of the time, the educational system is most telling, with the ‘reform’ of the most prestigious boys schools in England, which had historically started as charity schools but had evolved into institutions for the children of the ruling class.  The Public School Act of 1868, by its full title ‘An Act to make further Provision for the good Government and Extension of certain Public Schools in England,’ removed the nine schools, amongst them Eton, Harrow and Winchester, from Crown control and provided each with an independent governing body.  However, despite the recommendations of famed biologist T.H. Huxley, whose famed 1860 debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce led to the wider acceptance of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Parliament refused to mandate scientific education in the schools.  Indeed, Eton had only added arithmetic in 1836!  Instead the school imbued their students with the Victorian mythology as to Britain’s place in the world.  In 1900, Germany graduated 3000 engineers, while in all of England and Wales, only 250 degrees were granted in scientific and technical fields.

The disastrous effects of the social structure showed up in a working class stunted by decades of malnutrition.  In the 1870s,’s the height of the twelve- year- olds at the prestigious ‘public’ schools was a full five inches taller than that of the industrial students in their separate schools.   When the nation conscripted its soldiers in 1917, this first comprehensive look at the health of the male population showed that two thirds suffered disqualifying disabilities.  Providing significantly improved conditions for the working class, proper nutrition, comprehensive education and, despite the work of reformers like public health pioneer Florence Nightingale, all this and readily available health services were decades in the future.

Thus, the residents of Downton Abbey represent a British upper class that was ill-equipped by education and temperament to enter the 20thcentury, in charge of a country with outdated industry and dependent on increasingly competitive international finance and trade with other rapidly industrializing nations.  England, like Holland and Spain before her, went through the same rhyming pattern of technology and trade, rise of the power of the financial sector, followed by decline.   It is a good question to ask ourselves: where on this timeline where does America stand?.  Does the country celebrate and support the innovative brilliance of the science and technology of a Maudsley or a Darwin, or the deal-making financial sector that preserved the Downton Abbeys for the privileged few? What does the answer mean for our future place in the world?

Previous post:

Next post: