There is a concept of life in Britain just before the First World War as the Indian summer of the Victorian world, a golden age when sunny days were as long as the dresses of ladies taking tea at country house parties, and, as Boris Pasternak wrote in The Last Summer, a time when ‘life appeared to pay heed to individuals’.
What was life really like then? An original contemporary source gives details that help to give a truer picture of how people from a wide cross-section of society lived.
The Valuation Office survey made around 100 years ago was a property valuation for tax purposes; it was such a comprehensive survey of land and buildings that it was dubbed a New Domesday. It has a wealth of detail about people and places, giving us a unique ‘snapshot’ of property and society in Edwardian England and Wales. Maps serve as the means of reference to more than 95,000 Field Books which contain descriptions of some nine million individual houses, farms and other properties.
Why and how was the survey carried out?
In the early 20th century much land was still owned by a privileged few, who often got richer as their land increased in value with no effort on their part. This was beginning to be seen by many people as a social injustice.
In 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer was David Lloyd George (who became Prime Minister in December 1916), after whom the survey is sometimes named. His Liberal Government’s so-called ‘People’s Budget’ introduced a new tax on any increase in land values due to the state rather than to landowners’ own efforts. First, a valuation was made of all land in the United Kingdom, to fix the base line from which increases in value would be calculated. Each property was given a plot number, unique within its income tax parish, which was written on the relevant map, and a description written in the related Field Book. The amount of detail varies but can give much information about the use and value of lands and buildings, and names of their owners and occupiers.
From grand estates to slums
An example of a large estate was Bayham Abbey near Lamberhurst, Sussex, the Marquess of Camden’s ‘stone and slate modern mansion’ arranged to reflect the social status of its occupants. For the family there were 11 bedrooms, a billiard hall, library; writing, drawing and dining rooms; a study, boudoir, day and night nurseries, even a ballroom.
Servants inhabited separate regions of the house: a servants’ hall, 14 servants’ bedrooms, housemaids’ and butler’s pantries, a laundry and a secretary’s office. Other ‘below stairs’ rooms you may find listed include scullery, china pantry, boot and lamp rooms. The rest of the estate had stabling for 17 horses, a garage, fire engine house, riding school, and even its own church for 150 people. Continue reading »