Sir Peter Leicester, in Historical Antiquities of Cheshire, (1673) gives details of all the settlements in Cheshire at the time of the Domesday survey. We read that in 1086 such and such a family held a manor under one of the eight Norman barons who served Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, the nephew of William the Conqueror. How differently we would regard this if we read that at the time of the German Conquest in 1940, the manor was held by Franz von Howitzer under Herman Goering, Gaulieter of Cheshire.
A surprisingly large number of the Cheshire gentry in the late 18th century were directly descended from the first Norman landlords and in effect held their land by right of conquest. A few Cheshire families such as the Brookes of Norton Priory owned their land as a result of purchase at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and some, such as the Brookes of Mere, by acquisition of Royalist estates at the time of the English Civil War. It has been said that when God created the earth, he did not set up an estate office to hand out the deeds, but by the time of Sir Peter Leicester, the leading Cheshire families had muniment rooms full of deeds purporting to show their rightful ownership.
Surprising though it now seems, the gentry families maintained their position for at least 800 years. After the Great Reform Act they continued to provide MPs and in the middle of the 18th century almost all the Cheshire MPs were from families that had provided justices of the peace two centuries earlier. There were several factors in the gradual attrition that reduced the power and importance of these land owners of which the following are the most obvious:
1. Parliamentary reforms from 1832, slow and grudging though they were, eventually provided universal suffrage almost one hundred years later in 1928.
2. The industrial revolution, largely driven in its early stages by Nonconformists entrepreneurs, which gave rise to a new and powerful class of industrialists and also led to the emergence of a bigger group of professional people and tradesmen.
3. The decline of agriculture as cheaper grain and meat could be imported from the Americas and Australasia. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that more people lived in the towns than in the countryside. Agriculture now accounts for only 3% of Gross National Product.
4. Parliamentary measure to tax income and in particular inheritance. Death duties were frequently unaffordable without the sale of assets, particularly in cases where two heirs died in quick succession.
5. Social change, particularly after the Great War.
The system of inheritance that enabled the gentry to survive so long eventually proved a factor in its undoing. Estates were often left in trust for several hundred years to descend through the male heirs. The landowner was often little more than a life tenant and could not sell any of the core estate. He may, under the provision of his father's will, be required to look after his widowed mother and numerous maiden aunts or dependent sisters. This system worked while agriculture remained the main source of the nation's wealth but could not cope easily with the agricultural slump after the Napoleonic Wars. There was a brief resurgence of prosperity in the 1850s and 1860s then a long decline of agriculture in the late Victorian period. This was occasioned by grain imports from North America and then the arrival of refrigerated ships bearing beef from Argentina and lamb from Australasia. The new industrialists were in favour of free trade to feed their workers cheaply. While ostensibly owning thousands of acres, those land owners dependent entirely on agriculture for their income were often in deep debt and unable to sell any real estate to clear it. About a third of the estates were in debt in the middle of the 19th century. Eventually the system of entailment was ended and from the 1880s land owners could sell part or all of their estate and their mansion, often to industrialists eager to establish their claims to gentility by ownership of land. This process reached its apogee after the Great War. In 1919 the Times newspaper had the headline "England for Sale" as the biggest land transfer since the Dissolution took place.
In some cases the Great War had taken male members of the family and household staff but this was not the main reason for the collapse of the estates. These were taxation, the decline of agriculture and social changes. In the middle of the 19th century domestic service had been the main employer of female labour. Gradually new opportunities were opened up and, encouraged by the war, female emancipation was in the air. Domestic service was no longer an attractive option to the 20th century woman. During the Second World War, many estates and houses were requisitioned for war related purposes. Some like Chatsworth in Derbyshire were boarding schools, Adlington Hall was taken over by St. Mary's hospital in Manchester, Peover Hall was the headquarters of General Patton, Grappenhall Heys was used by the Wrens and Tytherington Hall was used by the American air force. After six year of often heavy use, some of the halls were too expensive to restore and in the immediate post war period gentry mansions were being demolished at a rate of one a week. Some halls survived to become National Trust properties, others became schools, colleges, borstals, nursing homes, training centres, corporate headquarters, local authority offices, apartments and even youth hostels. In some cases the families died out completely. Very few of the halls remain as the homes of the families that owned them at the beginning of the 19th century.
A few of the gentry and aristocratic families survived with their estates intact. Some had financial interests other than agriculture, such as coal, canals or railways. Others, like the Dukes of Westminster and Bedford, owned and developed valuable city centre sites. Others sold works of art to galleries founded by American industrial magnates.
For the local historian there is a paradox. History has to be studied where there is a record to be read. Our forebears who were serfs, villeins, agricultural labourers or blacksmiths left no documentary evidence of their lives. They produced no art that survives and left us no monuments to their passing beyond the shape of the landscape. Most of the physical remains of the 18th century are the homes of the gentry and the churches which they supported. Their archives can provide a glimpse of the lives or their tenants and employees.
The Cheshire pedigrees that are shown on this website were assembled to show the social circle of the Leicester family at Tabley in the 18th and 19th century. What emerges is a tale of the gentry consolidating land ownership by marriages within the local families, or by marrying wealthy heiresses. The integrity of estates was maintained in many cases by descent through the female line and in some case through illegitimate offspring. There are also cases where the estate passed to people who were relatives by marriage but not blood relatives. In one such example the estate passed from the last male heir to a cousin on his mother's side of the family. There are also cases where the estate passed from the last male heir to a half-brother with a different father. After the longest rearguard action in history the English landed gentry are still visible, often dependent on grants from English heritage for property repair or on income from public openings, antique and craft fairs, veteran car rallies, concerts and fireworks displays. Now after almost a thousand years, the descendants of the labourers who worked on the estates can walk round their halls, admire the architecture and paintings, buy a guide book and a cream tea. Through the National Trust and English Heritage, many estates are now owned by the people. It is doubtful if the buildings themselves and the art they contain would ever have been created in a more egalitarian society and even more doubtful that this artistic heritage was worth the hardship and sacrifice of those who created the wealth. We cannot put the clock back or change human nature but we gain pleasure and insights from studying what took place.
Few of the gentry in East Cheshire made a significant mark on history after the English Civil War. Sir Peter Leicester (1613-1678) created a baronet in 1660, wrote Leicester's Historical Antiquities which remains the major work on the early history of the county. Sir Stapleton Cotton of Combermere Abbey became a famous Victorian General, the Traffords are remembered in the names of a football stadium, a cricket ground and shopping centre. Most have heard of George Leigh Mallory's attempt on Everest in 1924. Had any of the Cheshire gentry in the late 18th century met John Dalton, the Quaker school master in Manchester, or Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister who spent some time at Warrington Academy, they would not have given them the time of day on social and religious grounds. Dalton developed the Atomic Theory and Priestley discovered several gases, including oxygen, which were important steps in the birth of modern science. Whereas the Cheshire gentry are little known outside the county, Dalton and Priestley are known the world over wherever science is studied. By contrast with the gentry, men who valued status and property, we must now move on to study The Men of Ideas and Action, whose work in the late 18th and early 19th centuries shaped the modern world.