Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Managing an estate

by Maria Grace

There were two major types of great landowners in the regency era–the aristocrats who were deeply involved in running the government, but rather less hands-on in regards to their estates, and land-owning gentry, who were very hands-on and represented the majority of land owners.

A country estate was a complex economic mini-state that typically included a residence of sufficient size to suit a gentleman with parkland, gardens, stables and paddocks. A large agrarian business extended out from this center, consisting of a home farm and gardens, numerous tenanted farms and cottages usually in a village near the manor. The survival of the resident family, household staff, tenant farmers and their families and workers depended on revenues from the estate’s agricultural enterprises and rents. (Laudermilk, 1989) A successful estate owner needed solid business acumen.

But why? Gentlemen did not work for their income, did they?

Technically, they did not. Their income came largely from rents and investments. Estates often had small villages within their boundaries including church and parsonage, stone, brick or timbered farmhouses, and cottages, even wind/water mills in a few narrow lanes, all surrounded by productive (and often leased out) meadows and fields. (It was generally considered a village, not a town because it had no market, the defining characteristic of a small town.)

Estate owners might also receive revenue from the sale of products from their land, including crops, animal products, timber and minerals.


Estate owners leased out various kinds of property, including tenant farms of various sizes, houses and cottages, and even small estates that might be part of their holdings. Rents rose dramatically between 1790 and 1830, in some cases increasing fivefold over that period, making rents a considerable source of income, especially for large estate owners. (Murray, 1998)

Since a gentleman did not dirty his hands with money, for him to collect the rents from this himself would have been vulgar. A steward, or in the case off smaller estates, a bailiff, would be hired for that task and others related to estate management. 

Stewards and Bailiffs

Whereas a bailiff might be an estate’s major tenant hired to simply collect rents, a steward was an educated man, often the son of clergy, a smaller landowner or a professional man, hired to assist in the running and management of the estate. A steward was not considered a servant, but rather a skilled professional. For this reason, he was addressed as ‘Mister’. Not long after the regency era, the term ‘steward’, having servile connotations, was dropped in favor of the more professional term ‘land agent.’

Stewards frequently had experience and training as solicitors which was particularly useful in their duties managing contracts and overseeing estate accounts. Beyond these duties, stewards also collected rents, leased land, supervised the tenantry, directed any work done on the land, settled squabbles that arose among the tenants or workers, purchased animals, seed and so on. (Shapard,2003)

The steward would often have a home of his own, but would on occasion stay at the manor. His duties might regularly take him to the family's other country houses, and to London, but he was unlikely to travel with the family on a regular basis. (Martin, 2004)


Tenant farmers

By 1790, three quarters of England's agricultural land was cultivated by tenants. (Day, 2006) The remaining quarter represented small yeoman farmers whose numbers would decrease through the ensuing century.

Tenants usually rented sections of land with farmhouse and outbuildings, paid their rents on the established quarter days: Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), Christmas (December 25), sold the produce, and kept the earnings. Customary provisions required the landlord to supply materials, buildings and facilities such as drainage and hedging while the tenant provided stock, seed and tools. (Davidoff, 2002)

Farmers, including tenant farmers, made up the middling ranks of rural society. They could become quite well off with their sons and daughters educated as they moved up the social scale. Though the sons of tenants could not inherit the land their father’s works, they could inherit their farm leases. These leases, which traditionally ran for multiples of seven years, were often passed from father to son, with the land owners preferring to maintain the continuity of a known tenants and the relationships that went with it. (Davidoff, 2002)

It was not uncommon for a tenant farmer to rent extra land with additional farmhouses for adult sons to farm. The eldest son would eventually take over his father’s tenant farm when he retired or died. Widows might head a farm household, hiring help with the farm as needed until a young son was old enough to take over the tenancy. (Davidoff, 2002)

Tenants normally looked to their landlord for assistance whether for personal matters or for help in improvements to the land. Some of these improvements might include better ways to farm the land and improve productivity.

Farming methods

With populations rapidly increasing, the best landowners sought out advanced methods of agricultural science to improve production (and profits.) The agricultural reports of the newly formed Board of Agriculture were avidly studied to learn more about advancements including crop rotation, scientific stock breeding, and new technologies including the seed drill and machines for threshing and chaff cutting. The installation of drainage in fields was another innovation practiced by many farmers during this era. Heavy clay soils where excess water made plowing more difficult and hurt the growth and root structure of plants would have rows of drains cut beneath the surface to move water away from the fields. (Shapard, 2012)

Four-course crop rotation, commonly called the Norfolk four-course system, increased fodder production. There were many variations of this system, depending on the region. Typically, fields would be sown with wheat in the first year, turnips in the second, followed by barley in the third. The clover and ryegrass were grazed or cut for feed in the fourth year. This produced two cash crops and two animal feed crops.

One constant was the presence of livestock as part of the strategy. Sheep (or sometimes cattle) were turned out to graze the turnip tops. This kept weeds down and allowed the field to be fertilized by mobile manure factories. Turnip roots were stored for winter animal fodder. More fodder meant larger livestock herds and the ability to keep animals through the winter. Improvements like these could double one's income. (Laudermilk,1989)

In addition to increased agricultural production, estates began to enjoy profits from heretofore unexplored avenues such as mining and timber sales. Changes in technologies often fueled demand while improvements in transportation with new canals and steam engines made previously prohibitive production profitable.


What kind of income could a landed estate provide? Naturally the answer depended a great deal on the size of the estate and the kind of management it had.

For a little perspective, the 1801 census found that the average income of the 287 peerage families (all of whom would have landed estates) was approximately £8,000 The top 2000 merchant families averaged £2,500, whereas the top 6000 esquires that Austen’s Mr. Bennet would have belonged to averaged £1,500. That suggests that the £2,000 a year Mr. Bennet had represents a very good income, compared to his peers.

To have an income above the average nobility as a gentleman estate holder, one did not spend a very great deal of time sitting about enjoying the social life of the town. While a man like Austen’s Mr. Darcy might take time to enjoy the finer things as it were, he would also have to spend a very great deal of time and effort in managing the massive agricultural enterprise that provided those finer things.

Technically a gentleman did not ‘work’ for his income. But planning how to keep an estate afloat through the long years of the French war, determining how best to manage the home farm and advise his tenants considering the price of corn, debating whether to invest in draining a new field or if rain will spoil the harvest or damage tenant houses that he will have to repair—and how to effect those repairs—seeking new hands to man the sawmill and cider press and what to pay them—all of that sounds a very great deal like what we today would call work. While there were inevitably bad landowners who put little into managing their estates, many, if not most put in a great deal of very hard work to manage estates that provided “livelihood and the stability for both the landowner and a vast army of workers–tenant farmers, gardeners, cowmen, sawyers and shepherds alike.(As well as providing employment for seasonal labourers like codders, harvesters, shearers…)” (Bennetts, 2012)


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Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Thanks for sharing. It might not be my period, but I found the info extremely interesting.

  2. Very interesting, exactly the information I was looking for. Really helpful to understand all the references to the XX thousands pounds estate they are always talking about. I am French, very interested in historical novels, and my English is now good-enough to have a go at reading English classics, so this website should prove a great reference in the future to improve my understanding an enjoyment.
    Thank you very much for your work.

  3. Thank you for the information. It was very helpful and gave me a much better understanding and insight as to how the estate would have been run. Very grateful for your knowledge.

  4. Great information and very timely too. Exactly what I needed.


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