Who Were the Landed Gentry?

This post is a brief primer on the British aristocracy! As I’m writing about some of the Tickells of Carnolway, who belonged to what was known as the ‘landed gentry’, I thought it would be useful to explain what that means.

The British Class System

Britain, like many countries, historically had a class system, with the monarchy and titled nobility at the top and peasants at the bottom. Each of the main classes – upper, middle, and lower – were further sub-divided and most people knew where they stood in society. The remnants of this system are still visible in modern Britain. The 1960’s British satirical comedy, A Touch of Frost, had a regular spot poking fun at the class system. If you’ve never seen the famous ‘Class Sketch’, you can see a clip of it here. I recommend taking a look for a glimpse of class attitudes in the mid 20th century.

The Aristocracy

The aristocracy were the uppermost class of society and consisted of the peerage and the landed gentry. In Britain, the peerage are those who hold one of 5 titles, either inherited from a direct ancestor or bestowed upon them by the Monarch. The five titles are, in order of precedence – Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron. Historically, the peers were powerful nobles, inter-related through blood and marriage over successive generations. Peers (along with lunatics and felons) are exempt from serving on ordinary juries, and they are barred from voting in parliamentary elections and from sitting in the House of Commons. They cannot be arrested for forty days before and after Parliament is in session. .Prior to 1999, hereditary peers also had the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house of parliament. This right is no longer inherited, which has reduced the political power of the peerage, but they still have some social influence.

Below the peerage are Baronets (who are not the same as Barons), Knights and Dames. Baronet is a hereditary title, whereas Knights and Dames are titles conferred for life only. None of these have the rights and privileges of the peerage described above. Those who are not peers, even if they are a ‘SIr’, are considered ‘commoners’, and can be elected to the House of Commons.

The Landed Gentry

The third level of aristocracy are the landed gentry, sometimes simply called ‘the gentry’. They were major land owners (landlords) but also commoners – that is, they did not hold peerages. They were described as “well-born, genteel and well-bred people”. Often they were Baronets or Knights, but could also be Esquires or simply Gentlemen. The holders of certain offices, such as barristers, Lord Mayors, Justices of the Peace and higher officer ranks in the military were deemed to be Esquires. Gentlemen were men of high birth or rank, good social standing and wealth, and who did not need to work for a living.

Members of the landed gentry, such as our Tickells, usually had a country estate, and could live a leisurely life entirely from the rental income they exacted as landlords. Socially, the landed gentry were below the peerage, but some were wealthier than some peers, and many gentry were related to peers though marriage or descent. The series of books, Burke’s Landed Gentry recorded the members of this class.

Although not obliged to work to support themselves, some of the landed gentry acted as administrators of their lands and tenants, while others became public, political, religious, and armed forces figures. As well as their country estate, they often had a ‘town house’ in London or another city. In the case of our Tickells, their townhouse was Glasnevin, Dublin.

Carnalway House / Newberry House

At one time, the Tickell family owned more than 2,000 acres in Co. Kildare. In the 19th century, the Tickells built a stately home on their estate in Kildare. I haven’t been able to establish exactly which member of the family built the house, but I believe it could be Thomas Tickell, born 1749, who became High Sheriff of Kildare. He married Sarah Sparks in 1771 and he and his wife were both buried at Carnolway. 

Originally called Carnalway House, the mansion was set in 170 acres close to Kilcullen in Co. Kildare. The house was later names Newberry House, and became a stud farm producing winning racehorses. The house came up for sale in recent years so there are photographs of what it looks like today. The image at the top of this post is of Newberry House, and you can see the estate agent’s brochure here.

I found this description of the house in the Irish Times.

The obligatory winding avenue leads to a courtyard-fronted house at the centre of the property, sheltered by mature trees and offering complete privacy – always an important consideration for the very rich. The two-storey, eight-bedroom, house of some 743sq m (8,000sq ft) appears in very good nick with the usual period fixtures – shutters, wood panelling and fancy fireplaces. A grand entrance hall leads into a dual-aspect, light-filled house with a series of elegant reception rooms and spacious country house kitchen and utility room.

There’s a children’s wing – a splendid concept championed by the Victorians to ensure that the little blighters are tucked away with nanny before adults come down to dinner. A large billiard room is equipped with a full-size mahogany table while the diningroom is still furnished with a table that could comfortably seat the entire Irish peerage.

Upstairs, the bedrooms are accessed from a long enfilade-style window-lit corridor. The vast bay-windowed main bedroom suite has separate “his” and “her” bathrooms and a secret door leading to the west wing..

Outside, extensive yards and outbuildings offer almost equally opulent accommodation for the horses – with extensive stabling, haybarns, farm offices and a seating area beneath a pagoda from where to watch the fillies parade.

The house is surrounded by cleverly-designed gardens. A Japanese section features an ornamental water garden and footbridge.. A traditional stone foot-well has been installed so that Kimono-clad guests are “cleansed” before stepping into the the Tatami-floored interior.

A little wood, cultivated to appear wild, is dotted with pieces of imported Japanese granite sculpture and leads, unexpectedly, to a separate Spanish garden evoking the Alhambra. Extensive lawns, south of house, undulate gently down to a mile-long stretch of private frontage on to the River Liffey with a series of dappled trout pools.

Irish Times, Thu, Aug 25, 2011

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