(p. 444) At the height of the agricultural crisis, the British government under the Liberals did an odd thing. It invented a tax designed to punish a class of people who were already suffering severely and had done nothing in particular to cause the current troubles. The class was large landowners. The tax was death duties. Life was about to change utterly for thousands of people, including our own Mr Marsham.
The designer of the new tax was Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt, the chancellor of the exchequer, a man who seems not to have been liked much by anyone at any point in his life, including his own family. Known familiarly, if not altogether affectionately, as ‘Jumbo’ because of his magnificent rotundity, Harcourt was an unlikely persecutor of the landed classes since he was one of them himself. The Harcourt family home was Nuneham Park in Oxfordshire, which we have visited in this book already. Nuneham, you may remember, was where an earlier Harcourt reconfigured the estate but failed to recollect where the old village well had been, fell into it and drowned. For as long as there had been (p. 445) Tories, the Harcourts had numbered themselves among them, so William’s joining of the Liberals was seen within his family as the darkest treachery. Even Liberals were startled by his tax. Lord Rosebery, the prime minister (who was himself a big landowner), wondered if some relief should at least be granted in those cases where two inheritors died in quick succession. It would be harsh, Rosebery thought, to tax an estate a second time before the legatee had had a chance to rebuild the family finances. Harcourt, however, refused all appeals for concessions.
That Harcourt stood almost no chance of inheriting his own family property no doubt coloured his principles. In fact, to his presumed surprise, he did inherit it when his elder brother’s son died suddenly, but heirlessly, in the spring of 1904. Harcourt didn’t get to enjoy his good fortune long, however. He expired six months later himself, which meant that his heirs were among the first to be taxed twice over in exactly the way that Rosebery had feared and he had dismissed. Life doesn’t often get much neater than that.
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.