Thrifty living: There's nothing so classy as posh folk on their uppers
Saturday 12 January 2008
What happens to aristocrats who lose all their money? The great thing about being posh and on your uppers is that if those uppers were made by Lobb, you will greet poverty with class – even if your house is awash with mildew, you make do with "background" heat, and you wear clothes that are 25 years old.
This is the case with Sir Charles and Lady Wolseley, who are broke and about to be turfed out of their estate, which has been under the Wolseley name for 1,000 years. Their ship might have been fatally holed, but they are damned if they are going to go down with it.
Sir Charles greets me in a jumper with darned elbows but bearing a proud "Wolseley" stitched above his heart, with a little crest. Would he wear that to sittings in the House of Lords? "Can't go to the Lords," barks Sir Charles. "I'm a baronet. Which means I'm a commoner." Oh, right. Still, he looks like a lord, what with his title, cut-glass accent, signet ring and house full of portraits. No heating, however. Unless you count "background" heat, which is how Sir Charles describes the state when none of the radiators is on but a real log fire brings the temperature in your giant drawing room up by a couple of degrees.
"We don't go to pubs or restaurants. We don't travel. We don't do any of these things that most people do. You can save quite a lot of money that way," Lady Wolseley says cheerily. Born in Ohio, she met the 11th baronet, Sir Charles, when she was researching, ahem, a book about Americans who marry into the English aristocracy.
I expect everyone back home thinks you are frightfully well off, I say. She rolls her eyes with feeling. Apart from a few close friends, that is; nice people who send her lovely soft leather shoes and nice clothes. Visitors are thoughtful, too. "People who come to stay go to Morrisons and fill two trolleys with food." Does she have staff? "Huh! I'm the staff," she says.
In the downstairs loo, there is a framed certificate for some country activity signed by the Duke of Edinburgh, a picture of JFK's children sent from the White House, and a newspaper cutting from 1992 relating how the Wolseleys, who were hard up even then, survived by eating potatoes donated by one of their tenant farmers.
That's why the Wolseleys are so fascinating. While most of us would be mortified to admit that we live on zero income and survive on glorified food parcels, Sir Charles and his Lady seem to see the funny side, even putting up cuttings about it in the loo.
Patched jumpers are nothing to be ashamed of. Neither is "background" heat. Neither is being unceremoniously turfed out of the family home and into a rented barn conversion. "Well, I feel a bit of sadness about being the one to break a 1,000-year-old direct male line on this estate," says Sir Charles gruffly, "but I have to deal with the reality." Nor are they bothering the children about their plight; the four junior (but adult) Wolseleys, including the 12th baronet, are clearly all too busy in London to bother about sorting out proper heating, or indeed "staff" for Sir Charles and Lady W.
Since the plight of the Wolseleys was made public, the press has beaten a path to the door of their soon-to-be-vacated house, hoping perhaps to find a sad, elderly couple full of pessimism and fear. Not a bit. Sir Charles maintains that if only his bank had been a bit more secure, the £1.75m he spent on creating a doomed tourist attraction in his grounds would have been a fantastic investment. He refuses to admit any culpability.
Meanwhile, his Lady is full of brio and sparky comments like "It's as Abraham Lincoln said: 'Folks are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.'"
Now all the cash is gone, the Wolseleys are acting thriftily with bags of style, a united front and a stiff upper lip. Do they sense a wave of class-conscious schadenfreude? On the contrary. "We have received some lovely cards from perfect strangers, saying how sorry they are that we are moving out," says Lady Wolseley. "One came from someone in Walsall," she continues, with wonderment. "We don't know anyone from Walsall, but there you are."
You can do what you want to our landed gentry. You can take away all their money. You can even turn them into ex-landed gentry. But you will never, ever stop them from being gloriously upper class.
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