Financial Puzzles in Dornford Yates' Lower Than Vermin

Updated: 2 Apr 2015
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Dornford Yates was the pen-name of Cecil William Mercer, 1885 - 1960

Perhaps the central puzzle of Lower Than Vermin is what happens to all the money. At the start of the book the Ringwood family have two sizable country estates, Brocade (the larger of the two) and Poesy, which is smaller but the more loved. At the beginning of the book, there is no suggestion that these estates are other than self-financing and turning a healthy profit. Presumably the money comes from farming the land of the estates, and from interest on the family capital, which is no doubt safely stashed in 'consols'. There are also substantial properties in London, including what is presumably a rather grand house in Grosvenor Square, though these are generally lived in rather than rented out.

Sometime shortly after 1897 (the date of a letter on p126) Coles Willing says of Phillip "...he has great possessions, and he should learn what that means. For one thing only, between Poesy, (I keep writing Posey) Brocade, and Grosvenor Square we employ more than one hundred souls."
There is no suggestion that this is anything other than a thoroughly prosperous set-up.

By 1930, Phillip is writing an anxious letter to Dennis Defoe, his man of business:

...I mean things are looking serious- even to me. Our personal expenditure is slight; I really don't think we can cut it down any more. But, if we're to live at Brocade, we must keep appearances up. We've cut out balls and house-parties as you know: but we must entertain a little, if only for the look of the thing. In a word, you can't pig it here- at least I won't.
It's very worrying. Just as well I had to give up hunting- I couldn't afford it now. I've been looking at the old books. The stable account in 1904 shows an expenditure of over three thousand pounds. What on earth would it be today? At least, cars have saved us that. All the same, thing's don't look too good...

The background to this is the Stock Market Crash of October 1929 in New York which led to a worldwide depression. The effects on the industrial regions of Britain were immediate and devastating, as demand for British products collapsed. How did this affect Phillip? It seems unlikely that the Ringwoods had big investments in industry, because that would have been soiling their hands with 'trade'; if they did Vermin is remarkably silent on the subject. Farm prices probably fell, affecting the income from the estates, but statistics on this in England have so far proved surprisingly hard to find. (In the USA farm prices dropped 51% from 1929 to 1933) Phillip's letter implies that incomes have dropped drastically; can this be wholly due to low farm prices? Don't the estates have sufficient reserves to weather the storm?

We never hear any more details, but eventually Brocade is sold, leaving the Ringwood family to scrape by with just one country estate, that of Poesy.

though they still keep a butler

So, where has all the money gone? Death duties have often been claimed to be the downfall of the aristocracy, and are often assumed to have been brought in by the postwar Labour government. This is wholly untrue- they were actually introduced in 1894, by the Liberal government, and according to one opinion they "...for the next century were effective in breaking up large estates." However, death duties are never mentioned in Vermin, although you would have thought they would be the sort of tax that would get a ringing Mercerian condemnation. Might they have affected the Ringwoods when Phillip's father died, apparently rather young (See The Medical Puzzles of Dornford Yates? In 1890 Phillip is 12 (p13) so he was born in 1878; on p98 he says he cannot remember his father very well, which suggest that he may have died when Phillip was around the age of five, which make the year of his death 1883, long before death duties were brought in.

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