Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Financial Plan That Saved the Real Downton Abbey

Were this season's episodes of Downton Abbey a bit heavy-handed on the subject of wealth management? OK, the Earl of Grantham lost almost everything betting on a Canadian railway. Would he then consider sending more to that chap Ponzi?

Although The Wall Street Journal has tried to draw modern money lessons from the PBS program, we live in another world. Deciding whether to sell grandmother's place in the Berkshires is one thing. Dealing with a vast estate that's been in the family for five or six hundred years is another.

English lords of a century or more ago had to seek different solutions to their money problems. Prime example: the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose holdings included Highclere Castle, the inspiration and setting for the TV show.

Highclere in winter
Going for the gold
Three years after inheriting the Earldom in 1890, George "Porchy" Carnarvon found himself heavily in debt. If he hoped to preserve Highclere and his other estates and continue leading his adventurous life, he required an immense financial transfusion. He needed a fortune.

Young American heiresses helped a good number of Engish nobles meet that need. Porchy did even better: Almina, the illegitimate but beloved teenage daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild.

Sir Alfred desired the best for his daughter, and he had the wealth to achieve his desires. To seal the deal with the Earl, Rothschild agreed to settle all of  Porchy's debts. In addition, he agreed to provide Almina – and Porchy, if he outlived her – with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. £12,000 a year! That's equivalent to about $10 million a year today.

Surely Highclere was well-maintained for scores of years to come – with the possible exception of World War I, when Almina converted the castle into a deluxe military hospital.
For more about Almina and Highclere, see "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey," written by the current Countess.

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