Who Were the Rich? A Biographical Directory of British Wealth-Holders. Vol. I: 1809-39 
by William Rubinstein.
Social Affairs Unit, 516 pp., £20, May 2009, 978 1 904863 39 7
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William Rubinstein is an expatriate New Yorker who has spent his academic life investigating wealth and the wealthy in modern Britain and overturning cherished ideas by looking at the British from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Who Were the Rich?, compiled from probate records, will identify everyone who died in Britain between 1809 and 1914 leaving personal assets of £100,000 or more – which is equivalent to between £8 and £10 million today. The first volume, covering the years 1809-39, lists 881 people – about one in ten thousand of those who died. After their scarcity the most immediately striking thing about these rich people is their longevity. The nine millionaires died on average at 78.3 years; the half-millionaires whose age is known (33 out of 39), at 74.5 years. Forty-two per cent of people leaving half a million or more died over the age of 80. The average age at death of a random sample of 93 of those leaving £100,000 was 71.1 years. The richest woman in Britain, Jane Innes, was also one of the oldest. She died in 1839, worth more than a million, at the age of 91. And the oldest person in Britain was also among the richest. Elizabeth Ramsden died in 1817, worth £140,000, at the age of 106. The average age at death of the whole adult population was probably 50 at most.

In Britain 200 years ago, the more you got the longer you lived; and the longer you lived the more you got. This isn’t surprising: there had never been a better time and place to be wealthy. Britain had its riots and its radicals, but it was safe, stable, tolerant and civilised to a degree that enabled the rich to enjoy all the comforts that money could buy: the luxuries of global commerce; the therapies of spas and watering places; the light, space and leafy calm of an urban residential environment – Mayfair, Regent’s Park, Bath, Cheltenham, Brighton, Clifton – unsurpassed before or since. Despite the indiscriminate ravages of puerperal fever, tuberculosis and (from 1832) cholera, and notwithstanding the perennial vices of affluence, such comforts remained a marvellous elixir of life. The message from the social margins was unequivocal. Those who died very poor died very young. In 1837 it was calculated that the average age at death of labourers was 38 in Rutland and 15 in Liverpool.

The rich got richer as they got older because direct taxation was low (income tax peaked at 10 per cent during the war with France, and was abolished in 1816), inflation dropped below zero with the return of peace, and investment was easy, safe and lucrative. Government stock (‘consols’), Bank of England stock and East India stock were all offering a better return than land – traditionally the home for new money, but now prohibitively expensive. The East India dividend was 10.5 per cent. The stock traded at 140-150, so the yield was a very attractive 7 or 7.5 per cent. The East India Company was an ailing mammoth. The old dream of a vast imperial tribute from India had long since faded and the company was lurching from crisis to crisis, unable to meet current charges and liabilities. No one knew exactly why, or how far, it was insolvent. Its book-keeping was archaic and its finances were notoriously opaque. But the dividend was gilt-edged, because the company was far too big to be allowed to fail. The government came to its rescue again and again, guaranteeing the dividend and forking out loans.

The landed aristocracy did best of all; the wealthiest among them were a silver-spoon brigade, assured of wealth from birth by the rule of primogeniture and the absence of inheritance tax. Landholders without substantial personalty don’t figure in Rubinstein’s directory, since the probate records exclude the value of land; but because land was so valuable even aristocrats with relatively few acres – Lord Byron, for example – were asset rich. The wealth of the wealthiest was fabulous. The duke of Sutherland, who died in 1833, left a million excluding land. Since he owned one and a half million acres, he was worth at least seven times that amount. He was reputed to be the richest man in the world, and was certainly the richest person ever to have lived in Britain. Younger sons, on the other hand, were often hard up, and many estates were encumbered with mortgages and debts. But those well enough connected could generally top up their resources with a church living, or a sinecure with pension and perks from the bounty that ‘Old Corruption’ reserved for rank. In 1830 William Cobbett calculated that 13 members of the aristocracy were receiving £650,000 a year in these doles of public money. The especially fortunate got lucrative public appointments with a golden handshake. The impoverished marquess of Wellesley was made governor-general of Bengal on £25,000 a year; the bankrupt earl of Moira was appointed governor-general and commander-in-chief, on a combined salary of £50,000; and each received a terminal bonus of £60,000. Such windfalls were rare; but failing a silver spoon or a golden handshake, you could generally use a title to hook a ‘golden dolly’. These heiresses from the nouveaux riches, willing to barter their dowries for a name, are a staple of society fiction – but fiction hardly does justice to reality.

Heading the golden dolly league in Regency London was the Coutts squad: the widow and three daughters of Thomas Coutts the banker. All were flush with cash from his gigantic fortune (probably well over a million) and all married aristocrats. The widow, 45 at her husband’s death, was perhaps no longer a dolly; but no dolly came more golden. She’d inherited most of Coutts’s money and her personal assets were valued at £600,000 when she died. She was remarried to the duke of St Albans – barely half her age but struggling to make ends meet on £2000 a year as Hereditary Grand Falconer and Hereditary Grand Registrar of the Court of Chancery. No one had more sensationally attained to riches than the new duchess of St Albans. She’d first come into public view as Harriot Mellon, a child actress with a touring Irish company, and she’d caught the eye of Thomas Coutts after she’d graduated to Drury Lane and was performing for Sheridan on £12 a week. They married after the death of his first wife (the mother of his daughters) in 1815, when she was 37 and he was 79. She was trounced as a predator and lampooned as a parvenue. Disraeli portrayed her as the flashy Mrs Million in Vivian Grey. London had known nothing like her since Nell Gwyn, who was likewise an actress and likewise close to the duke of St Albans of her time (she was his mother). But the duchess was undeniably phenomenal. She not only married money, she made money – hand over fist. She wasn’t only an actress who’d snared a rich old man, she was also London’s first female tycoon. When Coutts died she took over and expanded his financial empire. The first Nell Gwyn had been the monarch’s mistress. This one was his banker.

Phenomenal – but not altogether exceptional. New money, fuelling upward social mobility, abounds in Rubinstein’s pages. Some was profits of war, garnered by government contractors during the 23 years of conflict with France. But most of it came from East India and West India trade, shipping, the law and medicine, the financial sector (banking, merchant banking, stockbroking, insurance) and the market in luxury goods and services. Big industrial fortunes were very rare. These new fortunes outgrew the old ones that nurtured them, and in some cases dwarfed them. An ironmonger, a tailor, a lacemaker, a potter and a jeweller all died better off than the royals they served. Philip Rundell, diamond jeweller by appointment, was a millionaire. The personal assets of Queen Charlotte, his most important customer, were valued at £140,000 – diamonds, presumably, included. Some magnates with the Midas touch – Coutts, Baring, Rothschild, Hoare, Montefiore – came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Others came with nothing from nowhere. John Sowerby, a London merchant who died in 1823 worth half a million, had reputedly been a Cumberland farm labourer. Thomas Leyland, a merchant and banker of Liverpool, began life as a cooper and died in 1827 leaving £800,000. Sir Edward Banks, a public works contractor and one-time day labourer, had accumulated a quarter of a million by the time he died in 1835. George Hammond, a cheesemonger whose assets were probated in 1839 at £140,000, had begun as a shopboy.

If you had a lot of money, the secret of dying rich lay of course in the art of staying rich. This meant not only avoiding obvious perils – like those junk South American mining shares that boomed and then crashed in 1825 – but treading a wary path through a business world still largely unregulated and without limited liability. Walter Scott was involved in a chain failure in 1825-26, when first his publisher and then the printing firm in which he was a partner failed. He found himself saddled with liabilities of about £114,000, and had to spend the rest of his life tied to his desk in a heroic – and successful – attempt to discharge the debt. Risks were multiplied if you were male and moved in high society, because gambling was de rigueur. Enormous sums were lost at card tables and on the turf. And the penalties of ruin could be grim. At the end of the 18th century more than half the prison population of Britain were debtors. Peers were exempt from imprisonment for debt, but even peers preferred to flee abroad rather than face the bailiffs. The age knew no such thing as tax exile; but it knew debt exile only too well. Calais swarmed with British bankrupts. Lord Moira, crippled in 1813 by debts of £270,000, would have fled to the Continent had his friend the prince regent not pulled strings and fixed him up with that double job in India. Beau Brummell’s exile was less gilded. He’d quarrelled with the prince and compounded his offence with audacious lèse majesté. He once asked Moira very loudly, with the prince in earshot: ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Consequently when he was driven by gambling losses to flee to France, all that could be found for him was a short stint as consul at Caen, on £400 a year. When that ended he was destitute, and he died in 1840, aged 62, in a French lunatic asylum. The filthy, prematurely geriatric beggar hanging around Caen was only one of many awful reminders of the volatility of fortune, so it’s no surprise that some wealthy people took to rags in order to preserve their riches. The sculptor Joseph Nollekens, who made £200,000 by restoring and faking antiquities for Grand Tourists in Rome, running a black market in smuggled silk stockings and turning out portrait busts for vain celebrities, was a sordid skinflint. Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen, died a miser, a recluse and a millionaire. John Courtoy, a fashionable London hairdresser, never had a haircut himself and dressed like a scarecrow, but left £250,000.

Rubinstein has entered a debate that began early last century, when it was first suggested that the modern economic era began in Britain not with the emergence of industrial capitalism and the industrial proletariat, but with the arrival of financial capitalism and the financial bourgeoisie. The modern age dated not – as the Victorians had supposed – from the 18th century, when England became the Workshop of the World, but from the 17th century, when London became the world’s money market. In the 1920s R.H. Tawney, building on Max Weber’s notion of symbiosis between capitalism and Protestantism, attributed this ‘financial revolution’ to London’s global trade, the enormous growth of the British national debt and English puritanism. London laundered the world’s money because it could launder its own conscience with puritan ethics. These not only sanctioned usury, they also consecrated worldly wealth as an instrument of divine providence.

Rubinstein’s data don’t disclose any obvious connection between wealth and Protestant Nonconformity. The great majority of wealth-holders were buried as Anglicans, and the minority (less than 10 per cent) included Catholics and Jews as well as Huguenots, Quakers and other nonconforming Protestants. Since this was a time when non-Anglicans were still second-class citizens, Rubinstein deduces that the rich were more bothered about convention and convenience than about sectarian ideology. But he does demonstrate that in these years of rapid industrialisation, commercial and financial centres remained paramount. London accounted for two-thirds of the personal wealth he itemises, and the residue was concentrated in commercial cities such as Bristol and Liverpool. Manufacturing Manchester was poor in comparison. Historians, Rubinstein argues, have been paying too much attention to the Industrial Revolution and the North, and not enough to financial capitalism and the South.

He’s surely right. His first volume takes us to the threshold of momentous transformations. During the Victorian period democracy would be installed and Old Corruption swept away. The East India Company would be wound up and the debts and burdens of empire assumed by the state. Industrial fortunes would mushroom; railways would ramify; British agriculture would collapse; income tax and death duties would make tax avoidance and evasion a new priority of the wealthy. Yet the story is more about continuity than about change, because London went on and on, growing older and older and richer and richer, immovably fixed on its economic eminence. The City, bastion of international finance, was as powerful in the days of cotton and coal as it had been in the days of sugar and tea, and it would be even more powerful in the days of oil and silicon chips. The Workshop of the World had come, and would go, almost without its noticing. Democracy was as much its hostage as oligarchy had been, and a future was in store when the British economy would consist of the City and very little else. Only an expatriate, probably, could scrutinise London’s financial elite as closely and as dispassionately as Rubinstein has done. The British hate them too much. British loathing of the City is as old as the Stock Exchange itself. Vilification of the fat cats has been going on ever since the early Hanoverian ‘patriots’ hurled their anathemas against the ‘leeches’, ‘vermin’ and ‘cannibals’ of the ‘moneyed interest’. So why are they still there? Why haven’t they perished, amid all the thunderbolts of history and the crises of their own making?

Legend rushes in where the record is blank, so perhaps there’s a clue to their survival in what we don’t know about the world of British wealth. Again and again in Rubinstein’s almanac of money and mortality we encounter very rich people about whom virtually everything is obscure except their names and the value of their assets. Everybody wants to be rich, and nobody wants to die, though the most that anyone can hope for is to die very wealthy and very old. History tells us that London is the place where this is most likely to happen. Legend tells us that it’s the place where it can happen to anyone. Dick Whittington’s apotheosis as a ballad hero coincided with the triumph of the financial bourgeoisie.

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