Golden Dolly

John Pemble

  • Who Were the Rich? A Biographical Directory of British Wealth-Holders. Vol. I: 1809-39 by William Rubinstein
    Social Affairs Unit, 516 pp, £20.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 904863 39 7

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.

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