In novels such as Jane Austen’s, characters often say things like, “He has 6000 pounds a year…” Did people really have a good idea of other peoples’ income and, if so, how?
There was probably some publication like Forbes 500. Word of mouth. Nosy servants spreading the good news. Just like now we know all the movie stars and rich peoples worth.
Bear in mind that they weren’t talking about income from work - they didn’t care about that. They only cared about income from land owned, or more specifically, rental income from tenants . My guess is that that kind of information was relatively easy to find.
I can’t think of any reason why it would be. Unless they had recently been party to some litigation, a lord’s lease agreements with his tenants or vassals would not be public information. On the other hand, it would be generally known which lands he owns, and one could arrive at an estimate of their income that way.
But the far more likely explanation is somebody was nosy. Or the information was obtained through the tried-and-true method of plot contrivance.
The classic Austen example is Mrs. Bennet, and her source was obviously the gossip grapevine. In a much smaller and relatively closely-knit small town/rural society, there were few secrets. Local property rental values would be known for establishing the rates to be charged for local government purposes.
I think that it wasn’t so much that rental revenues were public knowledge, but rather that they didn’t change all that much - so if you knew how much his grandfather made off the land 50 years ago, you could assume he was pulling in basically the same amount now. Pre-Industrial revolution, farmland basically had a fixed output.
The most common known income source mentioned in the books is actually interest from a sum of inherited money:
(which is given as 500L a year, if you’re wondering) Inherited sums do seem to be given precisely, though no mention is made of where the information comes from.
Most of the others appear to be approximations; Mrs Bennet doesn’t actually get more accurate than ‘Four or five thousand a year’ in her estimation of Bingley’s weath; Willoughby’s estate in Sense and Sensibility is ‘Rated by Sir John at about six or seven hundred a year’.
I agree that most of those numbers are based on gossip or estimation (e.g. his estate has X acres of good farmland that should rent at Y per year).
Of course, you see plenty of lying about being rich in books by Thackeray or Smollett, e.g.
Thanks. I didn’t know if maybe there were some public tax records or something. Haven’t read much Hardy, Bronte, etc in a while, so didn’t know how familiar that trope was beyond Austin. I did recently read Gaskell’s Cranford, and they talked about a couple of the middle class characters’ annual income - after one character - Mellie? - lost all her investments in bank stocks. I seem to recall Trollope’s Barchester novels discussing annual income.
How were the estates “productive.” Did they sell meat and produce? That doesn’t seem to be discussed too often - unless someone is hard up and selling timber or something. I always sorta thought of the produce and rents from property as sorta self sufficient - going into the running of the estate.
And some of the wealth does not seem directly tied to land. For example, Bingley rents, doesn’t he? The way they talk about estates as predictably generating income, they impressed me as pretty secure, like guaranteed annuities. Tho occasionally someone will go bust on a railroad, canal, or overseas investment.
Next up, where and how did those women go to the bathroom?
Tenants produced whatever it was their land produced - wheat, barley, oats, milk, pork, linen,etc, probably some combination of those things. Landlords took a cut, either of the goods themselves, or the revenue from selling them at market.
Regarding how people knew about rich men’s income, bear in mind that gradations of rank were extremely important - someone who got £10k would not want to be seen as less important at a gathering than someone who was on £2k. Also it would be social death for a host if they failed to treat guests according to their relevant wealth and rank.
Regarding annuities, you should note that inflation in the 19th century was effectively zero. That meant that with a large enough investment, 3% government bonds called Consols provided a guaranteed income for the rest of someone’s life.
I also realized several of the “livings” in these books are with the church.
Wills are probated in Court, and are thus public record, available to anyone.
Though, of course, social standing also wasn’t the same thing as economic standing. It was quite possible for a baron to have more income than an earl, or even for a commoner to have more than either, and which was more relevant would depend on context.
FWIW, Googling suggests that the factor to convert to today’s dollars is around 100, so this is the rough equivalent of $600,000.
Or rather, that the backing of the currency and the control over its supply was not nearly the same as it is today. It wasn’t that inflation was nonexistent, it’s that it on average wasn’t the straight shot slowly creeping upwards that it is today, which is made possible by fiat currency and central banks keeping an eye on the money supply and responding to market conditions.
When money was all backed by precious metals (or actual precious metal), then inflation would be based on whether the new amount of gold being mined less that which was irretrievably consumed (such as thrown in a volcano) kept pace with the rate the economy was growing and demand for money increased. Prices would rise and fall with the the economy since there wasn’t a central bank able to tighten or loosen the money supply as needed. Things like the Spanish finding huge amounts of gold and silver in the New World could cause quite a shock to the system.
Well, it depends on what you mean by “effectively zero”. Much of the nineteenth century was characterised by wild bouts of inflation and deflation, with higher highs and lower lows than we see today, and very rapid changes from one state to the other. Smoothed over long periods, however, inflation was close to zero. But in any period of, say, five or ten years, somebody living on a fixed income could either experience a world of pain, or a dramatic increase in prosperity. What they would be very unlikely to experience, for much of the nineteenth century, was a prolonged period of price stability. That didn’t happen until quite late on in the nineteenth century.
Relevant to the works of Austen, the UK experienced several bouts of high inflation during the Napoleonic wars, followed by a slump and significant periods of deflation in the years afterwards. From the mid-1830s onwards, bouts of high inflation and deflation still occurred, but tended to balance on another out over periods of, say, 10 years.
Landed estates were often vast (many still are), so would have generated considerable income in sales of produce and meat, as well as rent from tenant farmers.
As for Bingley, I think we can assume he has inherited wealth, and wills are public record, so everyone would know what he inherited.
Sure, but Darcy doesn’t have a title, so for his social standing it’s in his interests to let his income and wealth be known.
Well, yes, but it is much, much more complicated than that.
Wills were publically accessible in the sense that anyone could obtain a copy from whichever ecclesiastical court it had been proved in. But that required paying fees, so people usually only applied for copies if they had a direct interest in the inheritance.
But more importantly, as economic historians often have cause to lament, wills are really useless as detailed sources about wealth. Often the testator will just say something along the lines of ‘I leave all my land to my son X’. Or perhaps ‘I leave all my land in Barsetshire to my eldest son X and all my land in Rutshire to my second son Y’. Smart lawyers knew that it was better not to be too specific, as a detailed list risked omitting something. Usually descriptions were no more detailed than they needed to be. Anyway, ‘counting manors’ is notoriously not a good way of measuring wealth.
It is true that the ecclesiastical courts required executors to submit inventories listing and valuing the deceased person’s property. But this applied only to personal goods and not to land. Moreover, although death duties did exist during Austen’s time, those also did not (as a broad generalisation) apply to land.
In any case, it wasn’t too difficult for neighbours to have a rough sense of what the land someone owned was worth. Ownership of land couldn’t exactly be secret. Owners were usually only too keen to assert their property rights and their tenants had no obvious reason to disguise the identity of the owner from whom they were leasing their land. So the locals almost always had a fairly clear idea of who owned what land. Moreover, they would have an equally clear idea of what that land was worth, either because they themselves were leasing parts of it or because they knew what the going rate was in that area. This was exactly the sort of thing in which smart farmers needed to take the closest possible interest.
Estimating the wealth of the largest landowners could be more difficult because their estates might be spread over many different areas. The locals in one area might not know much about the estates elsewhere. But that’s rather like saying that it is a bit difficult to compare the wealth of, say, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Someone with lots of estates in different parts of the country was obviously extremely wealthy.