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.
LRB 24 September 2009 | PDF Download