The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain since 1066
Philip Beresford and William D. Rubinstein
Social Affair Unit
Back in 1999, Forbes magazine, already famous for listing the richest living Americans, decided to produce an historical guide to the all-time richest Americans. In so doing, it compared the amount of individual fortunes to US gross domestic product at the time and expressed it in 1999 dollar terms. Updated in 2006, the richest American man of all time was John D. Rockefeller, with a fortune equivalent to $305.3 billion in 2006 terms.
Philip Beresford, editor of the Sunday Times Rich List, and William D. Rubinstein, a professor of history at the University of Wales, have now attempted to do the same for Britain, comprising the 250 richest people in our nation’s history. Instead of comparing individual fortunes to GDP at the time, they have taken an individual’s share of the estimated net national income (NNI) at death and expressed it as a percentage of today’s GDP.
This means that Britain’s richest living person, Lakshmi Mittal, comes in at 20, while top of the list is Alan Rufus, one of the 1066 conquerors, whose £11,000 fortune at 1093 prices is reckoned to be worth £81 billion in today’s money.
However, some have reacted in a scoffing way at the methodology of the authors. ‘On the same basis,’ wrote Dominic Lawson in the Independent, ‘I might as well declare that the original Adam, or if you prefer, the first homo sapien, was the richest man in history, “worth” £25 trillion, the current size of the global economy.’ Writing in Prospect magazine, Harvey Cole found this approach to be ‘self-evidently ridiculous’, explaining his objection as follows: ‘In 1093 the population of England was little more than a million. If all those million were assumed to have the same share of national wealth now as they did then, about 59 million would, by definition, have nothing at all.’
Remarkably few of those included made their fortunes since the Industrial Revolution; fewer still, a mere eighteen in fact, did so in the 20th century. Only six of those included are still living today. Of the 250 in this list (monarchs are omitted), almost half made their fortunes principally from land ownership and property.
There are industrial fortunes – Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of a spinning machine, was regarded as the richest commoner at the time of his death in 1843, worth £2.774 billion – but the list also includes bishops, wool merchants, wine merchants, goldsmiths, bankers, moneylenders, the corruptors of parliament, army and navy contractors, the nabobs of the mercantile companies, such as the East India Company and the ill-fated South Sea Company.
As you would expect, there are only a handful of women, usually heiresses who married well. For example, Elizabeth, the Lady of Clare, who founded Clare College in Cambridge, died in 1360 worth £8.8 billion in today’s money. Cicely Neville, the Duchess of York, who was the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, lived to inherit fortunes from her father’s family as well as the estates of her husband and sons, died in 1495 worth £5.9 billion in today’s money.
Some of those celebrated here were feline political as well as financial players. Sir John Banks (1627-1699), says Beresford, ‘would have been at home in the modern City’. He lent money to the government and made a 63 per cent profit in six months when he took over repayment of the royal debt. Politically shrewd, he served in two parliaments during Cromwell’s Protectorate and eight under the Stuarts. Erasmus Smith, became an army contractor in 1650, after the Civil War had ended, did well out of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, acquired land there, and continued to do so after the Restoration.
Sir Thomas Viner, a goldsmith, was made comptroller of the mint under James I, lent money to the government, and prospered under both Cromwell and Charles II. A century or so later, the Van Neck brothers, of Dutch origin, lent money to the British government in its wars against the French in the 1740s and ’50s, but persuaded both governments that they should be allowed to supply the French tobacco monopoly throughout these conflicts.
Of course, sheer luck played a part in several instances. Sir Gregory Page, an East India man, held £600,000-worth of South Sea stock at his death (about £6.48 billion in today’s money), which his executors sold before the South Sea bubble burst. ‘Had he waited a few more months to expire, his heir, also Sir Gregory Page, might have had nothing,’ Beresford points out. His son bought ‘much of Kent’, built a house that was said to resemble a royal palace, and amassed a collection of Old Master paintings.
Beresford and Rubinstein have produced a book that can be used for reference or leafed through for idle enjoyment. Each entry contains the salient details about the individual’s career, fortune, and fate. For example, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, was known as the ‘Butcher of England’ for his pursuit of traitors as constable of England under Edward IV. Nonetheless, he was a devout man and when he was executed on orders of Warwick the Kingmaker in 1470 he asked to be beheaded with three blows in honour of the Trinity.
Indeed, being rich in the past was truly a high-risk activity. No fewer than 29 of those on the list were either executed or met a violent death, the last to die violently being Charles I’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, in 1641. The worst that the super-rich have had to face in modern times has been, since 1906, high taxation, and since 1989, the attentions (welcome for some, not for others) of the Sunday Times Rich List.
Reviewed by Cristopher Silvester