In Proper Conduct, the heroine spends a good deal of time worrying about money that is not there, particular after her father spends nearly 1,000 pounds on a horse. Not an excessive sum to someone such as the Prince Regent, whose racing stud farm cost him 30,000 pounds a year. But all these numbers seemed to need a bit perspective.
We also have to remember that back in the 1800’s England was not on a decimal system–you had to know your farthings, pennies, and shillings. And coins were far more common for use than any paper money. Banknotes–slips of paper that promised payment for a set amount–were initially issued by individual banks. In the late 1600’s the Bank of England was established and by the late 1700’s their notes were viewed as being as good as gold (or silver). But Scottish banks issue their own notes until the mid 1800’s, and other private banks o issue their own notes until the mid 1800’s, and the last English private banknote was issued in the early 1900’s.
Banknotes began to be standardized in the mid 1700’s, with ten and five pound notes appearing. These were all hand-lettered and signed–and were viewed by many with deep suspicion. A coin, after all, was to hold the value of itself within it’s metal. And for many, a bit of gold or silver in hand was better than any promise given in a bit of paper. Banknotes were much easier to forge than any coin–another good reason for anyone to prefer payment in solid coin.
So we look to coinage as the most common form of currency.
In the Regency, we have as the main coins denominations:
- Farthing – four farthing made a penny
- Penny or Pence – twelve pennies (or twelvepence) made a shilling
- Shilling – five shillings made a crown
- Pound – twenty shillings made a pound
- Guinea – twenty-one shillings made a guinea
In ledgers, a pound is often written with the pound mark–£. Shilling is written as an “s” or a slash mark, as in 6/ is six shillings. And a penny is written up as “d” for denarius, a Roman silver coin that had the same value as the English penny. So 4d is four pence.
Coinage in use in the Regency included:
- Gold for one, two, five and half-guinea coins
- Silver for one, two, three, four, and six penny (or pence), shilling, and crown coins
- Copper for half-pence and farthing coins
Two-penny coins were called tuppence. And there were all sorts of slang names for coins including a quid (pound), a bob (shilling), and a goldfinch (guinea).
Due to a shortage of copper and silver coins in the late 1700’s, firms began to use tokens to pay wages. There was also a growth in payments by foreign coins at this time.
The annual expenses of a great house could run between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds a year including housekeeping, repairs, stables, parklands, gardens, home farm costs, servants, and taxes.
Mrs. Whitney’s Boarding School for Young Ladies at Buckingham cost twelve guineas a year, and one guinea extra if tea and sugar were required to be served.
In Bath, one paid two guineas were paid for subscription balls, five shillings for concert tickets, and ten shillings sixpence for a subscription to the booksellers.
With an income of 400 pounds a year, one could employ two maids, one groom and keep one horse in London. On 700 hundred a year, one could have one manservant, three maids and two horses. With an income of 1,000 pounds a year, one could have three female servants, a coachman, a footman, two carriages and a pair of horses in London.
There were three to four hundred families whose income was over 10,000 pounds a year, due to vast land holdings (hence, these were called “The four hundred” — it was a small world at the top).
During the London season, the lease on house in the West End could cost as much as 1,000 pounds.
Anyone with a debt of twenty pounds or more could be sent to debtor’s prison. However, a member of Parliament could not be imprisoned while Parliament was sitting.
The capital to secure an estate was approximately thirty times the desired income–so, if you want to make 1,000 pounds a year, you need 30,000 to secure the amount of good land that could produce such an income.
The Earl of Egremont saw a rise in income due to land rentals from 12,976 pounds in 1791 to 34,000 pounds in 1824.
In Somerset (where Proper Conduct is set) 30 acres for let went for 35 pounds per annum, with the tenant paying all taxes except land tax.
In 1801, a 100-acre estate in Sussex sold for 3,500 pounds.
In 1804, due to the silver shortage, the Bank of England issued light-weight token silver coins for one shilling, three shilling and six pence coins.
From 1811 to 1812, an estimated 250,000 people lived comfortably on more than seven hundred pounds a year each. A half million shopkeepers made a hundred and fifty pounds a year each, two million artisans lived on the edge of poverty at 55 pounds per annum, and one and one half million laborers earned only 30 pounds a year each.
In 1813, a cow fetched about 15 pounds at the market, while a ewe went for 55 to 72 shillings.
In 1816, a new British one pound coin made of gold, the sovereign, began to be produced.
In 1820, 1,100 years after the first English silver pennies were minted, the last British silver pennies were minted.
Being paid in tokens? Past currency is always being touted as being so stable, but I see that it wasn’t. It’s hard to believe that there were so many people working in the beginning of the industrial era that they couldn’t mint enough currency to pay them. It was, I guess, the beginning of the collapse of the barter system. But, is paying people in tokens much different than paying people in electronic currency, via credit cards and the like, as often people are paid now? I also found it curious that people could be paid in foriegn currency. I live in Michigan, and like many border states I’m sure, there is an awful lot of Canadian coinage floating around that is used interchangably for American coinage. A Canadian quarter will go just as far around here as an American one will. Even the vending machines will accept them. While English currency may sound complicated to us Yanks, it also sounds like some things never change.
That is except for putting us in jail for being in debt.
A lot of time the only thing that mattered was that the coin/token had it’s own value in metal. We may get back to those days what with copper prices going up like mad and gold being worth a heck of a lot.
Thanks for such an interesting article. I grew up in England when we still used Pounds, Shillings and Pence. Shillings were written like this:- 1/- (One shilling) 1/6d (One and sixpence).
On the first trip I made to England, it was still pounds and pence (took 25p to heat the B&B room I had in London)–I rather miss the old coins, but I found it easier to just adopt the money rather than try to do any conversions in my head.
Thanks for the details on what it cost to buy horses and land, keep servants, etc. I find details like this so much more helpful when writing my Regency novels than trying to figure out now/then cost comparisons, which aren’t similar at all and very unhelpful at times. This information is wonderful! Thank you for it, and I’m going to keep it on my list of great resources!
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What source(s) did you use to determine the relationship between the income of an estate and the cost to purchase it? Thanks!
There are several sources. One of the best is Estate Management in the Eighteenth Century. You can also get information on this from newspaper ads of the era for estates (their prices). Another good source is at https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2008/02/10/the-economics-of-pride-and-prejudice-or-why-a-single-man-with-a-fortune-of-4000-per-year-is-a-desirable-husband/ and a good article is here https://hlq.pennpress.org/media/34098/hlq-774_p373_hume.pdf.
Thank you. I look forward to reading some of these!
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