A Snap Shot
The British Aristocracy c. 1880
|Hush by James Tissot|
British Aristocrats at Play
In 1880 the wealthiest, most politically powerful Aristocracy on Earth was the British Aristocracy. It Politically and Economically dominated Britain and through their domination of Britain, the British Empire. What follows is a brief snap shot, so to speak, of the British Aristocracy at its height c. 1880.
In c. 1880 the British Aristocracy basically consisted of people owning 1,000 acres or more of land that were distributed over the 4 divisions of the British Isles, (Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England). The figures given below are those for people owning 1,000 acres or more.
Thus in 1876 in England 4736 owners, owned 12,825,643 acres of land controlling 56.1% of the agricultural land. In Wales 672 owners controlled 1,490,915 acres or 60.78% of the land. In Ireland it was 3,745 owners controlled 15,802,737 acres controlling 78.4% of the land. In Scotland 1,758 owned 17,584,828 acres or 92.82% of total land.1
Those figures while daunting enough very likely under estimate the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of the elite for several reasons. One is that some owners of property that was divided into several large pieces were counted as separate properties owned by separate individuals and some properties considered too small were not counted among the owned properties at all. Thus the actual number of owners of property of 1,000 acres or more probably numbered 4,200 in Wales and England not 5,408. The number of owners in Ireland probably numbered 2,500 not 3,745. And in Scotland it was probably 800 not 1,758. And altogether they likely owned c. 80% of all the agricultural land in the British Isles.2
Those figures give the total for of members of the British aristocracy holding land of 1,000 acres or more as in all c. 7,500. If you add their spouses you get 15,000, and if you add children you at least double the number to 30,000 and of course you have to add brothers and sisters, uncles aunts etc. Even so the total membership of the British Aristocracy per say probably numbered well under 200,000 altogether. The figure of 7,500 can thus be considered to be 7,500 families owning enough land to be considered Aristocrats.
Of those c. 6,000 were families owning between 1,000 and 10,000 acres. At the bottom end of the scale they would tend to blend into the class of independent farmer. In any case in the late 1870’s they would get from their estates between 1,000 and 10,000 Pounds a year in income. In both cases their chief source of income would be the rents they got from farmers for the use of their land. As indicated above the income per year would be c. 1 pound per acre per year. Also land was generally categorized has being worth about 33 years of rent income. So the value of the estate of c, 1,000 acres would be c. 33,000 pounds. This of course excludes the value of houses, roads, furniture, art etc.; so the figure is a minimum figure for wealth. Of course the value of an estate of 10,000 would be c. 330,000 pounds. By the standards of the day when someone was earning a really good income if they made 50 pounds a year. This is significant wealth.
The Aristocrats who got c. 1,000 pounds a year were not likely to have multiple mansions or a house in London or take frequent trips abroad. Those who had c. 10,000 pounds a year might have those things and travel frequently. Also those towards the top end of the scale would be more likely to significant income and assets in non-agricultural areas.3
If those were the Aristocrats at the lower end of the scale. Those of the middling level, who numbered c. 750, would own between 10,000 – 30,000 acres and have incomes of 10,000 – 30,000 pounds a year. They would be worth between 330,000 – 990,000 pounds at least and of course this does not factor in non-agricultural wealth.
The c. 250 families at the very top of the pyramid would be all those families getting more than 30,000 pounds a year. These families would be in effect millionaires given that the value of the land excluding everything else they owned was in itself worth more than one million pounds.
At the very top of the heap were those super rich families getting incomes of more than 75,000 pounds a year. These families numbered 29.
Here is the list:
Name Income per year (lbs) Acres
Duke of Westminster – 290,000 19,749
Duke of Buccleuch - 232,000 460,108
Duke of Bedford - 225,000 86,335
Duke of Devonshire - 181,000 198,572
Duke of Northumberland - 176,000 186,379
Earl of Derby - 163,000 68,942
Marquess of Bute - 151,000 116,668
Duke of Sutherland - 142,000 1,358,545
Duke of Hamilton - 141,000 157,386
Earl of Fitzwilliam - 139,000 115,743
Earl of Dudley - 123,000 25,554
Earl of Ancaster - 121,000 163,495
Marquess of Anglesey - 111,000 29,737
Marquess of Londonderry – 110,000 50,323
Duke of Portland - 108,000 183,199
Marquess of Hertford - 104,000 84,596
Viscount of Portman - 100,000 33,891
Duke of Rutland - 97,000 70,137
Duke of Cleveland - 97,000 104,194
Marquess of Downshire - 97,000 120,189
Baron of Overstone - 93,000 51,377
Vicount of Boyne - 88,000 30,205
Baron of Leconfield - 88,000 109,935
Earl of Brownlow - 86,000 58,335
Earl of Yarborough - 85,000 56,893
Duke of Richmond - 80,000 286,411
Earl of Seafield - 78,000 305,930
Earl of Pembroke - 78,000 44,806
Duke of Norfolk - 76,000 49,866
This list of the wealth of the very wealthiest of the British Aristocracy probably under counts just how wealthy they were given that it underestimates non land sources of wealth. Further at the time this group of very wealthy men and some women were far wealthier than then even the wealthiest of Bankers and Industrialists at the time.
In terms of status The British Aristocracy because of its wealth had enormous prestige. What with over 400 hereditary peerages in the House of Lords and the local gentrie's domination of local politics and society.
Titles were remarkably exclusive there was a total of just under 1,400 peerages and a little over 100 life peerages which were not hereditary. Of the hereditary peerages 856 were baronets, in other words hereditary Knighthoods. What made these status’s full of prestige was that the title was not inherited by all the children only the eldest male child or failing that in most cases eldest daughter inherited the title; all the other children were in terms of status commoners. The result was that that there was only one Duke of Norfolk, one Knight of X etc. This gave the titles enormous social prestige because they were both rare and exclusive. The “common” landed gentry of Britain although they had no hereditary titles were for all practical purposes a class of nobility.5
Thus in terms of status and economic might, allied to political power the British Aristocracy dominated local and national society. At the local level they dominated rural political life. The House of Lords was completely under their control and in the House of Commons if they did not dominate they had enormous influence. Thus into the 1860’s 1/3 of all MPs were from 60 patrician families and that c. 3/4 of the House of Commons were Aristocratic MPs.6 Also most Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers were members of the Aristocracy. The private influence of the Aristocrats should of course not be underestimated.6
The source of their economic power was their domination of agriculture, but they had also made their peace with the industrial and financial revolutions and had large and profitable investments in those areas. In fact although in some respects the British Aristocracy was small and exclusive. What with the rarity of a hereditary titled nobility and the small numbers, but in other ways it was open.
This was because the British Aristocracy practiced primogeniture. The practice of reserving the great bulk of their wealth, (i.e., the land), to one inheritor who would also be the sole inheritor of the title if any. The means used to do so were entail and trusts all of which made sure that wealth remained concentrated in a few hands. This forced the other children of a member of the Aristocracy to marry, generally outside the exclusive circle. Although it should be mentioned that heiresses were much sought after by second and third sons of Aristocrats.
The result of the fact that the majority of the children of Aristocrats were too all intents and purposes commoners was that many of them married into the wealthy non Aristocratic families. Merchants, industrialists, bankers. This forged strong links between the rising Bourgeoisie and the old Aristocratic landed families as well as giving them access and influence in the rising sectors of the economy that enabled the old Aristocratic families to diversify and increase their wealth.
That combined with the fact that through primogeniture and using practices like entail the British Aristocracy was able to prevent the dissipation of inherited wealth by division and the lowering of the prestige of titles by multiplication of said titles.7
Thus c. 1880 the British Aristocracy was probably the wealthiest in Europe and it was likely the smallest. It likely controlled a greater percentage of the land than any other European Aristocracy and it was concentrated in larger estates on average. Thus although the Russian Aristocracy controlled 177 million acres that was only 14% of the land and much of it was small “estates”. In Spain the figure was 52% but again many of the estates were tiny. In France the old Aristocratic elite owned 20% of the land but there was only 1,000 estates of over 1,000 acres in all of France. In Prussia the Junker Aristocrats owned 40% of the land but again much was in small holdings. Also in Prussia there was only five holdings of over 100,000 acres, excluding that of the German Emperor.8
In fact only the vast estates owned by the wealthiest of Russian and Austrian families could rival the vast estates of the British super rich. Further in much of continental Europe, especially in Germany and Russia the large estates were burdened by vast stretches of worthless land and the estates encumbered by huge debts, unlike the usually well run and profitable British estates. Junker estates in Germany for example were mostly heavily mortgaged and the upper reaches of the Russian Aristocracy was largely in a perpetual crisis of debt.
In fact on the continent the perpetual division of estates upon death had led to a proliferation of small estates and to perpetual debt, as Aristocrats sought to provide for all their children. The practices of primogeniture and entail having disappeared on the continent.
Also titles were on the continent usually inheritable for all the children. The result was a proliferation of the numbers of people with inherited titles and a debasement, so to speak, of a title’s prestige. Thus Prussia had 20,000 titled families by 1800 C.E. In 1858 in Russia there were 600,000 hereditary nobles. There were over 250,000 members of noble class in Austria by 1914, with 9,000 ennoblements between 1800-1914 C.E. Italy had by 1906 12,000 titled aristocrats.9
Compared with such numerous nobilities, the British peerage was a very small and very exclusive caste indeed, and, even if the baronetage and the landed gentry were also included, it remained an astonishingly tight and tiny status elite.10
It also was politically dominate and in terms of wealth probably the wealthiest Aristocracy in Europe and in average terms by far the wealthiest because of its small size and exclusivity in terms of concentrating wealth and maintaining social prestige.
Such is the position of the British Aristocracy c. 1880. They dominated Britain, socially, economically, culturally and politically. Through their control of Britain they dominated one of the greatest, if not the greatest empire ever created – the British Empire. Little did they realize that the decline was about to begin.
1. Cannadine, David, The Decline & Fall of the British Aristocracy, Pan Books, London, 1990, p. 8.
2. IBID, The figures in Footnote one add up to 47,704,123 acres of land and 10,911 Aristocrats who own land.
3. IBID, pp. 9 - 10.
4. IBID, pp. 710-711.
5. IBID, pp. 11-12.
6. IBID, pp. 13-14.
7. IBID, pp. 19-21.
8. IBID, p. 19.
9, Footnote, 7.
10. IBID, p. 20.