Borrowing Millions from a Capable Economist

Did Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown earn £2,000 a year as Head Gardener at Stowe in 1741? Or was it £65,500? These are the modern equivalents of the £25 per annum Brown was paid, as advanced by two different recent authors. The higher figure sounds like a good professional salary, and has been calculated by Professor Roderick Floud in his paper Lancelot Brown and his Finances, published by the Royal Horticultural Society in Occasional Papers from The RHS Lindley Library (volume 14, October 2016) Capability Brown and his account book.

Every historical researcher ought to read what Floud has to say here on the Meaning of Money. The vital thing is to decide whether the historical currency value you are reading is labour, commodity, or wealth, and then ‘do the math’ appropriately. There is an excellent website,, which can play the part of your pocket calculator. Whenever I work with writers, and I transcribe monetary values in old documents, they want to know the modern equivalent.   I have always shied away from this: it is just so difficult. I try to explain why. Sometimes the thing was affordable only to an elite (isn’t this supremely true of landscape gardening?) and so any modern currency equivalent that many readers might spend at Christmas would seem ridiculous.   For landscaping expenses, I suggested that a better unit than pounds sterling might be ‘the annual rent of one village’. Can you imagine what that might be today?

Eighteenth-century accounting tallies

Take pineapples for example, grown only in Stately Home hot houses, eaten only by the aristocracy in 18th century England. Any price that implies that any worker or even middle-class professional could buy them from a market stall or greengrocer would simply be wrong.  Inequalities were so extreme that producers might be on third-world wages and lifestyles and yet live just outside the Park Pale rather than halfway round the world.

When the government started subsidizing childcare in the nineties, I was a Dad and an archivist in a business that I discovered had given child allowances to its (male) staff in the fifties. A father could increase his salary by 50% if he had four children (typical salary £400 a year plus allowance of £50 per child up to maximum of four). At 2016 earnings equivalent his £34,000 salary goes up to £67,000 on the birth of his fourth child. That put the day-a-week at Nursery that we were being offered into deep shade, I thought!

Professor Floud continues throughout his RHS Capability Brown paper to cite modern equivalent figures that are (as a journalist might say) ‘eye-watering’. It is a shock to read these kinds of statistics instead of the quaint-sounding pounds-shillings-and-pence of the quill pen. From one client or employer alone – admittedly it was the Crown Estate – Brown received £54 million in aggregate. His widow Biddy received a pension of over half a million pounds a year, which today would require a Pension Fund of eleven million. Brown took out a loan of £4.3 million in 1778 and repaid it in full within two years. Who could do that but a very ‘Capable entrepreneur’.

Should all historians borrow Roderick Floud’s ‘Capable Economist’ habit of modernizing monetary values? How can publishers avert instant obsolescence? Could we have a kind of spreadsheet formula that regularly updated comparative figures?



3 Comments Add yours

  1. andkindred says:

    Hello Peter

    I like this piece for pointing out some of the complexities. I have always found difficulties with property values. In (say) 1900 a person with £2,000 cash could readily purchase several houses, perhaps as many as a terrace of 10 for cash. My Dad was the first in his family to be an owner-occupier. The price in 1960 was £2,000: it is worth about 60 times as much today.

    But, of course, Dad didn’t pay anything like £2,000, he had a mortgage. The key here is that the calculations don’t include the availabity and cost of credit. In recent times there have been large fluctuations in interest rates, and the deposit requirements for mortgages are now much more stringent than 10 years ago. If I were on an average salary thereabouts I would not come close to getting a mortgage on my Dad’s old house – I would need a deposit of at least £30,000 and have to pay almost 11 times that in interest.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter Foden says:

      You are so right Andrew. The Measuring worth calculator redresses many of the problems with ‘rule of thumb’ comparisons, but the availability of credit has always been a factor as you illustrate. Capability Brown did all his major projects on credit: today he would have to be regulated by the FSA! Only the few enjoyed that kind of credit, but they feared being dunned- having rumours circulate of risk of insolvency. For the rest, something more like peer to peer lending was the norm. Have you tested your family data against Measuringworth? Does it measure up?


  2. andkindred says:

    Sorry it has taken so long. Using the economic power calculation, which compares £2,000 in 1960 with 2015, it gives £142,000. Recently, a similar house was sold for £140,000!

    Liked by 1 person

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