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, www.measuringworth.com, 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?
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?