Trajectories of Aristocratic Wealth 1858-2018: Evidence from Probate

Journal article

Bond, M. and Morton, J. (2021). Trajectories of Aristocratic Wealth 1858-2018: Evidence from Probate. Journal of British Studies.
AuthorsBond, M. and Morton, J.

In the past two decades the decline of the British aristocracy, and its apotheosis, the hereditary peerage, has received scant scholarly attention. The path and reasons for the reduction in their wealth, power and status were described in major historical works of the 1960s to the 1990s. These works laid much responsibility for the decline on features of the British aristocracy that are anachronistic in modern capitalist societies such as their landed, rentier status, conspicuously sumptuous lifestyles and disdain for commerce helped on by reductions in the value of agricultural land from the 1870s. This paper reappraises these arguments by examining the decline of the hereditary peerage’s wealth using a newly created dataset that includes all available probate grants for peers from 1858-2018. Wealth is adjusted for prices as well as for per capita wealth, real and relative inflation respectively. The paper challenges established research by finding that not only peers’ absolute but also relative mean wealth did not decline during the agricultural depression of the late 19th Century, and that serious decline only began and accelerated from World War 2. Since the 1980s there are signs of resurgence with the value of peers’ grants reaching Victorian levels in real, but not relative terms. The comprehensive character of the data as well as the distinction between real and relative wealth allows for multiple conceptual and analytic additions to the existing debates. When controlling for the age of a peerage we find decline in the inter war years was masked by new peerages created for wealthy businessmen who were much wealthier than the older, landed peers. Significantly, however, the differences in wealth between old and new peerages disappeared over time suggesting that dynastic family empires were difficult to maintain in the face of inheritance and wealth taxes and the shocks of war regardless of traditional landed status. Thus, the findings suggest that the wider aristocracy’s decline was due less to characteristics particular to it than to external fiscal and political forces, specifically, the impact of war on capital, and the tightening taxation regime allied to the broader post-war political and fiscal environment.

JournalJournal of British Studies
PublisherCambridge University Press (CUP)
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Publication dates
Print04 May 2022
Publication process dates
Accepted11 Jan 2021
Deposited01 Feb 2021
Accepted author manuscript
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