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Gentlemen and capitalism: some questions

Gentlemen and capitalism: some questions

Consequent upon Wiener’s and Rubinstein’s research respectively into culture and industrial capital and ‘men of wealth’, Cain et al. embarked upon the elucidation of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, which has become a paradigm of English entrepreneurship, status and the performance of the economy.(1) Perhaps, however, we can illustrate a dichotomy by reference to contemporary literature and ethnographic writing. Ostensibly, Henry Wilcox represents this ethos of gentlemanly capitalism, although his company is a commercial enterprise rather than industrial. We should recollect, however, that, although he purchased the Onibury estate (Clun, Shropshire), he really was not enamoured of the countryside, visited the estate rarely, and abandoned it when an unpleasant incident occurred there. Nor was he especially attracted to his wife’s Howards End. His countenance of both arose from expectations of status and family rather than a desire to enjoy the lifestyle of the country elite. His natural environment was the City.(2) In contrast, Jack London excoriated the 400,000 gentlemen in the 1881 census, ‘of no occupation’ and ‘unprofitable’.(3) Such a number could not have been composed of either retired industrialists or ‘men of wealth’.

The character of the urban gentleman

The following data are extracted from the National Probate Register. The database from which they derive concerns probate valuations for all entries for Leicestershire from the initiation of civil registration of probate in 1858 to 1903. The timescale accords with Piketty’s concentration of wealth in England, but he did not have recourse to these data.(4) The terminus ad quem is also aligned with the Distress Act of 1905 (thus with renewed recession), Noonan’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists (also indicative of that economic crisis, in Hastings), London’s The People of the Abyss (although poignantly and narrowly directed to the East End of the capital), the 1910 land valuation and new income taxes.(5) The database is in progress. Although all the data have been accumulated, only surnames A-O have been entered into the database, comprising just under 16,000 data records, 620 (just under 4 percent) of which concern deceased described as gentleman or esquire in the borough of Leicester. The data are divided into two cohorts: before April 1881 and after 1881, determined by the transition in the probate valuation from an estimated round number (e.g. under £450) to a precise valuation, often re-sworn, and sometimes prescribed to a halfpenny.(6) There is a coincidental advantage in this sectioning, since it mitigates any impact of inflation, although Piketty estimates zero inflation in the long nineteenth century.(7)

Commencing with the data prior to April 1881, we have 290 data records, the minimum and maximum consisting of under £20 (six deceased) and under £60,000. Another two deceased were estimated to have estate valued at less than £50, but 30 less than £100, 23 less than £200, 14 less than £300, one less than £400, and 23 under £450 (the next amount is less than £600). About 13 percent of gentleman thus possessed estate valued at less than £100 and more than a fifth less than £200, levels of estate which were not beyond accrual by labourers (another analysis is in progress on these data of unskilled and skilled workpeople).

The post-1881 data present a similar pattern, allowing for some upward inflation of the values. We have 330 data records, with a minimum of £3 and a maximum of £224,567. If we conduct an assessment of the Gini coefficient, as an artifice, on these data, the result is 0.78 (to two decimal places): a wide divergence in inequality in the cohort of gentlemen and esquires. The mean and median are something of another artifice, however, at £5,080 and £1,011, but note the standard deviation of 15759 and interquartile range of 3437 (to the nearest integer). More interestingly, the fifth percentile occurs at £44. If we consider rank order, 112 (over a third) owned estate valued at less than £499. The estate of 14 percent was evaluated at below £100.

What existed then was a wide disparity in the wealth of those with the status of gentleman in the urban context. Very many conducted a marginal existence in terms of financial status. Undoubtedly, some (perhaps not many) received financial support from kinship, but the meagre valuations of their estate reflect a rather mean quotidian lifestyle and household content. These data, it must be explained, exclude many industrialists who, as will be explained below, were described by occupation rather than status at their demise.

Business wealth

The second issue concerns directly industrial wealth. The question here is whether businessmen withdrew capital from their enterprise and to what extent. A considerable proportion of business consisted of partnerships. The extent of these partnerships in any industrial locality can be gauged in records of dissolution in The London Gazette. What needs to be established is what amount of capital was extracted by the retiring partner. In the case of family partnerships, it is possible that the retiring partner left capital in the business and only withdrew what was necessary for an expected lifestyle.


Associated with that question of capital diversion is the issue of the size of the business. Hitherto, concentration has been on the ‘very wealthiest’. The late-Victorian equivalent of the SME or mittelstand has been somewhat neglected, but the majority of the hosiery and boot and shoe manufacturers in the East Midlands pertained to that category, affluent, but not the ‘very wealthiest’. The NPR material reveals that these manufacturers retained as their denomination their industrial occupation at death/probate rather than the status of gentlemen. It equally demonstrates that they did not aspire to country estates and pursuits, but congregated in the new (highly selective and salubrious) suburban developments, particularly Knighton.(8) Whilst cadet siblings accepted the style of ‘gentleman’ and existed on more slender means in the urban location, the eldest continued the enterprise and retained the style of industrialist/manufacturer.

Origins of some gentlemen: lower middle class

One other benefit of the NPR is that, very occasionally, it reveals the background of those who did aspire to the title of ‘gentleman’ from a different background. These instances are monopolized by lower-middle-class traders relinquishing their occupation for the status of ‘gentleman’, on slender means. In 1869, John Smith possessed estate valued at below £200, described as a gentleman of 7, Northgate Street, Leicester, but he had a former existence as a grocer in Wellington Street.(9)

The connection between capitalism and gentlemen is thus complicated. The questions advanced here are speculative, but the final database will provide the basis of a more granular dissection of the character of ‘gentleman’ in the provincial, urban, capitalist context. One category consisted of ‘poor’ urban gentlemen with slender resources, some from lower-middle-class local backgrounds, upwardly-mobile in pretended status, if not means.

1 M. J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (new edn, Cambridge, 2004; first edn 1981); W. D. Rubinstein, Men or Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (London, 2006 edn; first edn 1981); P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism (London, 1993); F. M. L. Thompson, Gentrification and Enterprise Culture: Britain, 1780-1980 (Oxford, 2001).

2 E. M. Forster, Howards End (London, 1910).

3 Jack London, The People of the Abyss (London, 1903), p. 315.

4 T. Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge, MA, 2014), p. 117.

5 Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (published posthumously); M. J. Daunton, Just Taxes: The Politics of Taxation in Britain. 1914-1979 (Cambridge, 2008).

6 For the differentiation in 1881 and in general for the NPR, Rubinstein, Men of Wealth, pp. 18-24

7 Piketty, Capital, p. 131.

8 R. M. Pritchard, Housing and the Spatial Structure of the City: Residential Mobility and the Housing Market in an English City Since the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1976), p. 136 (although not acquiring City status until 1919). Knighton was incorporated into the borough of Leicester by boundary extension considerably after its initial suburban development.

9 National Probate Register, 1869 Sabben-Squires, p. 248.

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