Curt Purcell [curtpurcell@hotmail.com], who read the materials about Victorian money on the Victorian web, sent in a few questions on the subject:

CP. In general, I'd like to know how much money a Victorian might carry on his person. More specifically, between 1890 and 1900, how much would the following people generally have on them: a common laborer; a professional of some sort; a fairly wealthy gentleman; an extravagant and impulsive person like a later-ninteeth-century version of Lord Byron. Within these different classes, would there be significant differences in the amounts carried by men and women? Would they usually carry their money in coin or paper? What did they hold it in? Were wallets, as we know them, at all in use at the time? Where did they keep the rest of their money, and how easily could they get to it?

GPL. Given that in the mid- and late-1860s, London laborers earned about 20 shillings/week and an engineer about double that (approximately 100/year), they would have been highly unlikely to have had in their possession anything more than shillings and pence. Since more than three-quarters of the British population thus never handled pound coins, they were also highly unlikely to come in contact with paper money, which was used for larger denominations. If coins dominated financial exchange for most Britons, they are likely to have used purses (or items called wallets that looked like purses) than billfolds. A wealthy person would keep his or her money in a bank or put it in conservative investments, which rarely earned more than 3% per year.

CP. If they ran short of cash, how could they get more? Or could they write checks (cheques?), or use their good name as a line of credit? If a wealthy person saw, for example, a piece of furniture he absolutely had to have, but it exceeded the amount of cash he had on him, what then?

GPL. This one is comparatively easy to answer since we know from countless Victorian novels, such as Trollope's The Way We Live Now, that young men with "expectations" (usually expectations of a large inheritance or marriage into a wealthy family) lived on credit, running up bills with tailors, landlords, and all kinds of merchants. Since exchanging money was long considered somewhat beneath gentlemen, many prosperous families handled all their purchases by credit, settling their accounts at monthly or longer intervals. One could also add that until quite late in the century, if a wealthy person "saw . . . a piece of furniture he absolutely had to have," he would have had it made to order — much like the clothing he wore. This widespread reliance upon credit suggests that most wealthy people were unlikely to carry large sums of money on their person.

CP. If a coach ride cost a shilling (by the way — did it?), could you give the coachman a pound and expect him to be able to change it? Or would you know better, and have enough available in smaller coin?

GPL.Stage coaches, such as those depicted in Dickens's Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations, were pretty well driven out of business by the railways by the the second half of the nineteenth century — or why would Dickens have written about them with nostalgia? Third-class railway tickets, which the working class could afford, often cost only pennies. Hackney cabs, which one could rent in the cities — they are central in George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind (1871) — served members of the middle and upper classes who did not have their own coaches and coachmen. One assumes the driver of one would have change a large coin.

Related Materials


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Last modified 16 July 2003