Sep42012

Victorian Money, More Than You Ever Wanted To Know ~ A Rant

To protect the guilty I’m not going to name any names, Gentle Reader, and I’d like to state up front that currency is certainly not my expertise. But I was reading a book recently of the alt-historical romantic variety. The hero visits a whore in Victorian London, 1883. For her pains he “pulled out far more notes than planned and handed them to her.”

I had to put the book down.

First, bank notes are drawn on a bank more like a cashier’s check than paper money today, which means the whore would have to go into a bank to redeem her notes or find herself a very non-suspicious tradesman, in modern times this is a little like trying to break a $1000 bill.

Second, NO ONE regularly carried notes or paid for anything with notes until well after the 1920s. Culturally, no one would carry that much money into the kind of area of London where whore houses are located. People paid with coin, mostly the wealthy actually paid via their butler or valet or abigail’s coin, or on account, because it was beneath them to actually handle money.

Even, as the author was trying to get across, this was a highly generous gesture, NOT WITH PAPER MONEY HE WOULDN’T.

We writers all make mistakes. I have made more than my share. And there comes a time when every historical author must stop researching and begin writing (or the book never gets written). I do understand and believe that some modernization is necessary in alt-history genre fiction because most readers want their books to be fun and entertaining. It is our business, as authors to provide that. (Now for genre’s like historical fiction or biographies or what have you this is a different matter. We are speaking in terms of managing expectations, rather like finding the correct cover art.)

However, I do think something as basic as currency should be second knowledge if you are going to write in any alternate time period. It’s like getting the clothing correct. (In another unnamed steampunk novel, a corset was referred to as a “bodice”. FYI, both terms areont the whole, incorrect . At the time, a corset would have been mainly referred to as stays. The “bodice” is the top part of a dress. Thus, I spent the entire scene confused into thinking the character in question was swanning around with her top half fully dressed, rather than entirely in her underthings as was intended. But, I digress . . .)

On Victorian Money (from Baedecker’s London 1896)

  • sovereign or pound (gold) = 20 shillings
  • half-sovereign (gold) = 10 shillings
  • crown (silver) = 5 shillings
  • half-crown (silver) = (2 shillings & a six penny piece)
  • double florin (silver – rare) = 4 shillings
  • florin (silver) = 2 shillings
  • shilling (silver & same size as a sovereign) = 12 pennies
  • six penny (silver) = 6 pennies
  • three penny (silver) = 3 pennies
  • penny (bronze) = 4 farthings
  • half penny = 2 farthings
  • farthing

I know, I know, overly complicated. Think back to that wonderful scene with the money exchange in Room With a View when Cousin Charlotte comes to visit Lucy’s family.

“In England alone of the more important states of Europe the currency is arranged without reference to the decimal system.”
~ Karl Baedeker, 1896

In 1896 1 sovereign was approximately: 5 American dollars, 25 francs, 20 German marks, or 10 Austrian florins.

The Bank of England issued notes for 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 pounds or more. They were generally not used in ordinary life most people “dealt in coin.” Gentlemen and ladies, when shopping, either had a servant with them to handle the coin (including gratuities & all fares), or paid on credit (AKA account). A shop would then send a bill around to the townhouse at the end of the month on Black Monday, which would be paid by the house steward, accountant, or personal secretary. A gentleman handling his own money is either no gentleman or engaged in nefarious activities like gambling or trade.

Baedeker advises letters of credit (AKA circular notes) drawn on a major bank for travel, to be exchanged for local currency upon arrival. He also advises never carrying a full days worth of coinage about your person.

It’s important, as historical writers, for us to grasp a larger picture – so allow me to attempt to put this into perspective…

Middle class wages per annum:

  • A Bank of England Clerk £75 to £500
  • Civil Service clerk £80 to £200
  • Post Office clerk £90 to £260
  • Senior Post Office clerk £350 to £500

So lets say a middle class wage was anything from £75 to £500 a year, that’s £1.44 – £9.61 a week for a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Since there is no £1 note, to “pull out far more notes than planned” as our unnamed author writes above, and give such to a whore, means at least £5 per note. More than one means at least £10. Not only should this character not have been carrying that kind of money, he just tipped that woman better than one week’s salary for the upper middle class, today that’s something on the order of $2,500.

A gentleman of lower standing, say a younger son with a Living could expect something similar to upper middle class £350-500. Titled or large landed gentry could pull in anything from £1000 to £10,000 a year. A dowry for landed country gentry’s daughter of few means would be about £100 a year. Still, even the highest aristocrat wouldn’t tip in notes, ever. If for no other reason than it’s the kind of thing the neuvo riche, or An American might do. (It’s worth noting that poor were a great deal poorer, earning shillings per week or less.)

Later on, this same author writes “cost me twenty quid to delay matters” of bribing a coroner to delay a funeral. That’s a heavy bribe, about $5000. I couldn’t find any information on coroner’s pay in Victorian times (the job was either uncommon, not yet official, or went by another name) so let’s say grave digger, which is well below middle class, so a £20 bribe would probably be about a year’s income for the man.

Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest. Or should I say “out of my chest”? Chink chink.

So, if you have a Victorian setting (really, anything up through the 1920s) what do we pay with?

Yes, that’s right children, coins!

This is also a rather depressingly clear indication of how Gail Carriger spends her weekends. I am such a dork.

“I may be a chump, but it’s my boast that I don’t owe a penny to a single soul – not counting tradesmen, of course.”
 ~ Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

This doesn’t help me with my current research issue which is trying to determine the conversion rate between pounds and rupees traveling from England to India in 1895. Blasted Baedecker didn’t write for India

I’m making some very loose estimations based on the above assumptions of middle class wages and the information I could source, which was monthly accounts for a household of four living in India on a diplomat’s wage between 1880 and 1897 (something on the order of £500 per annum). Here’s my fun chart:

PROJECT ROUND UP
Prudence ~ The Parasol Protectorate Abroad Book the First: Release date Fall 2013. Writing rough draft. Crew has arrived in Bombay, I’ve paused draft for . . .
Deportment & Deceit ~ The Finishing School Book the Second: Received next pass edits, second major revision under way.
Etiquette & Espionage ~ Finishing School Book the First: Release date Feb 5, 2013. Working promo schemes to begin September.
Manga ~ Soulless Vol. 2: (AKA Changeless) Reviewing chapter by chapter, each drops on YenPlus by subscription. Print release tentatively Dec. 2012.


BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT on the Parasol Protectorate series! Really, DON’T READ THE BLURB ON AMAZON if you haven’t read the other books first!

The Omnibus hardback editions are limited run through the SciFi Bookclub only.

The manga editions, Vol. available in print, Vol. 2 by subscription to YenPlus.

Most short stories available in ebook form world wide!

The first Finishing School book ~ Out Feb. 5, 2013

Book News:
Mark interviews me for the Better Storytelling Blog

Quote of the Day:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
~ Charles Dickens

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Posted by Gail Carriger

 

No Responses

  1. Jason F said:

    Not sure how accurate, but this is on Wikipedia under rupee:

    At the end of the 19th century the Indian silver rupee went unto a gold exchange standard at a fixed rate of 1 rupee to one shilling and fourpence in British currency, or 15 rupees to 1 pound sterling.

    This is confirmed (at least the gold exchange standard) in Indian Economy by Uma Kapila, http://books.google.com/books?id=YIrkHe_6eeAC&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=1890's+rupee&source=bl&ots=VqpOzHSZ5g&sig=yuMJKJAcm-uI0M6Sw_JCdR03ykU&hl=en#v=onepage&q=1890's%20rupee&f=false

  2. elzebrook said:

    Ack! There is a book in the UC Berkeley library (where I work, which is how I know), that details how to keep an upper class/ upper middle class household in India in the Victorian Era. And now I can't remember what it's called or who wrote it. I will do some research.

  3. elzebrook said:

    Haha! I found it! It is called, in typically Victorian fashion, "The Englishwoman in India : containing information for the use of ladies proceeding to, or residing in, the East Indies, on the subjects of their outfit, furniture, housekeeping, the rearing of children, duties and wages of servants, management of the stables, and arrangements for travelling."

    And google has it as a free e-book here: http://books.google.com/books?id=FjcCAAAAQAAJ

    If you haven't already come across it during your research, it is a fascinating read.

  4. elzebrook said:

    Although it was published in the 1860s, so it's rather before the time you wanted. But still. It's interesting. I'll be quiet now.

  5. Gail Carriger said:

    Actually, if she was kept, as in given a living by the gentlemen, yes. His butler or valet would make all the arrangements with her including a stipend or allowance and hiring staff for her.

  6. Timelord2067 said:

    A very well written article, can I suggest inclusion of the missing Guinea's https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guinea_%28British_coin%29 (My Father said it was always taken as 21 shillings into the C20th )

    And, to throw just a tiny bit of nit picking if I may, a sum such as Two Pounds and thruppence would be written £2/-/3 while three pound seven shillings and tuppence would be written £ 3/7/2 Similarly, Nine pounds and eleven shillings would be written £ 9/11/-

    Children were taught their twelve times tables in school because there were twelve pence to a shilling.

    It took me a very long time to realise the Mad Hatters "In this style 10/6" was the price tag ie ten shillings and sixpence (or simply "ten and six" – no pounds, so they didn't say £ -/10/6 Just 10/6 )

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