University of Cambridge > > Financial History Seminar > The anatomy of Britain’s inter-war super-rich: reconstructing the 1928 'millionaire' population

The anatomy of Britain’s inter-war super-rich: reconstructing the 1928 'millionaire' population

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Duncan Needham.

W.D. Rubinstein’s path-breaking study of wealthy elites in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth century found that a larger proportion of their fortunes were based on commerce and finance rather than industry; that London was the centre of wealth-making in Britain; and that British industrial wealth was, in general, subordinated to commercial and financial wealth. These findings were based on probate data for deceased persons, which are problematic for measuring peak wealth – as they record the assets of, typically, elderly people, who may already have spent or distributed a good part of their fortunes. Moreover, for a given year of death they show fortunes made at varying dates, mainly several decades previously.

We re-examine Rubinstein’s hypotheses for a large sample of living millionaires during the 1928/29 tax year, using a dataset based on a list of all millionaire incomes compiled by the Inland Revenue. We also draw on other archival data on the sources of millionaire incomes. The inter-war era is particularly important, as it constituted a transition period from elites dominated by inherited landed wealth (especially at the very top of the wealth pyramid) to a more mixed picture, where businessmen were both strongly represented among Britain’s millionaires and, in a few cases, had fortunes that eclipsed those of its wealthiest aristocrats. We first provide a profile of millionaire incomes, including changes in the number of millionaires over time; the distribution of millionaires by income; aggregate millionaire portfolios; and a classification of the millionaires by main source of income. This is followed by a methodological discussion of our reconstruction of those people included in the 1928/9 millionaire list (the majority of whom were not originally recorded by name), including names, locations, and the main sectors in which their fortunes were made. The dataset is then used (in conjunction with other information, drawn from a broad range of biographical and other sources), to analyse the geographical and sectoral distribution of millionaire incomes in 1928. Our findings indicate that the British millionaire class was indeed dominated by people who had made their fortunes from the service sector, together with the traditional landed elite, both of which were geographically clustered in London and the South East. However, this largely reflects the clustering of millionaire fortunes in a relatively narrow range of economic activities, which are not representative of the distribution of British economic activity, or even large firms – but instead represent sectors with super-normal profits owing to strong barriers to entry and competition. Thus Britain’s inter-war millionaire population was more representative of personal wealth-making than national wealth-making. In this respect typical inter-war business millionaires had strong commonalities with earlier, landed, British elites, in that they sustained their wealth through creating, and then perpetuating, scarcity in the markets for the goods and services they controlled.

This talk is part of the Financial History Seminar series.

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