Article | Business History | January 1999

Wealth-Making in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Britain: Industry v. Commerce and Finance

by Tom Nicholas


This paper refutes the hypothesis put forward by W.D. Rubinstein that a disproportionately large share of Britain's wealth makers were active in commercial and financial trades in London. We use a data set of businessmen active in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain and quantitative methods to show that the pattern of wealth holding was much more diverse than supposed by Rubinstein. A large fortune could be made in a variety of regions and occupations. Big industrialists active in the provinces were equally capable of generating wealth similar in size and significance to the City elite. More generally, London was not the centre of wealth making in this period. Neither was there a subordination of industrial and manufacturing to commercial and financial wealth.

Keywords: Trade; Finance; Commercialization; Mathematical Methods; Wealth and Poverty; Great Britain; London;