Today, when we have so many payment options, it is sometimes difficult to understand the very different
conditions that prevailed in Regency times. There were no credit cards, no electronic transfers, in fact,
not even proper banknotes. When traveling there was no convenient travelers checks and everything
had to be paid cash on the spot. The idiom 'having deep pockets' was a fact of life as travelers
had to carry amazing amounts of coins. It is not difficult to understand why highway robbery
was a very lucrative profession! Here follows a few facts of money in the Regency era.
It may be hard to imagine today but back in Regency times almost all members of the middle and upper classes had accounts with different suppliers, who extended credit to their patrons. This was generally referred to as "coming to terms." Only if the amount was small or they were traveling did they pay cash. In fact, only the poor did not live on credit in one guise or another. This often played havoc with many small establishments that did brisk business but still could not stay afloat due to bad debts. By the Regency this state of affairs was on its last leg and some merchant, such as Harvey Nichols, openly declaired to sell for "ready money only" and who could really blame them?
in coins rather than banknotes 2
Coins were by far the most common legal tender. The Guinea was the highest denomination, a gold coin, and valued a shilling higher than the regular Sovereign or one pound coin, which was worth 20 shillings. A Half-Sovereign was then logically worth half a pound, or 10 shillings. The pound could also be divided into quarters, then each quarter, worth 5 shillings, was called a Crown. Lost yet? We are not quite done! The shilling, also referred to as a bob, was in turn divided into 12 pence. The very smallest coin was the Farthing (1/4 penny) and you needed the amazing number of 960 farthings to make up one pound. Slang words abounded then as now and, when you wanted to claim something almost worthless, you could say 'it wasn't worth a Groat (4 pence)' or that the bankrupt gambler 'didn't have Sixpence (half a shilling) to scratch with'.
While coins have been around for millennia, paper money are a more recent invention. In the beginning banknotes were in huge denominations and kept for investment purposes; they were rarely used in regular commerce. The first standard £10 English banknote didn't see the light of day until the Georgian era, 1759 to be precise; the £5 followed in 1793. In 1797 £1 and £2 notes were introduced and Bank of England stopped reimbursing its banknotes with gold. This was referred to as The Restriction Period, which lasted until 1821, when gold sovereigns took the place of the £1 and £2 bills. These early banknotes carried the name of the payee - the Chief Cashier - and (until 1855) were signed manually. a
Although carrying paper money rather than coins made a lot of sense, there was at first some problems with this concept. There was no common currency in banknotes, each bank's notes were uniquely their own, and whether these notes had any value were dependent on that bank's financial health. Regency bank notes were in most instances more closely related to our certified checks than to today's ten pound bills. For example, until Bank of England opened its first branch at Gloucester in 1826, b only in London could the banknote holder exchange a Bank of England bill for ready cash, thus only in London did our Regency ladies and gentlemen use paper money to a larger degree. For people in the provinces it was coins or banknotes underwritten by the local bank. Banks could - and did - fold at any time, leaving its customers high and dry. For example, George Austen's bank failed and, as he himself went bankrupt, many of the patrons lost their money.
It is not always easy to translate the value of money over centuries as war, inflation and crashes at the stock exchanges take their toll. Exchange rates cannot but fluctuate depending on what model we use to set value. Perhaps a good indicator is a combination of the wages as well as the costs of wares. For instance, a maid servant in Regency times could earn anything from £5 to £15 a year including room and board, often also working clothes.
Persons in domestic service were comparatively well off when contrasted with factory workers or dressmakers apprentices, whom made hardly enough to starve on. The middle and upper classes could not conceive an income of less than £100 a year for a single person, or £200 for a childless couple. If your income was less than this you probably had to work for a living. c
So, unless you were a landowner or belonged to the working class, you had to live off your capital. Invested at about 4% in The Funds, that is government bonds, you needed a minimum cash amount of £2,500 to clear £100 a year. When we read in 'Pride & Prejudice' d that Miss King's "sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds was the most remarkable charm of the young lady" we realize that she now had a yearly income of £400, which wasn't an exhorbitant amount compared to Mr Bingley's £5,000 per annum but, much more than the - at most - £50-100 a year Elizabeth could expect.
How about wares, then? In 1800 a dress length of silk (5 3/4 yards) was valued at 26 shillings e and a pair of silk stockings at 2 shillings. f By 1809 you could buy a toothbrush for 3 pence, a simple white dress for 5 shilling or a fan at the same price. g In 1810 we could find cotton at 1 shilling the yard or velveteen, valued at 2 shillings and 10 pence. h A pair of rather simple shoes would cost 6-11 shillings, a par of walking boots may easily set you back £2 i and for fashionable apparel the price would be much, much higher. Jane Austen tells us she bought "a white silk handkerchief and was obliged to give six shillings for one at Crook and Besford's" j as well as gloves she gave "only four shillings for them; after which everybody at Chawton will be hoping and predicting that they cannot be good for anything." k In 1817 ribbons at Debenham & Clark might be had for tupence the yard. l
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