Nov 7 2013 6:30pm

Moneymaker: Victorian Ideas on Money and Mystery

Silas Marner filmEither money or madness is set at the center of nearly every mystery novel—and of course money itself can be a kind of madness. 

The Victorians knew as much.  Think of the eponymous miser of Silas Marner by George Eliot, the insanities that cluster around Wilkie Collins’s moonstone, or the crazed but calculating greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, which is only undone by ghostly visitations – or hallucinations, depending how you read the story.

The Victorians viewed money differently than we do, for instance, most families spent the enormous majority of their resources on food – one of the facts that makes it difficult to calculate exact equivalencies between money in their time and our own.

So what could a shilling buy, or a pound, or a thousand pounds?  In my very first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, one of the suspects is described as being among the few richest commoners in England. A little research uncovered a useful fact: to be in that bracket of the two or three dozen richest men in England, he would have needed an income of more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.  That may not immediately sound like a vast fortune, but it was a time, after all, when an average housemaid earned sixteen pounds a year plus room and board, when ninety pounds a year could buy a respectable London life, and five hundred a year an opulent one.  Prince Albert, though he was Queen Victoria’s most beloved confidant, had an annual income of just (“just”) thirty thousand pounds a year.

But the details I find most arresting are the small ones.  How did the Victorians spend their money? Well, the smallest unit of currency in wide use, a farthing, could buy you three oysters with bread and butter, from a walking oyster-seller; alternatively you could buy a sparrow for the same sum, from one of the east end markets.

This sounds cheap, but I’m guessing you don’t quite understand HOW cheap.  There were four farthings in a penny in 1875, twelve pennies in a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound.  That means that for a single pound, the price of a Mars Bar in London these days, you could buy 960 sparrows, or 2,880 oysters, presumably with their accompanying bread and butter.

Amazing, right?  Now consider this: in the 1860s, twenty minutes with a really excellent prostitute cost 25 pounds, or 72,000 oysters.  Dinner in a fine restaurant cost five pounds and five shillings.  A silk tophat cost nearly a pound.  A double box for life at Her Majesty’s Opera House cost (this is astonishing) 8,000 pounds.  Few men could have afforded this of course, though certainly the Duke of Westminster, whose annual income exceeded 250,000 pounds.

An Old Betrayal by Charles FinchAs usual, money tells us mostly about class.  Those three oysters were an evening meal for many, while the privileged few of the Victorian period were laughably rich.  In my new Lenox mystery, An Old Betrayal, I tell the story of an aristocratic family that has lost some of its fortune.  Still, while the vast underclass of Britain would have lived on a few shillings a week, even a fallen aristocrat would have unthinkingly spent a pound on a dinner in a restaurant – more than a milkmaid, carrying large jugs in a yoke from her neck from house to house, would have made in a week.

As one looks into Victorian money, the crime of the age seems to come into focus.  If a general servant could count on sixteen pounds a year, and knew that her mistress had just spent sixty pounds on a new carriage, or four pounds on one of Thomas Crapper’s new indoor toilets (!), could theft be far behind?  If an educated clerk in the city was making a pound a week, ten shillings less than a skilled workman, is it any wonder that Trollope described that life of genteel poverty as nearly hellish?  If the lowest maid in the shabbiest house only earned six pounds a year – for back-breaking labor, morning to evening, day after day – wouldn’t the prostitute’s 25 pounds for twenty minutes, or even a fraction of that, have begun to seem tempting?

The truth is that the Victorians were like us in many respects, the first template for our own society – they were bankers and solicitors, fathers and mothers, they had restaurants and plays – but in the crucial matter of money they were still living, in a sense, feudally.  The rich could afford insane luxury, and the vast multitudes of poor ate oysters, bread, and butter.  Our own age, with its middle class, seems a better bargain.  And its lower crimes rate seem certainly understandable.

In 1971, Great Britain finally divided their pound into a hundred little units, a date that I find amazing; all of the teenagers buying the Beatles’ White Album in 1968 handed over shillings and ha’pennies, as if they were buying fruit from a Georgian costermonger.  The change was a sensible one, of course, but it took some of the magic of the Victorian era, the gas lamps and horse-drawn broughams, along with it – a last little relic of the age when a farthing could mean supper.  One of the manifold ways in which historical fiction brings us happiness is by restoring that sense of the past’s magic to us: its sparrows, its prostitutes, its oysters, its opera boxes, its daily human pulse.


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Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, will be published at the end of January, 2014. Find out more at Facebook or Twitter @charlesfinch

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Rebecca Brothers
1. RileyC
Love details like that. A Beautiful Blue Death is #5 in my current To Read list. Knowing it was this well researched may bump it up now.
Barbara Lima
2. barblima
Love this time period, thank you for putting money in perspective, that was something I did not understand.
3. stephen bell
A farthing for a sparrow is cheap - pun intended?
Lisa Eickler
4. lisae68
This was fascinating reading, Charles! Waiting patiently for An Old Betrayal.

Sheila Korman
5. skkorman
I just finished reading the first three books in Finch's captivating Charles Lenox series, one after the other, and loved them all—MUST read more of Mr. Finch's work!
7. Tony Parsons
luv 2 win/read any of these books
8. Pati
I love reading all the background and research that goes into the writing of the book. Especially interesting to me is Victorian England.
Patricia LaRue
9. pati
I love reading the research behind the book. Especially interesting to me is Victorian England.
Julia Sacks
10. Julsacks
Counting the days now, for the release. Wonderful, helpful research. I've already pre ordered my copy. If I win, I'll donate it to a local library.
11. Cheryl Mantone
Love reading about this era. I had no understanding of the Victorian money. Thanks for the explanation, another reason I love your books!
Christine LaRue
12. LadyAnubis
I dig Mr. Finch's work (especially the detailed research done for each book) and would love to catch up on the doings of Charles Lenox, Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer. (Please don't hold against me the fact that an ARC of THE LAST ENCHANTMENTS is wending its way to me.)
13. Shannon Baas
Looks like a good book.
Jaycie Benton
14. Benton7
Every time I read historical fiction, I always wonder about the numbers - the monetary conversion, inflation etc. This article has helped me to understand and question the context of the money though - how it is spent and what the economy was like. Thank you Charles!

Also it is news to me that Thomas Crapper was in the crapper business!
Susan Harrison
15. Susan811
I remember reading that in Jane Austen's time, postage was expensive. People saved money by writing in every corner of a piece of paper.
16. Charles F
Susan811, that's true! People would also send empty envelopes to each other and then reject them from the postman - the receiver used to pay postage, and it was a way of letting each other know all was well without paying for it!
18. Shelton
Looks like compelling reading.
Carl Ginger
20. cgin56
Quite the info. Looks like a great one!
23. SusanSH
I love knowing about the money rate/exchange. It does help with clarity of character and motives.
I've always been intrigued how people earn, spend and save their money. Even the servants. Which would I have been?
Kim Ann Johnston
24. kimJ
Modern brit lit is really exciting, but betrayals also are clues to a delicate plot.
Karen Hester
25. rosalba
The emphasis on the Victorian economy is particularly interesting.
Linda Knowles
28. strigoivii
Sounds like a must read! I love Victoriana!
Irene Menge
29. Goldenmane
Sounds quite interesting. I've always wondered about the British monetary system. As far as sparrows, I'd rather have oysters. Can't be much meat on a sparrow.
Linda Peters
30. linnett
Love stories from the Victorian era, thanks
31. truckerofbc
My kind of book :)
Jeffrey Malis
33. bravejam
Looking forward to reading this... Thank you for the opportunity!
lynette thompson
I love a good mystery. Best wishes and luck to all.
36. smitten
38. runner
Groovy Moneymaker!
Vernon Luckert
39. vl4095
Looks like it will be a very good read!
Gary Thaden
40. GaryandSherlock
It is detailed research like this that makes you books so interesting. Thanks.
James P. Pope
41. jim162065
very intersting learning about different era.
judy oliver
42. jjudyfl
...hang on... checking these couch cushions for loose coinage...
What a great intro to a Victorian book! I'm excited and looking forward to it!
43. Laura Nell
Fascinating! It's the knowledge of the little details like this that really add to the verisimilitude of the Lenox series. Thanks for sharing!
Kate Lyons
46. KML
Looking forward to the read - thanks for the additional info!
Dorothy Newmark
47. bookgirl1
What a fun article ~~the book sounds wonderful!
Elizabeth Chaldekas
48. lizchaldekas
I love this series. Not just for the characters, but for the political and societal interest. Also the atmosphere he creates makes you feel you are in Victorian London.
Joanne Mielczarski
49. jtmswim
This book sounds interesting and I can't wait to read it!
Lisa Ahlstedt
50. Lisanne624
I love all things Victorian, and so this book sounds like something I would really enjoy. The money has always been confusing to me!
Karl Stenger
52. Stenger
I love these novels and would love to read the newest installment
Mary Vanderburgh
53. mvanderburgh
This sounds like a really interesting read, I find the idea of the financial difference facinating
Janice Santillo
55. themommazie
This book sounds really interesting. Would love to read.
Bonnie Karoly
56. grobiemum
An Old Betrayal looks like something I'd want to read. I love the victorian setting.
Karen Cherubino
57. kcherubtx
Very interesting information. The detailed breakdown makes it much more 'real'. Thanks for the chance.
Kimbrell Scheunert
58. kscheunert
Charles Finch is one of my very favorite authors! I would LOVE to win a copy of his new book!
59. Suekey12
The gap between rich and poor was so noticable in those days--but today we seem to be regressing back to those times.
alyce poalillo
60. alycep
Looks very interesting, being a retired banker myself I am always interested in money issues of the past
Sue Farrell
61. Suekey12
Such an interesting time--and money is always to important so it's nice to know some of the details about it.
Jane Schwarz
62. Janeschwarz
Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy.
Clydia DeFreese
63. clydia
This is a new author for me. I look forward to reading this book. Thanks for the sweepstakes.
Jeanette Barney
65. eyeluvbooks59
Love the victorian era and the info about the money is very helpful. I am fascinated by all things English.
Robin Weatherington
66. rawfish
The victorian era still fascinates me.
elizabeth findlay
67. eafindlay
I read many a mystery from this time period and i am always up for an author that can bring something new to it.
T Alexander
68. Talex
I love historical novels, and would welcome the opportunity to enjoy An Old Betrayal.
Barbara Fish
69. Barb Fish
This definitely sounds like a must-read for me.
Donna Bruno
70. dlbawiles
Sounds like the perfect combination of genres; I'd love to win a copy.
71. JackieW
Enjoyed reading about the book. It sounds like one I would enjoy reading.
susan beamon
72. susanbeamon
I enjoy reading about the past, in both fiction and non-fiction forms. Every time I do, I am very happy I don't live then, although if I did, I'm sure I would make do, knowing no other life.
Pat Murphy
73. murphyp2011
Always enjoy reading period pieces. Can't wait to read.
Anita Yancey
74. rosewood780
These are some facts that I didn't know. I love the time period, and would enjoy reading this book.
great review....could relate to issues in present times!!!!!!
Nancy Pate
76. patebooks
Fascinating details. I cherish my British sixpence picked up in London years ago. Oh, for a farthing -- or a new Finch!
Anna Mills
80. Anna Mills
I am fairly sure that I do, indeed, desperately need this book!
Lori Provenzano
81. Mountainesque
Thanks for the very interesting elaboration of the historical context of why the "Haves" and "Have Nots" "could" or "could not" afford the necessities and/or niceties of life!
Joyce Redman
82. jmredman
What an awesome collection that anyone would be thrilled to have.
Judie McDonald
83. Judiemcd
I've enjoyed reading Finch's other books, so looking forward to this one.
85. normajean
Read and enjoyed all of the previous Charles Lennox mysteries. Looking forward to reading his latest "An Old Betrayal" . Thanks for the chance to win.
Karin Carnine
86. karinreads
I've never read any of his books but this one sounds very interesting
Andrew Beck
89. queerbec
Mr. Riley's article reminds me of just how much research a novelist must do to create an authentic and accurate representation of a historical period or specific location. Any perceived discrepancy or in accuracy can seriously jeopardize the bond between writer and reader.
Carolyn McCanna
90. carolynlmc
Looks like a good book to read I like the time frame.
Pat Dupuy
93. Pat D
Oysters on bread and butter. That sounds good. . . One of the things I really enjoy about these books is the loving relationship between the brothers, and that they had equally loving relationships with their parents. That seems unusual for upper class Victorians, or has that remoteness been exaggerated?
Denise Duvall
94. catpers
I remember in London in 1974 stores had no change. if you bought something you had to have the exact price or you got no change back if you didn't. Thank you for the giveaway.
Leigh Mann
96. msleighm
Hi, thank you for the opportunity to win a copy of your new book. My area's of interest lies in the Victorian and Edwardian period's. Having recently found Steampunk, I can immerse myself a little as well. Your books have only recently come to my attention. In 2007-2009, I traveled for work and only worked through the books I already had on my shelves; in 2009, I became disabled and I have been mostly housebound since. Over the summer, I decided to try to challenge my intellect and utilize my love of books in the process. So I started a book blog:
and in the process have opened up a whole new world of authors and publishers and, well, a bibliophiles dream. I hope to regain my health and continue my education, getting an advanced degree in English Lit, focusing on Victoriana. I tend to lean more to non-fiction than fiction, what you wrote about above is exactly the kind of detail that fascinates me. I am concerned that there is no buzz at all about your book on GoodReads; I hope you'll remedy that quickly. While I was there, I also checked out The Last Enchantments as well.
Janette Oldham
99. jso2511
As much as I love Mars bars, I'd take the oysters!
Karen Terry
100. bblol65
The poor during this age reminds of the poor today. Nothing has really changed all that much.
kathy pease
101. klp1965
Thank you for the great giveaway please count me in :)
Heather Martin
102. CrystalMirror
A well researched historical novel is always a win for me.
Ed Nemmers
103. saturdaynightfever
I would like to read the work of Charles Finch!
Florry M. D.
104. florryalyna
Would like to discover all about this Old Betrayal.
Bob Keck
106. ky2here
This doth intrigue me. Kindly post my name.
Janet Best
107. Bestjlb
Thanks for the background information. Looking forward to reading this one!
Chris Noe
108. ezmerelda
Sounds like a fascinating read. I will look for it at my bookstore.
Allison Moyer
109. The Loopy Librarian
I've never really given much thought to Victorian money. Thanks for the informative overview. Really interesting.
Sally Winkleblech
110. sallyw
This looks like a very interesting book and a chance to learn more about the Victorian era and how money was perceived at that time.
Wayne Lecoy
112. hotrodguy
I am entering your giveaway.
It would be great to win a hardcover copy
of An Old Betrayal by Charles Finch.
This looks like an interesting book.
Thank you for having this giveaway!!!!!!!
Rylene Wauda
Some incredibly rich person just purchased a series of 3 paintings for $140M. I hope he/she also contributes to the disaster in the Phillipines. Not much changes when it comes to $$.
Debra Kidle
116. lubelle
Money is always an interesting subject because it is such a global denominator. Would love to read this book!
Buddy Garrett
119. garrettsambo
The information on money in Victorian society was very interesting. Nothing changes. Today there is a great disparity between the owners ad managers and the everyday worker.
LeAnn Knott
124. knottlady
Enjoy the Historical time frames. The story line is intrigriging so want to read this winter. Thanks for the chance to win!!
Tiffany Duncan
128. Zoeypeacock
This looks good. Thank you for the contests.
lynette barfield
129. lynette
Very interesting information. I'm glad I don't have to live on just a few oysters
Evelyn Driver
130. sierrasmom
Nothing like curling up with a great mystery.
Tracy Lech
133. tracy.lech
Putting the money into context really paints a better picture of what life must have been like in Victorian times. Living on oysters and bread and butter does not sound at all appealing!
134. boycelll
historical mysteries are always interesting
Melissa Firpo
136. missy18214
I love this time period! I try to get my hands on everything I can that is Historical Victorian era. This has already been on my "want list" and "TBR list". I can't wait to read it!
Merikay Noah
137. PopcornReads
I devour Victorian mysteries and love to share them with my web site's followers. I also love to imagine that I would have been among the landed gentrywomen; however, given that I'm quite an uppity woman, I'd probably have been tossed out on my ear without a shilling to my name.
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