Fame doesn’t always mean fortune – find out how 10 historic names fared
We've been taking a look at some of Britain's best-loved figures to see how their finances stacked up – to see who profited from their success, and who ended up with little more than their good name.
1. Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria oversaw the expansion of the British Empire to the largest size in its history. She received a parliamentary annuity, supplemented by income from the Duchy of Lancaster, and made wise investments in real estate. The prudent Queen-Empress saved yearly, and so became the first British Sovereign to pass down a great fortune (as opposed to serious debts).
Fortune in today’s money: around £500 million
2. Charles Darwin
Darwin came from a comfortable background with connections to the wealthy Wedgwood family and, having no need to earn his daily bread, was free to pursue a life of science. His 5-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle in the 1830s provided the observations that led to his revolutionary ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. And along with his publications, Darwin’s railway investments yielded great rewards.
Fortune in today’s money: £13.2 million
3. Richard Burton
At the peak of his career, Burton was the world’s highest paid actor. But, despite being nominated for 7 Academy Awards, he never won the Oscar. This theme of unmet expectations dogged Burton’s career. He had a turbulent relationship with fellow star Elizabeth Taylor and fought a long battle with alcoholism. He died aged 58.
Fortune in today’s money: £10 million
4. Isambard Kingdom Brunel
This great engineer was one of the key figures in the building of Britain during the 19th century, but Brunel inherited his father’s difficult relationship with money. He funded many of his own projects, which often meant that stakeholders were left waiting years for payment. But despite numerous setbacks, Brunel’s vision ultimately won him large-scale success. When he died of a stroke in 1859, Brunel was worth £8 million in today’s money.
Fortune in today’s money: £8 million
5. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Although born into an aristocratic family, Wellesley resorted to gambling and borrowing to purchase rank in his early life. His fortune changed when he defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, and he was handsomely rewarded by a grateful nation. Wellington went on to serve as prime minister.
Fortune in today’s money: £2 million
6. Alan Turing
Mathematician Alan Turing’s code-breaking work at Bletchley Park played a central role in the allies’ WWII victory and laid the foundations for modern computing. But Turing was persecuted after the war for being homosexual and he tragically committed suicide aged just 41. Once anti-gay legislation was repealed, campaigners successfully petitioned for a Royal pardon for Turing.
Fortune in today’s money: £113,000
7. William Shakespeare
Widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, Shakespeare penned plays and poems that remain popular to this day. Unfortunately his literature was not particularly profitable during his lifetime – but The Bard was also an actor, ran his own theatrical company, and owned a number of properties. Thanks to his entrepreneurialism, Shakespeare was relatively well-off compared to the average man of his day – though his wealth doesn’t match his incredible, enduring literary quality.
Fortune in today’s money: £62,000
8. Jane Austen
Writing was not a great source of profit for Austen. Financial issues within her family and a lengthy illness meant that, by her untimely death at aged 41, Austen had published only 4 of her novels. So, despite her enduring literary reputation, she had only earned a modest amount during her lifetime.
Fortune in today’s money: £44,000
9. Ernest Shackleton
Explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic exploits made him a national celebrity at the beginning of the 20th century. Though knighted and publicly honoured, Shackleton was forever running up debts. In an attempt to capitalise on his fame, Shackleton launched numerous business ventures – most of which failed.
Fortune in today’s money: £27,000
10. Emmeline Pankhurst
Even as founder of The Women’s Social and Political Union, Pankhurst struggled financially, as the party provided little earnings. Pankhurst’s main source of income was the modest fees she made as a union speaker, which provided her with a salary half of the average in that time.
Fortune in today’s money: £4,600
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How we did it
We sourced historical wealth from probate figures listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (where available), supplementing and comparing this with contemporary newspaper reports where necessary.
For example, Queen Victoria's will apportioned £700,000 (£67 million in today's money) according to one contemporary report, whereas another estimated her total fortune at up to US $25 million (in 1901 money) – the figure we’ve used, as it's more representative of her true wealth.
We calculated current-day values of historic amounts using annual price indices (based on increases in normal consumer goods). Historical average incomes, used to give context to individuals’ wealth, were derived from the Bank of England’s One Bank Research initiative.
Bearing this in mind, all figures should be taken as estimates and approximations.