16 March 2013

The Legend of Dr David Livingstone Pt. II

The Livingstone “Fortune”

As I explained last time digital images and a transcript of the three pages of Dr Livingstone’s inventory available free on the Scotland's People website identified that his total estate in Scotland was worth £1463 19s and 3d. So did this represent a “fortune” for David Livingstone? It is very hard to compare the worth of money in the past with the buying power of current income as past economies differed greatly especially, in terms of what was available to buy, distribution of wealth in society and objective interpretation of value.

My first step in trying to understand the value of my ancestor’s estates has always been the National Archives “Currency Converter” (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp#mid). This conversion tool is no longer being updated however, it provides a quick indication of modern value (in 2005) for each decade between 1270 to 1970. The tool shows that in 1870, £1,463 19s 3d would have the same spending power in 2005 as £66,903.09. On that basis, each of Dr Livingstone’s children would have received an estate worth about £16750 in 2005 terms. This would not represent a “fortune” in today’s terms.

However there are other more comprehensive tools available on-line for measuring worth which provide a much more comprehensive view of relative value or buying power for our ancestors. The Measuring Worth website provides a number of different measures of relative worth. If you want to compare the value of a £1,463 19s 3d, in 1873 there are a number of choices. In 2011:
  • the relative historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £106,000, using the retail price index (an index that measures the cost in a given period of the goods and services purchased by a typical consumer in a base period),
  • the relative labour value of a commodity is £695,200 using the average earnings,
  • the relative economic status value of that income or wealth is £879,000 using the per capita Gross Domestic Product (an index of the economy's average output per person),
  • The relative historic opportunity cost of a project is £133,100 using the Gross Domestic Product Deflator (an index number that represents the "average price" of all the goods and services produced in the economy) and
  • the relative economic power value of that income or wealth is £1,724,000 using the share of Gross Domestic Product (a measure of the share of the market value of all goods and services produced in a year)

The historic standard of living value would suggest that Dr Livingstone’s four children would each receive about £26,500 in 2011 terms. In comparison the relative economic power value of that income would suggest each received about £431,000. In either case they would not be seen as instant paupers but hardly would they be newly rich.

I often find in researching family history that serendipity can often play a significant part in my quest for answers. With the bicentenary of David Livingstone's birth taking place on the 19 March 2013, the British Newspaper Archive decided to share some free archive stories about the man who became one of the world's most famous missionaries and explorers.

The first story they chose is an interesting description of his life and work that was published in an obituary in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Thursday 29 January 1874. Whilst Dr Livingstone died in May 1873 as news travelled more slowly in the nineteenth century, word of Livingstone's death did not reach England until late January 1874.

The second article published in the Manchester Times on Saturday 18 April 1874 reports on the arrival of Livingstone's body to England in April 1874, for burial at Westminster Abbey. This article is particular relevant to the question of Dr Livingstone’s “fortune”. At the end of the article the following is included:
“The following communication has been addressed to the London journals:-
Sir, - The mortal remains of one whose name will add glory to his country through ages are being borne to the shores of England.
As they are placed to rest in the great Machpelah [The Cave of the Patriarchs - Westminster Abbey] of our land, something of the spirit of old will hover over the sad burden; another patriarch has been carried up by tender hands out of the land of the Nile, that he may be entombed among the mighty of his own people.
How greatly he gave we know full well who have watched him for 30 years unfolding Africa to our gaze, and dashing desperately against her worst foes. But now that he has given, last of all, his life, we feel we must no longer withhold from this nation a trust which has fallen to it by his death.
David Livingstone supported two sisters far advanced in years; one of them is in very feeble health; but for our care they are henceforth without the necessaries of life. Two sons and two daughters survive the parents whom Africa’s cause has claimed; they too are left extremely badly off.
It is proposed to raise a fund for their benefit.
In appending our names to this announcement we may add that subscriptions will be received at Messrs. Coutts, Messrs. Ransome, Bouverie, and Co.’s and London and Westminster Banks to the credit of the Livingstone Memorial Fund, to be devoted to the sole use of the family as a committee shall subsequently arrange.
H. B. E. Frere
Fowell Buxton
James Young, of Kelly
A. Kinnaird
W. F. Webb, of Newstead Abbey
Horace Waller
W. C. Oswell”
As can be seen a distinguished group are requesting donations for the support of Dr Livingstone’s family who “are left extremely badly off” which significantly suggests that contemporaneously there was no knowledge of a “fortune”.

Next time - Are we related?