Famous wills: They couldn't take it with them...
The last wishes of some of history's most eminent figures have been released. Kevin Rawlinson surveys their legacies
Wednesday 11 August 2010
A record of more than 6 million Victorian and early 20th-century wills has been made public for the first time, revealing the last wishes of some of the most important figures of the age, including Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.
The documents, dating from 1861 to 1941 and now available on-line, show that eminent Victorians Dickens and Darwin left estates worth the equivalent of millions of pounds today. Perhaps fittingly, Karl Marx left the more modest equivalent of about £9,000.
The index also lists the wills of the Conservative politician Neville Chamberlain, and the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Chamberlain, before serving as Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, lost £50,000 of his father's money in an attempt to become a farmer in the Bahamas, but later bought a manufacturing firm with funds from other relatives. On his death in 1940 he left £84,013 – worth just over £4m in today's money. Conan Doyle, a physician who turned to writing as his medical practice faltered, was relatively successful. He left his widow and one of his sons £63,491, or almost £3m today.
The database, released online by the genealogical website Ancestry.co.uk, is a collation of the England and Wales's National Probate Calendar – a summary of all of wills processed each year.
It shows that the popularity of D H Lawrence's writings came too late for the author to benefit fully. He left behind a relatively paltry £2,438 on his death in 1930, worth around £113,000 today.
Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expeditions brought him fame but ultimately not fortune. The explorer, who led the ill-fated voyage of discovery on the ship Endurance, died leaving his widow a rather meagre bequest of about £20,000 in today's money. By contrast, Darwin left a will worth the equivalent of £13m, and Dickens left £7.1m in today's money.
Dan Jones, of Ancestry.co.uk, said the data "is a fantastic resource for family historians, but is also fascinating to anyone with an interest in social history or just in famous names".
It offers "a great insight into the social standing of people in their own time... The details can add to the legend: people would probably be fairly upset if they found out that Karl Marx was secretly squirrelling away vast sums of money."
"We've only just started digging," Mr Jones added. The wills can provide "evidence of unknown transgressions or scandals in the private lives of people who, in many cases, we thought we knew all about," he said.
Karl Marx, £250
The Prussian-born philosopher, political theorist, socialist and communist, was exiled from his home country and eventually made his way to Britain via France. His seminal work Das Kapital (a work about capitalism, not communism), made him famous but not necessarily rich: he died leaving only £250 – or about £20,000 today – to his youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx.
Charles Dickens, £80,000
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dickens's fortune came to him during his lifetime. The author of 'Great Expectations', 'Bleak House' and 'The Adventures of Oliver Twist' died in 1870, leaving "effects under £80,000", or about £7.1m today.
Charles Darwin, £146,911
The God-fearing scientist struggled with his conscience before publishing arguably the most important work ever produced: 'The Origin of Species', outlining his theory of evolution. He was still able to leave an estate worth £146,911, the equivalent of £13m.
Ernest Shackleton, £556
Tales of derring-do and the achievement of bringing home all his men after the disaster which befell his 'Endurance' voyage made him a hero. They did not, however, make him rich. Various failed ventures meant he left only £556, or £20,000 today.
Neville Chamberlain, £84,013
To most, he will probably be associated with appeasement and a failed vision of "peace for our time". But the man who was seen by some as a weak prime minister died a rich man. He left an estate of £84,013, the equivalent of a little more than £4m today.
Arthur Conan Doyle, £63,491
The Scottish writer and physician is best-known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, about whom he wrote while waiting for customers to come through the door of his failing medical practice. But he died leaving an estate of £63,491 – nearly £3m today.
W G Grace, £7,278
While often considered the greatest cricket all-rounder of all time, his earnings were not even in the same league. He died leaving £7,278 in 1915, or around £617,000 today – a little more than a month's wages for a new signing at Manchester City.
Bram Stoker, £5,269
The Irish novelist Abraham 'Bram' Stoker is best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel, 'Dracula'. But he was better known during his lifetime as a PA to an actor. His estate was worth £5,269 when he died in 1912, the equivalent of £460,000 today.
D H Lawrence, £2,438
The English author, poet, playwright, essayist and literary critic, was best known for his works 'Sons and Lovers', 'Women in Love' and 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. He left £2,438 in his will in 1930, the equivalent of £113,000 in today's money.
Lewis Carroll, £4,596
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson or – to generations of children – Lewis Carroll, author of 'Alice in Wonder-land', died in 1898 leaving £4,596, or £450,000 today – a mere fraction of the millions of pounds the recent film adaptation took at the box office.
Joseph Bazalgette, £154,201
The English engineer created the sewer system under the streets of London, as the smell of sewage – then believed to cause disease – became overpowering. The job made him a fortune and he was able to bequeth £154,201 in 1891, or £15m today.
Robert Fitzroy, £3,000
Captain of HMS 'Beagle' during the famous voyage which spawned Charles Darwin's seminal work. He was also a pioneer in meteorology and weather forecasting. He left an estate of £3,000 in 1865, the equivalent of £280,000 today.
Oscar Wilde, £250
The playwright, who was sentenced to two years' hard labour for gross indecency, is famously reported to have said: "I have nothing to declare but my genius." He was almost right. He left behind only £250 (approximately £20,000 in today's money) after his death in Paris in 1900.
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