A Young Man of Large Fortune

A Young Man of Large Fortune

“A young man of large fortune.” That’s how Mrs. Bennet described Charles Bingley when she learned he had leased a neighboring estate in Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice.

As the mother of five unmarried daughters, Mrs. Bennet didn’t feel the need to know how Charles came into possession of such a fortune; her only concern was that he marry one of her daughters.

I, on the other hand, want to learn as much as I can about Charles Bingley’s background, because Charles makes an appearance in the JAFF story I’m currently writing. Piecing together Charles’ history (and that of his sisters) will give me insight into how—and why—he will take certain actions in my novel.

Charles Bingley with his sisters, Caroline and Luisa, as depicted in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen gives us some hints about Charles’ origins. The Bingley fortune had been “acquired by trade.” Charles himself had a fortune of £100,000, which gave him an annual income of about £4,000. (In today’s money that’s £186,100 or $241,930 U.S. dollars.)

The Bingleys were “respectable.” They came “from the north of England,” an area of the country where the manufacture of textiles was a booming business at the time the story was written.

Whirring spools of threads and fibers in an old mill.

Given those hints, it’s probable that Charles, Luisa, and Caroline Bingley’s father owned one of the textile mills that sprang up across the north during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. As children, they were most likely raised in a house that was either next door to, or very near, the mill their father owned.

Mule spinning machine at the Quarry Bank Mill.

In most mills of that era, the people who worked there were seen not as people, but as extensions of the machinery. They were given pitiful wages for 12 or 13 hour work days. They lived in unsanitary conditions and worked in unsafe environments. Poet William Blake described the mills of the 19th century as “satanic.”

But considering what we know about the Bingley siblings—particularly Charles, who was described as amiable, lively, unreserved, sensible, and good-humoured—it’s hard for me (looking through my 21st century lens) to imagine they were raised by a father capable of such draconian treatment of the people in his employ.

So I have to wonder . . .

What if, like Charles Bingley, the father had a disposition to be kind and friendly by nature?

What if, like Charles, the elder Mr. Bingley treated everyone respectfully, regardless of their rank or privilege?

And what if the elder Mr. Bingley was among a small group of enlightened mill owners? What if he treated his workers humanely and did what he could to set apart his mill from the dark, grim places we tend to associate with the Regency Era?

I can give you a real-life example of what I mean. In 1784 a man named Samuel Greg founded a mill not far from Manchester, England. He named it Quarry Bank Mill.

Quarry Bank Mill, near Manchester.

The great thing about Quarry Bank Mill is that it’s still in existence. Now owned by England’s National Trust, Quarry Bank Mill stands as a real-life working model of the kind of business I think Charles Bingley’s father would have run.

Originally powered by an enormous iron waterwheel, Quarry Bank Mill boasted five floors of cotton textile production. Those five floors were filled with hundreds of employees ginning and weaving cotton.

Quarry Bank Mill employees outside their homes, circa 1900.

Each of those employees needed a place to live, so, adjacent to the mill, Greg built a village of row-houses and cottages for his workers.

Workers homes at Quarry Bank Mill, as they appear today.

Many of his workers were children—orphans from workhouses and children who previously lived on the streets. He called them “apprentices,” and he built a communal home to house them.

Apprentice House at Quarry Bank Mill.

The children attended school and worked in the community garden, which provided fresh vegetables and fruit for their diets.

The kitchen at Apprentice House.

Greg also built churches for his workers and gave them Sundays off so they could attend services.

Norcliffe Chapel, one of the churches Samuel Greg built for Quarry Bank workers

And when his workers fell ill or were injured, Greg ensured he had a doctor on hand for their care.

Samuel Greg created a community and a way of life for his workers that was superior to any that could be had by farm workers and other laborers of the lower-class. Many of the apprentices who grew up working in his mill stayed on to work at Quarry Bank as adults.

This photo shows the immense size of the mill building. The light yellow building on the left is where the Greg family lived. The white building on the right is Apprentice House.

Mr. Greg operated his mill in a much more humane fashion than his competitors, and doing so earned him a handsome fortune. He built a respectable and well-appointed home next to the mill for his wife and children.

The Greg family home next to Quarry Bank Mill.

Since I first learned about Quarry Bank Mill, I’ve often wondered if Charles Bingley’s father earned his fortune in the same way. I wonder, too, if Charles and his sisters grew up in a fine house within a few yards of the workers’ cottages and mill works, just as Samuel Greg’s children did.

I think it’s possible that, coming into every-day contact with mill workers would explain how Charles learned to be gracious and respectful to everyone he met, regardless of their station in life.

And it would explain why his manner was relaxed and amiable, why he never uttered a critical word about anyone, and why his behavior at the Meryton Assembly earned everyone’s good opinion. As Jane Austen wrote:

There had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room.

What do you think? Do you think it’s possible Charles Bingley’s kind disposition and good humor were traits he inherited from his father?

Had Charles elected to follow in his father’s footsteps, what kind of mill owner do you think he would have made?

Charles’ sisters Caroline and Luisa each inherited £20,000 from their father. Would you like to know how much that would be in today’s money?

Click here to visit The U.K.’s National Archives Currency Converter.

Then, select a year: Try 1810, which is close to the year P&P was first published (1813).

Enter the amount: 20,000

Click on the “Show Purchasing Power” button, and you’ll see how much their inheritance was worth in today’s money.

For Americans, don’t forget to multiply the converted amount by 1.3—that’s today’s average rate of exchange rate for British Pound to U.S. Dollar.

You can use this tool to calculate all financial sums mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels—from the Dashwood’s £500 a year to Georgiana Darcy’s £30,000 marriage portion.

30 Responses to A Young Man of Large Fortune

  1. Thank you so mush for your insights on “Mr. Bingley”. He is my favorite P&P character and love your imaginings. They well thought out and follow along with how I see Mr. Bingley! I just finished watching BBC’s North and South and enjoyed your description of Mr. Greg’s textile mill. Based on your post, I just went onto Amazon and ordered Mary and the Captain. Looking forward to its arrival!

    • I loved “North and South,” too, Kathy. It was on my mind as I wrote this post; I couldn’t help wondering if Mr. Thornton’s mill resembled Quarry Bank. Thank you for purchasing a copy of Mary and the Captain! I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Thank you for an informative post. I agree that Bingley must have been like his father and would have been a good mill owner. Fortunately, the elder Mr. Bingley wanted more for his son. “he intended to purchase an estate but did not live to do it.” By Bingley leasing Netherfield, he was attempting to fulfill his father’s legacy.

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Cassandra, and I agree about his father wanting more for his son. Ultimately, Bingley fulfilled his father’s dream for him: “He bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire, and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other.” A happy ending indeed!

  3. This was a wonderful post, Nancy. Loved the history, the pictures, and the Currency Calculator. I agree with everyone regarding Charles Bingley. As the son of the family, he would have accompanied his father as he visited his mills, meeting multiple levels of working class society. At least when he wasn’t off getting a gentleman’s education. I had fun with the calculator. It left me with questions that have plagued me with ideas for ‘homework.’ Thank you for that. :/

      • Ha ha ha. Not a chance. There has to be a way to figure out what I’d like to know, but it will take a lot of research. And I’m so ADD that getting lost down a rabbit hole with multiple turns and twisty tunnels is a give. 😀

        • I know what you mean, Michelle. I enjoy researching topics, but I can get so caught up in following threads, I lose track of time (and all the things I should be doing instead). Good luck, and I hope you find the answers you’re looking for!

  4. Thank you for an interesting post, Nancy. Delighted to learn about Mr. Greg. And, yes, I agree, that Bingley probably followed in his father’s footsteps, personality wise and, perhaps, business wise as well. Look forward to your next book.

  5. I am very excited to hear that you are busy working on your next book! I really enjoyed the currency converter too! I think Charles did learn to be amiable like his father and respect everyone from all walks of life. I think his sisters were given airs from attending the finishing school and maybe they were made to feel inferior to those who were not from trade. But your research certainly brings to light those mill owners who actually saw their employees as people and not an extension of the machinery. I loved the photos and that this historic sight has been saved.

    • You and I think alike Carole; I tend to think that “private seminary” the Bingley sisters attended was the source of the trouble. I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. I love the pictures and the history of Guarry Bank Mills. I believe the Bingley mother wanted more for her daughters and encouraged [trained] them to seek better than what their mother had to endure being from trade. I am sure Mrs. Bingley wouldn’t appreciate living within such a short distance of a mill. Imagine entertaining with the mill nearby making noise and seeing all the workers going to and from work. That would explain the superior sisters distaste of the Bennet’s relations in Cheapside living within sight of their warehouse. I really like this Mr. Greg for his kindness and generosity toward his workers. That works perfectly with a senior Mr. Bingley and Charles. Thanks for this mental picture I will have of the man for my future reading.

    • I’m so glad you liked the post. And I like your point that the Bennets’ connection to Gracechurch Street may have triggered unwelcome reminders for the Bingley sisters about their own background.

  7. It’s interesting to think about the Bingley’s background. I agree that Charles probably inherited his amiableness from his father. I imagine the mother as more like Caroline who was probably embarrassed by her husband’s kindness to the workers.

    • Good point. Parents always want better lives for their children, and their mother could very well have been the parent who wished to see her children accepted into “good society.”

  8. I think it possible that Charles inherited his good nature from his father, and I agree with your analysis of the difference between Charles and his sisters being that he had made peace with his roots and they had not. I’m sure they were aware that, by marrying “up”, they would take their husbands’ status, and did not want trade to tarnish them. (Of course, their 20,000 pounds would have helped polish that up, I[m sure.)

  9. Beautiful pics! That’s interesting about mills. I think Charles Bingley would make a good mill owner. He seems caring and understanding in Pride and Predjudice.

  10. How do we account for Elizabeth’s opinions of the Bingley sisters? Were they influenced by their mother, rather than their father? True, Elizabeth’s first impressions can be found faulty. We know that well from how she views Darcy. Have you given Caroline and Louise redemption in your tale?

    “Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good-humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.”

    • Good question, Regina! While Charles was comfortable with his roots, I think his sisters were not, and set out to erase all reminder of their early years from their adult lives. As to your second question, I’m an optimist, so I like to believe there’s good in everyone, including Caroline and Luisa. More details to come!

  11. How faacinating, Nancy! Mr. Greg sounded like a kind and generous employer. I could see Bingley growing up as the son of such a man. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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