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Churchill was paid like a star athlete

A historian with a background in finance has produced what promises to be a memorable addition to the voluminous literature on Winston Churchill.

David Lough’s study, No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money, examines the great Englishman’s precarious and extravagant finances, and draws out from them a yet another striking adventure in a life full of adventure, above all the adventure of statesmanship. For instance, he finds that, as a young and mostly untested writer, Churchill managed to command a freelance war correspondent’s salary, adjusted to the 21st century level, of nearly $400,000 per year — i.e., roughly on par with a replacement-level professional athlete today — for going to South Africa to cover the Boer War for The Morning Post.

Reviewing this book in The New Criterion, Timothy Congdon, a British economist and one-time UK Independence Party candidate for Parliament, avers that Lough’s salary adjustment is inadequate. According to his way of thinking, on a purchasing-power basis Churchill’s war correspondent’s earnings were far more impressive: closer to that of a star professional athlete of today. Congdon reckons that Churchill hauled in the equivalent of $5 million annually for his coverage of the Boer War.

Churchill had great luck in the Boer War. He was captured by the enemy but was treated well by them and somehow managed to escape. The British public loved derring-do, particularly when performed by aristocratic daredevils in the cause of imperial expansion. Churchill’s journalism became even more valuable. He was soon in possession of a clear £10,000, which his American counterparts would look at in the same way that their successors today look at over $10 million.

Adventures indeed. Winston Churchill was to war correspondents of his day what Von Miller is to outside linebackers or Steph Curry to shooting guards.

It would a colossal exaggeration, of course, to suppose that Churchill’s remuneration in this profession was entirely the consequence his good fortune. Its foundation lies firmly in his own native excellence. Mr. Lough’s fascinating book, by all accounts, also makes clear that this excellence, along with his many others, sustained Churchill in what was a staggering prodigality. He consumed the income he earned at a rate comparable to a modern star athlete.

Now human excellence resists precise categorization; while it can never be separated from circumstances, it retains an indelible measure of mystery even when history supplies us with abundant resources for study and comparison.

In a word, there is, truly, an ineffable human magic in Churchill’s prose which, by a somewhat strained analogy, is also observable in Curry’s jump shot. The financial reward confirms the phenomenal excellence. Many were the men who, around the turn of the 20th century, could compose clear English competently: None could pour it on like Churchill. Many are the men today who can dribble and shoot a basketball serviceably: None can pour it in like Curry.

A sample. From the Preface to Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times:

“There are few successful commanders,” says Creasy, “on whom Fame has shone so unwillingly as upon John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.” I believe this is true; and it is an interesting historical study to examine the causes which have made so great a contrast between the glory and importance of his deeds and the small regard of his countrymen for his memory. He commanded the armies of Europe against France for ten campaigns. He fought four great battles and many important actions. It is the common boast of his champions that he never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take. Amid all the chances and baffling accidents of war he produced victory with almost mechanical certainty. Even when fighting in fetters and hobbles, swayed and oppressed by influences which were wholly outside the military situation, he was able to produce the same result, varying only in degree. Nothing like this can be seen in military annals. His smaller campaigns were equally crowned by fortune. He never rode off any field except as a victor. He quitted war invincible: and no sooner was his guiding hand withdrawn than disaster overtook the armies he had led. Successive generations have not ceased to name him with Hannibal and Caesar.

Comments (5)

He was soon in possession of a clear £10,000, which his American counterparts would look at in the same way that their successors today look at over $10 million.

Since a pound is now worth about $1.42, and $10 million is worth about £7 million, it is easy to check such a claim. Timothy Congdon is supposing that the correct conversion rate is on the order of (at least) 700 to 1. Facts do not bear this out.

A 5-pound bag of flour cost 12 cents. (Today about $3.50.)
Bacon was 14 cents a pound. (Today about $4.50.)
Eggs were 21 cents per dozen. (Today about 3.00.)
Milk sold for 28 cents per gallon. (Today about $3.60.)
Butter cost 26 cents per pound. (Today about $4.00.)
A properly dressed gentleman in 1900 would have spent between $7 and $16 on his suit, $1 on each of his dress shirts. (Today perhaps $600 on a suit (implies at least a tailor's final adjustments in fitting), and a good shirt for $50).
Average annual salary: $450. (Today perhaps $50,000)
Average cost of home: $5,000. (Today about $250,000).

The conversion rates implied are about 27 to 1 for general goods, 110 to 1 for salary, and 50 to 1 for homes. Congdon is just off his rocker.

I have always been amazed that Churchill was involved in government at such high levels at such young ages. (MP at age 26, First Lord of the Admiralty at age 37). These offices came to him in part because he was descended from dukes, in part because he was an intrepid in his endeavors (which included military service and significant adventures), and in part because he wrote so spiritedly for the public, I think. I doubt that his writing would have the same effect today...which does not necessarily say anything good about our current popular sentiments.

Well, Lough's numbers are impressive in their own right. But some things are incommensurate across these attempted conversions. What if, to your list of consumer goods, we added smartphones? Automobiles with driver-assist features? There has to be some accounting for the fact that the level of income Churchill earned as a war correspondent availed him of luxuries, the kind of which no competent but ordinary English writer could really imagine.

Far be it from bloggers to suggest that writing should be better remunerated in our day, but I still agree with your final sentiments, Tony. I love watching Steph Curry bury three-balls, and by all appearances he is an admirable young man. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Churchill got paid for a more permanent product of human excellence.


Steph Curry compared to Winston Churchill is an instant classic!

None could pour it on. None can pour it in. Now you're just showing off....

As Churchill once did.

So, we need to find some polite little war on another continent, have you taken prisoner of war, and plot your escape. See, you can blog via satellite link while lying hid, like Churchill, amid the cargo on your escape train. If you add a live YouTube feed, that oughta be worth a few million in remuneration, don't you think?

But can you spend it as fast as Churchill did?

HJH --

I'd rather just learn how to shoot a first-rate jumper.

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