Interest in the growth of tradeable securities in early modern Britain, especially its relationship to economic development and the funding of government debt, has centered mainly on the borrower – whether it be trading company, industrial enterprise, or the state. This article directs attention to the investor, using Charity Commission Reports for England and Wales that document a dramatic mid-eighteenth-century shift by donors and trustees from investments in real estate and rent charges to perpetual government annuities, mainly 3 percent Consols. The heavy investment in this public debt product is what ultimately prompted the creation of the London Stock Exchange in 1801.
In analyzing this shift, which occurred among the propertied in all regions of the nation, not just the metropolis or among corporate entities and the mercantile community, I consider both what made the annuities increasingly attractive for charitable trusts and the alternatives – real estate and private loans secured by mortgage or other means – more problematic. Legal changes, I argue, played a role in the transformation, especially the Charitable Uses Act of 1736, which made charitable devises of real estate very difficult and probably resulted in reduced investment in human capital and less wealth redistribution. Regions varied, however, in the degree to which they switched from real estate in the latter part of the eighteenth century; they also differed in the extent to which the switch resulted in more gifts of interest-bearing loans as well.
Admittedly, the changes documented in this article concern only one type of depository for assets, charitable trusts. The appeal of these annuities, however, could extend to investments needed for other purposes such as postmortem payments to dependents. Moreover, the fall-off in demand for real estate in trusts correlates with GDP estimates showing a steady decline in income from real assets after 1755 and what some have noted in this period as a puzzle – the lack of an increased rate of return on rents and private loans at a time of robust investment in government debt. Most importantly, though, the transition demonstrates the ability of the government to induce a broad spectrum of the propertied population to invest in securities, if the vehicle they offered had the right characteristics, which were not necessarily highest yield or liquidity without loss in value.