Beyond the Dreams of Avarice

Sir John Reeves Ellerman was No.1 on the UK’s 1916 rich list. William D. Rubinstein looks at the careers of this reclusive, but fabulously rich, British man of business and of his children.

One of the more interesting changes in popular social analysis in Britain over the past generation has been the growth of ‘Rich Lists’, listings of the richest men and women of the past and present. Many will be surprised to learn that Rich Lists were seldom ever compiled before the 1970s, with the earliest Sunday Times Rich List, now an annual occasion, first constructed and published by Philip Beresford in 1980. Frankness about great wealth and high income is thus a surprisingly recent innovation. In the past, the names and sizes of fortunes of the very richest men and women in Britain were generally only whispered about, and often subject to inaccuracy and exaggeration.

The name of the man who was almost certainly the wealthiest British businessman in modern times in comparative terms will thus probably come as a surprise to many readers, few of whom will have heard of him. This man was Sir John Reeves Ellerman, 1st Bt. (1862-1933), a mysterious, self-made shipowner and financier whose own story is as astonishings as that of his two children.

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