Then I began to wonder how much £234,310 would be in today’s money. The best person to ask would surely be an historian, maybe one with an interest in naval history? Luckily I have a good friend who is such a person, a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer no less at the prestigious Greenwich Maritime Institute, housed in the grand surroundings of the former Royal Naval College on the banks of the Thames, with its amazing Painted Hall. So I asked him, and here’s what he said:
Calculating historic values of money is notoriously difficult because it depends on what you measure it against, and how that has moved in price relative to other commodities and general consumption. It’s easy to say that a pound would buy X amount of bread in 1800, for example, but that doesn’t take account of how much cheaper the inputs for making bread have become, or the fact that bread isn’t nearly as important an item of consumption now as it was two centuries ago. Economic historians have been shouting at one another about historical prices for decades, and there’s no sign of the storm letting up yet.
Therefore, there are various indices of the pound’s changing value. They all agree in terms of general trends – wartime spikes in the ‘long’ eighteenth century, nineteenth century a time of low inflation, big spike in the second half of the twentieth century, and so on – but values for given years can be very different. The index I tend to use is the one produced by the House of Commons Library. There’s also an inflation calculator on the Bank of England website, which as far as I know is produced from the same data and should show the same results. According to the latter, the Royal Military Canal cost £14,759,856.35 at 2010 values – which actually looks quite low by the standards of modern capital projects!
So, £14¾m for 28 miles of canal, or, simplifying the maths somewhat, £500,000 per mile. Probably not that much then: built today, that amount would probably be paid in fees to, as Private Eye would have it, the ‘usual suspects’ of consultants and lawyers before the first sod had been turned.