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More than bricks and mortar: female property ownership as economic strategy in mid-nineteenth-century urban England



This article uses a quantitative and qualitative methodology to examine the role that women played as property owners in three mid-nineteenth-century English towns. Using data from the previously under-utilized rate books, we argue that women were actively engaged in urban property ownership as part of a complex financial strategy to generate income and invest speculatively. We show that female engagement in the urban land and property markets was widespread, significant and reflective of local economic structures. Crucially, it also was more complex in form than the historiography has previously acknowledged. The article delivers a final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of women's investment activity, demonstrating that women were active investors in the urban land market as well as the managers of landed estates, business owners and shareholders, thereby opening up new questions about how gender intersected with economic change and growth in the rapidly changing world of nineteenth-century England.



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1 Barker, H., Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 2017), 21.

2 Ibid., ch. 5.

3 Barker, H., The Business of Women: Female Enterprise and Urban Development in Northern England, 1760–1830 (Oxford, 2006); Barker, H. and Hamlett, J., ‘Living above the shop: home, business and family in the English “Industrial Revolution”’, Journal of Family History, 35 (2010), 311–28; Barker, H., ‘Inheritance and continuity in small family businesses during the early Industrial Revolution’, Business History, 54 (2012), 227–44; Phillips, N., Women in Business (Woodbridge, 2006); Nenadic, S., ‘The social shaping of business behaviour in the nineteenth-century women's garment trades’, Journal of Social History, 31 (1998), 625–45; Kay, A.C., The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, Home and Household in London, c. 1800–1870 (London, 2009); Aston, J., Female Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century England: Engagement in the Urban Economy (London, 2016).

4 See A. Laurence, ‘Women, banks and the securities market in early-eighteenth century England’, M. Freeman, R. Pearson and J. Taylor, ‘Between Madame Bubble and Kitty Lorimer: women investors in British and Irish stock companies’, and Newton, L.A. and Cottrell, P.L., ‘Female investors in the first English and Welsh commercial joint-stock banks’, all in Laurence, A., Maltby, J. and Rutterford, J. (eds.), Women and their Money 1700–1950: Essays on Women and Finance (London and New York, 2009), 4658, 95–114, 115–32.

5 Froide, A., Silent Partners: Women as Public Investors during Britain's Financial Revolution, 1690–1750 (Oxford, 2017), 3. For the concept of ‘financial revolution’, see Dickson, P.G.M., The Financial Revolution in England: A Study in the Development of Public Credit, 1688–1756 (London, 1967). See also Petersson, T., ‘The silent partners: women, capital and the development of the financial system in nineteenth-century Sweden’, in Beachy, R., Craig, B. and Owens, A. (eds.), Women, Business and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Rethinking Separate Spheres (Oxford and New York, 2006), 3651.

6 Froide, Silent Partners, 2.

7 Laurence, Maltby and Rutterford (eds.), Women and their Money; Green, D.R. and Owens, A., ‘Gentlewomanly capitalism? Spinsters, widows and wealth holding in England and Wales, c. 1800–1860’, Economic History Review, 56 (2003), 510–36; Rutterford, J., Green, D.R., Maltby, J. and Owens, A., ‘Who comprised the nation of shareholders? Gender and investment in Great Britain, c. 1870–1935’, Economic History Review, 64 (2011), 157–87.

8 Spicksley, J.M. (ed.), The Business and Household Accounts of Joyce Jeffreys, Spinster of Hereford 1638–1648 (Oxford, 2012); Laurence, A., ‘Women investors, “That Nasty South Sea Affair” and the rage to speculate in early eighteenth-century England’, Accounting, Business and Financial History, 16 (2006), 245–64; O'Day, R., Cassandra Brydges (1670–1735), First Duchess of Chandos: Life and Letters (Woodbridge, 2007); Sharpe, P., ‘Dealing with love: the ambiguous independence of the single woman in early modern England’, Gender and History, 11 (1999), 209–32; Malay, J., Anne Clifford's Great Books of Record (Manchester, 2015).

9 Green and Owens, ‘Gentlewomanly capitalism?’, 510–36; Whittle, J. and Griffiths, E., Consumption and Gender in the Early Seventeenth-Century Household: The World of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012); Capern, A.L., ‘The landed woman in early modern England’, Parergon, 19 (2002), 185214; McDonagh, B., Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830 (Abingdon, 2017).

10 Rutterford et al., ‘Who comprised the nation of shareholders?’, 181.

11 See for example Sharpe, ‘Dealing with love’; and Staves, S., ‘Pin money’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 14 (1985), 4774; and idem, Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660–1833 (Cambridge, MA, 1990), on married women's careful account of their ‘pin money’ and separate estate.

12 Barker, The Business of Women; Hunt, M., ‘Women and the fiscal-imperial state in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century London’, in Wilson, K. (ed.), A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840 (Cambridge, 2004); Hunt, M., The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender and the Family in England, 1680–1780 (Berkeley, 1996).

13 Shepard, A., ‘Crediting women in the early modern English economy’, History Workshop Journal, 79 (2015), 119, at 3.

14 Grieg, H., The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford, 2013); Barker, H., Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695–1855 (Harlow, 2000); Hunt, M., ‘Hawlers, bawlers and mercuries: women and the London press in the early Enlightenment’, in idem, Women and the Enlightenment (New York, 1984). For the Foundling Hospital, see, for example, Frost, G., ‘“Your mother has never forgotten you”: illegitimacy, motherhood and the London Foundling Hospital’, Annales de Démographie, 127 (2014), 4572; and for Magdalen Homes, see Peace, M., ‘Figuring the London Magdalen House: mercantilist hospital, sentimental asylum or proto-evangelical penitentiary?’, in Lewis, A. and Markman, E. (eds.), Prostitution and Eighteenth Century Culture: Sex, Commerce and Morality (London, 2016), 141–55.

15 C. Wiskin, ‘Urban businesswomen in eighteenth-century England’, and Barker, H. and Harvey, K., ‘Women entrepreneurs and urban expansion’, in Sweet, R. and Lane, P. (eds.), Women and Urban Life in Eighteenth-Century England: ‘On the Town (London, 2003).

16 C. Wiskin, ‘Accounting for business: financial management in the eighteenth century’, in Laurence, Maltby and Rutherford (eds.), Women and their Money, 73–85; McDonagh, Elite Women, 40–4; and idem, ‘On being “fully and completely mistress of the whole business”: gender, land and estate accounting in Georgian England’, in Capern, A.L., McDonagh, B. and Aston, J. (eds.), Women and the Land, 1500–1900 (Woodbridge, 2019).

17 See Ågren, M. (ed.), Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society (Oxford, 2017).

18 Simonton, D. (ed.), The Routledge History Handbook of Gender and the Urban Experience (London, 2017).

19 For early work in this vein, see Okin, S.M., ‘Patriarchy and married women's property in England: questions on some current views’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 172 (1984), 121–38; Erickson, A.L., Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993). See also Finn, M., ‘Women, consumption and coverture in England, c. 1760–1860’, Historical Journal, 39 (1996), 703–22; Churches, C., ‘Women and property in early modern England: a case-study’, Social History, 23 (1998), 165–80; Crawford, P., ‘Women and property: women as property’, Parergon, 19 (2002), 151–71; Begiato, J. (Bailey), ‘Favoured or oppressed? Married women, property and “coverture” in England, 1660–1800’, Continuity and Change, 17 (2002), 351–72; Erickson, A.L., ‘Possession – and the other one-tenth of the law: assessing women's ownership and economic roles in early modern England’, Women's History Review, 16 (2007), 369–85. For a useful recent overview, see B. McDonagh, A.L. Capern, J. Aston and H. Worthen, ‘Women, property and land’, in Capern, McDonagh and Aston (eds.), Women and the Land.

20 Combs, M.B., ‘They lived and saved: evidence of the bequest motive for saving among small shopkeepers in late nineteenth-century Britain’, in Green, D.R., Maltby, J., Owens, A. and Rutterford, J. (eds.), Men, Women and Money: Perspectives on Gender, Wealth and Investment, 1870–1930 (Oxford, 2011); Aston, Female Entrepreneurship; Nenadic, S., ‘Gender and the rhetoric of business success: the impact on women entrepreneurs and the “new woman” in late nineteenth-century Edinburgh’, in Goose, N. (ed.) Women's Work in Industrial England: Regional and Local Perspectives (Hatfield, 2007), 269–88.

21 Campbell, B., ‘Population pressure, inheritance and the land market in a fourteenth-century peasant community’, in Smith, R. (ed.), Land, Kinship and Lifecycle (Cambridge, 2002), 87134; Bennett, J., Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague (Oxford, 1987), 33; Franklin, P., ‘Peasant widows’ “liberation” and remarriage before the Black Death’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 39 (1986), 186204; Russell, J.C., British Medieval Population (Albuquerque, 1948), 62–4; Titow, J.Z., English Rural Society 1200–1350 (London, 1969), 87; all cited in Whittle, J., ‘Inheritance, marriage, widowhood and remarriage: a comparative perspective on women and landholding in North-East Norfolk, 1440–1580’, Continuity and Change, 13 (1998), 3372, especially 36–7; A.L. Capern, ‘Women, land and family in early-modern North Yorkshire’, paper presented at the Economic History Society conference 2006, 4 (available at–459c-a2ff-7d7806f9681f.doc, accessed 20 Apr. 2010); Seeliger, S., ‘Hampshire women as landholders: common law mediated by manorial custom’, Rural History, 7 (1996), 114.

22 Moring, B. and Wall, R., Widows in European Economy and Society 1600–1920 (Woodbridge, 2017), 81, 85.

23 McDonagh, Elite Women, 26–32.

24 Casson, J., ‘Women's landownership in England in the nineteenth century’, in Casson, M. and Hashimzade, N. (eds.), Large Databases in Economic History: Research Methods and Case Studies (Abingdon, 2013), 200–21.

25 Colley, L., Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven and London, 1992), 240–1.

26 Morris, R.J., Men, Women and Property in England, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 2005); Aston, Female Entrepreneurship; Phillips, Women in Business; Barker, Family and Business.

27 Darlington, I., ‘Rate books’, History, 47 (1962), 42–5.

28 Holmes, R.S., ‘Ownership and migration from a study of rate books’, Area, 5 (1973), 241–51.

29 Daunton, M., ‘House ownership from rate books’, Urban History Year Book, 3 (1976), 21–7.

30 Holmes, ‘Ownership and migration’, 246.

31 Home, R., ‘Land ownership in the United Kingdom: trends, preferences and future challenges’, Land Use Policy, 26S (2009), S103–8, who notes that owner-occupiers in England and Wales held only 10% of housing stock in 1914. This had increased to 71% by 2000 (S104).

32 See Holmes, ‘Ownership and migration’, 248, where he briefly mentions women with the same surnames as the original owners inheriting property.

33 Macmahon, K., Beverley (Beverley, 1973); Green's Complete Handbook to Beverley (Beverley, 1883).

34 Reasons for Extending the Navigation of the River Calder from Wakefield to Halifax (1758); J. Mayhall, The Annals of York, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Doncaster, Barnsley, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Keighley and Other Places in the County of York from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (1860).

35 T. Iwama, ‘The middle class in Halifax, 1780–1850’, University of Leeds Ph.D. thesis, 2003; Smail, J., The Origins of Middle Class Culture: Halifax, Yorkshire, 1660–1780 (Ithaca, NY, 1994).

36 Berryman, B., Scarborough as it Was (Nelson, 1971); Taylor, A.S., Scarborough Fair (Milnthorpe, 1977); idem, Scarborough Spa: A Brief History (Bradford, 1990).

37 Brodie, A., ‘Scarborough in the 1730s – spa, sea and sex’, Journal of Tourism History, 4 (2012), 125–53; Pevsner, N., Yorkshire: The North Riding (New Haven and London, 2002), 319–28.

38 1881 census occupations, available on, accessed 16 Aug. 2017.

39 Holmes, ‘Ownership and migration’, 250.

40 East Riding Archive, BC/IV/10/5, Rate Assessment Book 1848.

41 Township of Halifax Valuation 1852, West Riding Archive Service, OR80.

42 An Assessment for the Relief of the Poor in the Township of Scarborough 1848, North Riding County Record Office, DC/SCB.

43 Within the ‘Mixed’ category were the three sub-categories of ‘Mixed: Commercial & Industrial/Mixed: Domestic & Commercial/Mixed: Domestic & Industrial’.

44 See for example McDonagh, Elite Women, 26, who demonstrates that 10% of land in her sample of 250,000 acres enclosed under parliamentary enclosure acts between the 1750s and 1840s was owned by women and Casson, ‘Women's landownership’, 217, who argues that 12% of plots recorded in the nineteenth-century railway companies books of reference were held by female landowners.

45 Barker, The Business of Women; Aston, Female Entrepreneurship; X. You, ‘The missing half: female employment in Victorian England and Wales’, in L. Shaw-Taylor, A. Cockerill and M. Satchell (eds.), The Online Historical Atlas of Occupational Structure and Population Geography in England and Wales 1600–2011,, accessed 16 Aug. 2017.

46 Berg, M., The Age of Manufactures, 1700–1820: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain, 2nd edn (London, 1994); Barker, Family and Business; Wilson, J.F. and Popp, A. (eds.), Industrial Clusters and Regional Business Networks in England, 1750–1970 (Aldershot, 2004).

47 McDonagh, Elite Women, 15–25. On women investing in stocks and government securities, see Green and Owens, ‘Gentlewomanly capitalism?’; Rutterford et al., ‘Who comprised the nation of shareholders?’.

48 Aston, Female Entrepreneurship, 111. See too Holmes, ‘Ownership and migration’, 248, who demonstrates for Ramsgate that a third of all properties were inherited by an owner who shared the surname of the deceased, most of whom were the widows thereof.

49 On this, see McDonagh, Elite Women, 15–25; Aston, Female Entrepreneurship, 139–74.

50 1851 Census: Class: HO107, Piece: 2368, Folio: 240, Page: 34, GSU roll: 87646–9.

51, accessed 16 Aug. 2017, England & Wales, Scarborough, Yorkshire North Riding, 9d, 259; 1881 Census: Class: RG11; Piece: 4806; Folio: 64; Page: 2; GSU roll: 1342160.

52 Last Will and Testament of Ellen Roberts, proved at York on 27 Aug. 1894.

53 1851 Census: Class: HO107, Piece: 2368, Folio: 229, Page: 12, GSU roll: 87646–9.

54 Liddington, J., ‘Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791–1840): her diaries and the historians’, History Workshop Journal, 35 (1993), 4577, especially 51.

55 Last Will and Testament of Ann Walker, The National Archives, Kew, England, Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers, Class: PROB 11, Piece: 2192.

56 Susan Margaret Aked, died 7 Jul. 1865, Letters of Administration granted 5 Feb. 1866.

57 Last Will and Testament of Robert Aked, died 18 Jun. 1888, probate granted 23 Jul. 1888.

58 Last Will and Testament of Lucy Aked, died 10 May 1891, probate granted 24 Jun. 1891.

59 On the operation of trusts more generally in nineteenth-century England, see Stebbings, C., The Private Trustee in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2002).

60 Jane Walker's tombstone in Beverley Minster records her age and 28 Mar. 1854 as date of death.

61, accessed 16 Aug. 2017.

62 On the countess, see Baird, R., Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670–1830 (London, 2003), 139–46; McDonagh, Elite Women, 23 and 105–6.

63 The Oswaldkirk estate remained with the Henderson family for a further three generations until it was sold by trustees of the estate in 1907.

64 On absences in the rural and urban literature respectively, see McDonagh, Elite Women, 1–14; and Aston, Female Entrepreneurship, 1–21.

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