Ship shape: property ownership of the floating variety

Whitby from Station Quay by John Atkinson Grimshaw (c.1877)

I thought I would turn my attention to a different type of property for this blog post. I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that home ownership was not the common form of property ownership in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, men and women did purchase rental housing stock as form of investment. Another interesting form of property ownership was of the floating variety – shares in ships.

Under maritime law vessels could be divided into multiple shares. The owners held these as ‘tenants-in-common’, allowing each person to do as they wished with the shares, independent of the other shareholders. Shares were acquired through gift or inheritance, mortgage or purchase and the ownership recorded in the registers held in the Customs House of the port to which the ship belonged.  In 1824 the maximum number of shares in a ship was set at 64 with a maximum of 32 shareholders – and hence the 64th system was born. The shareholders were responsible for the costs of the vessel but no more – a type of limited liability. The ship shares themselves were traded at a local level between owners, rather than on a stock exchange. This made it a very accessible system, with strong family and community ties.

Historian, Helen Doe based her PhD on this fascinating theme. She investigated women’s enterprise in and around shipping by utilising the census, directories, wills, shipping directories and the Customs House Shipping Registers for Exeter, Fowey, King’s Lynn, Whitby and Whitehaven.  In these five important ports between 1824 -1889 women held a significant 17,339 shares in 692 vessels varying from 15 to 1242 tons. Many of these women actively pursued and managed their investments in vessels. Some also ran businesses in the port towns, often employing men and many did not relinquish the reigns of power when their sons came of age.

Doe’s research has uncovered an area offering women the potential for active rather than the commonly depicted passive involvement of Victorian women in individual- and community economic affairs.  This appears to be partly due to the distinctive demographic feature of these middling port towns in which a significant portion of the male population was often at sea. Consequently at a community level women were accorded a level of economic involvement in order to keep the economy functioning. A third to half of household heads were women, and more will have found themselves acting in this capacity, and therefore responsible for family survival. She makes a convincing case for maritime communities being especially entrepreneurial and supportive environments for women, encouraging their economic endeavours and certainly wide involvement with the merchant fleet and the business and services needed to support it. Nonetheless, there seems to have been a recognition, an expectation even, that businesswomen’s lives would be more entwined with their domestic lives than their male equivalents: as suggested by Captain Beaufort’s relieved letter in which he writes that as Mrs Taylor’s children are now better, though of course understandably delayed, it is good that she can now get down to talking business again.

Mrs Mary Ross of Rochester

Women also featured as the owners of shipbuilding yards – large, noisy busy places of sweat and grind. They were not just restricted to local yards but when the Royal yards were struggling they can be found building warships too! Mrs Frances Barnard’s yard at Deptford was one of the largest in England. Though her yard was smaller in scale, Mrs Ross of Rochester also supplied warships, dealing with the formidable Navy Board. Competition for such work was intense and involved a formal tendering process. Mary Ross had taken control of the yard, and negotiations with the Navy Board, when her husband Charles died leaving no will (and seven children aged six to sixteen).

Doe’s findings reinforce that found for other locations, including London, that local custom often overcame national legal and rhetorical barriers regarding what women could and should do in relation to property and make a living. Finally, Doe makes the interesting observation that life in these towns had more in common with other port communities across the Atlantic than their inland neighbours, making some reference Salem.


You can read more about women’s involvement in shipping and its surrounding industries in: Helen Doe, Enterprising women and shipping in the nineteenth century (Rochester, NY and Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009

A research guide to Custom House records and merchant ships ca be found here.

Also, here is an on-line guide to 18th and early 19th century sailing vessels:

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2 Responses to Ship shape: property ownership of the floating variety

  1. John Dawson says:

    A very interesting post.
    However, I feel a distinction should be made between the feme sole and the feme couvert when discussing the ownership of vessel shares.
    Following the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act it was a requirement for changes of the ownership of shares had to be recorded at the Custom House and duly entered in the transaction book. To facilitate this process forms were provided which set out the details of the vessel and included a declaration of how the shares were disposed of. One such form was headed ‘Declaration of Transmission by Marriage’ where the declaration read:
    “I intermarried with and am now the husband of…………. the person appearing on the register book to be the owner of….shares in the said ship, and I declare that on such marriage the interest of the said……….. became by law vested in me, and that I am entitled to be registered as owner of the said share in place of the said…… .”
    I guess this clouds the distinction between real and movable estate!

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