Carriages & coverture: Women, property and the law 1790-1860

Dividend Day at the Bank of England by George Elgar Hicks (1859)

Across history, women have found themselves vulnerable as economic beings. Their position in relation to ownership of property between 1790-1860 was a often a difficult and dangerous one. They were banned from owning land – the Georgian and Victorian periods’ single most important source of capital. However, they could own stocks, trusts and annuities and women can clearly be seen at the Bank of England on Dividend Day in the 1859 painting by George Elgar Hicks. Nonetheless, for many women (though not all) their investments and corresponding yearly incomes were placed in the custody of male trustees with variable outcomes. This economic vulnerability became the central concern of many a novel, and for those above the toiling class (if I dare use that term) frequently linked to standing in the social hierarchy. The yearly income became an obsessive motif, whatever the romantic or dramatic narrative.

The amount of income needed to retain or increase social standing was commonly referred to as ‘the competence’. This set the bottom line for gentility. Views on what an adequate competence might be varied depending on aspirations for rank and gentility. Marianne Dashwood’s hopes for £1800 to £2000 pounds a year in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was an aspiration for minor gentility. In contrast, her uncle leaves her a legacy of £1000, which invested in government funds for 5 per cent yearly interest will bring her only £50 income – not enough for a respectable independent household and servant. Of course a common labourer was expected to keep a large family on an income only half as large as this. Fortunately for the Dashwood sisters they are able to live together in a Devonshire cottage, assisted by two servants, on a combined income of £500 a year.


In my earlier post about the cost of keeping servants, I discussed the income levels required for the retention of domestic servants. Once the household income level had reached £1000 a year, of course, this was hardly an issue. At this level it is not as much about the house or the labour to run it but rather a different kind of property – the carriage. The use of a carriage in novels is the marker of economic success and comfortable gentility. Equally, its abandonment is an indication of reduced circumstances and vulnerability in social standing. The carriage and carriage house were luxury property and Mrs Dashwood sensibly, Austen tells us, relinquishes hers when her income falls to only £500 a year. There is a strong sense not just in Austen’s writing but in Georgian and Victorian fiction generally that economic stability, and thus social standing, are perminently precarious. Characters rise and fall, sometimes several times over a lifetime.

In a time when marriage was not a certain prospect and did not bring guaranteed economic security, women did try to help their female relatives. Recently, historians have been unearthing evidence of female economies of support. Nineteenth-century London women’s wills indicate a tendency to prefer female over male heirs, especially if the testator was a spinster. What these women knew was that marital status had an enormous impact on women’s relationship with property. As spinsters they might retain financial independence, as married women this was much harder (though not impossible) to achieve. This was because in common law, a married woman’s financial assets were her husbands. Indeed, as contemporary William Blackstone wrote: ‘by marriage the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.’ Wives had no legal identity apart from their husband and no property under their control during marriage, except acting as their husband’s agent. This was particularly problematic for women in business and I will deal with this specifically in a future post. Fortunately, there were ways of getting around this, most commonly using the equity courts. Developed over the centuries to correct the injustices and omissions of the common law, by way of pre-nuptual agreements a woman or her family could designate certain property as being her ‘separate estate’, free from her husband’s common law rights of possession and control. A woman could then receive the income from her settled property and spend it as she pleased. Of course she could always be pressed or persuaded to spend it in the interests of her husband, especially as the children remained his property too, and fortunes for some could thus still be badly invested and gambled away. As Margaret Cullen wrote in her 1802 novel Home: “Till women have the place and weight which property confers, in vain may they appeal to Justice”.


There is a blog entirely devoted to Jane Austen’s World.

Further reading for the interested:

I highly recommend: E. Copeland’s Women Writing About Money. Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 (1995)

A. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (1993)

‘Barriers and Bridges’ in A Kay, The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship. Enterprise Home and Household c. 1800-1870 (2009)

‘Legal fictions vs legal facts: common law, coverture and married women in business’ in N. Phillips, Women in Business 1700-1850 (2006)

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One Response to Carriages & coverture: Women, property and the law 1790-1860

  1. Great precise info, I’ve been searching on this topic for a while. Bookmarked and recommended!

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