EHS 2018 special: Ownership and control of land by women in nineteenth-century England

by Janet Casson (independent scholar)


A 19th Century English countryside landscape, oil on canvas, anonymous.

The HS2 train route between London and Birmingham has been modified in response to outrage from people concerned about the impact on their property. This is nothing new. Over 150 years ago, railways cut through the English countryside to provide new infrastructure for an expanding economy. Railway surveyors laying out a route made detailed maps and carefully recorded the usage and ownership of every affected property in books of reference.

The complexity of the laws governing the rights of women has meant that women’s land ownership in the nineteenth century has rarely been investigated. Indeed, it was widely believed that the law deterred women’s ownership of land.

These railway books of reference provide a unique insight into this rarely investigated topic and provide an insight into women’s control of land. Statistical analysis of the information reveals that women owned, either singly or jointly, about 12% of that land.

Detailed profiles of 348 women and their property give an insight not only into the ownership but also the control of land. They reveal if a woman shared ownership and if so, with whom; a woman owning alone had a higher degree of control than a woman owing with others. They indicate the amount of land, the woman’s wealth and her potential influence over other people. If she had a multi-plot portfolio, its geographical dispersal indicates whether her influence was local, regional or even national.

Women who owned with men were regarded as having little control over land. Before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, wives were constrained by common law: they could own real property, but lost independent control of its management and the use of any rents or profits unless they had a settlement or trust. Women who owned with an institution had least control given that institutions had statutory powers and often protracted decision-making.

Many women held their property as sole owners (average 35.5%) and were confident to own and control large portfolios. Where women shared ownership, it was usually with men (average 42.0%) rather than exclusively with other women.

There was a trade-off between exercising strong control over a few properties that could be self-managed or weaker control over more properties where co-owners shared the administration. Similarly, a trade-off existed between owning many local properties or fewer widely dispersed properties where, to maximise the economic return on the plots, co-owners were needed for their local knowledge.

The size of property portfolios varied across regions. They were smallest in London, possibly reflecting the high property prices and the significant number of single women living in the suburbs; and largest in Durham where several women owned large national portfolios.

An average of 24% of plots was held by single-plot-owing women. But the typical portfolio comprised 2-5 plots (37.6%). Larger portfolios of 10 or more were also fairly common (24.1%). Large portfolios were often geographically dispersed – across a county, region or nationally.

The picture that emerges from this analysis is that many women as sole owners enjoyed considerable autonomy in the control of their portfolios. Where they relied on others, they typically relied on men.

But as the diversity of their portfolios increased, women did not increase their dependence on men but chose to retain their autonomy instead. Women it appears, valued their autonomy, and did their best to maintain and protect it

Trading parliamentary votes for private gain: logrolling in the approval of new railways in 19th century Britain

by Rui Esteves and Gabriel Geisler Mesevage (University of Oxford)

ImageVaultHandler.aspx – Railways in early nineteenth century Britain

The possibility that politicians might act to further their private financial interests, as opposed to the general public interest, has led to the creation of conflict-of-interest rules in modern democracies. For example, the code of conduct of the British Parliament requires that MPs disclose private interests related to their public duties.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Parliament went further, and created a system for the approval of new major public works projects in which MPs with a conflict were barred from voting. But the effectiveness of these rules can be undermined if politicians agree to trade votes with their colleagues — a practice known as ‘logrolling’.

This research use a unique episode in the mid-nineteenth century to determine whether, and to what extent, British politicians traded their votes to further their private interests.

In the mid-1840s, hundreds of new railway companies petitioned the British Parliament for the right to build railway lines. It was Parliament’s responsibility to pick the railway lines they wanted to see built, and in this way shape the development of the modern British transport network.

Since many MPs were also investors in railroads, Parliament created a system of subcommittees, in which the applications of railways would be considered only by MPs without financial conflicts, and who did not represent a constituency that the railway was intending to service.

As a result of this system, MPs with vested interests could not vote for their preferred projects directly. But they could further their interests indirectly by trading their vote on another project with the vote of the MP overseeing the project in which they had an interest.

Drawing on methods from social network analysis, the study identifies all of the potential trades between MPs, and then test statistically for evidence of vote trading. The statistical evidence reveals significant collusion in the voting patterns of MPs who were deciding which railway lines to approve.

These findings reveal significant levels of vote-trading, with politicians coordinating their behaviour so as to ensure that the projects they preferred – which they were banned from influencing directly – were nonetheless approved by their colleagues. As much as a quarter of all of the approved projects were likely the result of this logrolling, and the economic costs of this behaviour were significant, leading to Britain creating a less efficient railway network.

This research highlights the importance of understanding politician’s private interests. Moreover, it illustrates how merely acknowledging conflicts of interest, and abstaining from voting when conflicted, may not resolve the problem of vested interests if politicians are able to collude. The findings shed light on a perennial problem; the methods developed to detect logrolling in this setting may prove useful for detecting vote-trading in other contexts.

From VOX – The railway mania: Not so great expectations?

Can financial crises be averted by identifying and dealing with overpriced assets before they cause instability? This column argues that during the British Railway Mania of the 1840s, railway shares were not obviously overpriced, even at the market peak, but prices still fell dramatically. This suggests that extreme asset price reversals can be difficult to forecast and prevent ex ante, and the financial system always needs to be prepared for substantial price declines.

by Gareth Campbell, 23 May 2009

Full article here: