by Janet Casson (independent scholar)
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