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

Constructing Equality? Women’s wages, physical labor, and demand factors in Sweden 1550-1759

by Kathryn E. Gary, PhD candidate, Lund University


Women were important workers in the past, but they are still under-studied and their contributions largely absent from big-picture discussions of historical living standards. This is largely because women’s work remains to some extent a black box, but recent research has both challenged assumptions about how women participated in the paid labor market (c.f. Humphries and Sarasua 2012) and provided data about women’s payment for different kinds of labor (c.f. Humphries and Weisdorf 2015). The current work contributes to both these areas, by creating series of men’s and women’s wages in early modern Sweden, and by exploring both the mechanisms behind the gender gap in pay as well as the conditions under which women enter paid labor, with the goal of better understanding work in the past in general.

Primary data come from unskilled workers in the construction industry in Southern Sweden, predominantly from the towns Malmö and Kalmar; these are combined with published data from Stockholm, also from construction workers (Jansson, Andersson Palm, and Söderberg 1991). All data are for individuals paid by the day; relative wages are simply the percentage of men’s wages that women earn.


Figure 1 shows women’s relative wages from 1550 to 1759. Relative wages are high at the beginning of the period, around 80 percent, and increase to levels of parity in the early 17th century, after which they decline substantially, reaching as low as 40 percent during the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This is a substantial decline over the period of not much more than a generation.
Some relative wage peaks are related to events that change both the demand for and supply of labor. Kalmar was a border town between Sweden and Denmark; from 1611 to 1613 the two countries fought the Kalmar War. Following these years women’s wages peaked, likely due to necessary rebuilding and a shortage in the supply of men. There is a wage spike in the same city following a fire in 1647 – while the national average weighs down the peak values, the deviations are still clear in the series, and when Kalmar is examined individually women’s relative wages peak as high as 1.33.


Table 1: Women’s work days as a percentage of all workdays in Kalmar, 1614-1710


Women’s ability to earn high wages goes against many of our theories about women’s earning potential – women are expected to earn less than men in physical tasks, because women are not as strong as men, and so are less productive physical laborers (Burnette 2008). Other theories suggest that women face constant wage discrimination (c.f. Bardsley 1999) – but this, too, is confounded by women’s ability to out-earn men, and by the large changes in the relative wage series. Something else is happening.

To understand we must look more closely at the data. In Kalmar workers are almost universally identifiable, allowing for deeper examination of the workforce. Table 1 shows the percentage of paid workdays that were worked by women, compared with the total number of paid work days in five year periods. Comparing the proportional feminization of the workforce with the amount of work, we see that the periods with the greatest amount of work are those in which the workforce is the most feminized – these periods are also those during which women’s relative wages are highest (see figure 1).

In combination with the relationship between total paid workdays and women’s relative wages across the whole country (figure 2), we are faced with a pattern that is familiar from the first and second world wars – when labor demand is high, women enter the labor force in higher numbers and are able to command higher wages. There is less evidence that women were systematically paid less either due to discrimination or because of their lower productivity – instead, women are responsive to economic forces, and especially to demand forces.

Figure 2: women’s relative wages and total paid workdays in Sweden, 1550-1759


It is simple to to extend our sense of what is ‘traditional’ deep into the past, and to apply broad categories of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work. However, when we are able to suspend our assumptions and dig deeper into the evidence, the data tell a less expected story; women in Sweden worked in physical occupations, alongside men, often for similar wages. They worked especially hard when the need was highest, and women’s wages only fell away from men’s when work became less regular and men and women weren’t employed together.

Accounting for women’s work shifts our understanding of household living standards in the long run, and provides strong evidence for what is intuitively clear: we cannot truly understand the past if we continue to discount the experiences or contribution of half the population.

The full working paper can be read here, and a shorter version from the EHS annual conference is available here.