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Property ownership and consumption

English Legal System

• English CIVIL law, not criminal law

• Law as it applied in E & W only – Scotland totally different legal system, Ireland’s different from England’s in many aspects (see Gleadle, ch. 6)

• Legal reforms from 1850s onwards sought to rectify these problems English legal system outdated, inefficient before reforms of the 1850s

Justice slow, expensive, uncertain – even courts of request not always effective or popular

• English civil law was made up of numerous branches – 4 that concern us

Common law: set up in the middle ages, common to England + Wales

Equity: set of legal principles developed from 15c, administered by the court of Chancery

Canon law: administered by church courts – matrimonial matters, estates of deceased persons

Courts of Request: set up in 18c, urban courts dealing with small claims (disputes involving modest sums of money)


Property in the Eighteenth Century

‘Real’ property land or an ‘interest’ in land on death, real property passed to the nearest blood relative, called the heir at law

‘Personal property’ everything not land on death, personal property could be willed to whoever testator wished


Women’s Property

• women owned property (evidence of court records, wills, personal writings etc) but where did it come from?

• sources of women’s property


inheritance or gifts

• purposes Sharpe [Adapting to Capitalism]

to support themselves, particularly in the case of single women

to achieve specific targets

saving for marriage

saving for apprenticeship premiums

to help parents or relatives

to buy consumer items


Women’s Property Rights

• single women

called ‘feme sole’ in legal documents

single women were unmarried or widowed

possessed own legal personality

i.e enjoyed the same property rights as men

had full contractual ability and agency

could make contracts and have these enforced against them

could own real as well as personal property

• married women

property rights much more complicated than single women

varied according to

branch of the legal system their rights were tested in

what legal provisions applied to them


• common law of England

married women’s legal position governed by the doctrine of coverture

married woman was, in legal terms a ‘feme covert’ - Sir William Blackstone

(18c writer on the law)


• Consequences of coverture:

• married women deprived of their legal personality for the duration of the marriage

• property which a woman had owned or was entitled to at the time of her marriage or which she acquired during marriage became her husband’s and

• husband could dispose of his wife’s property as he wished and without her consent

• husbands became the family’s sole arbiter - rights to discipline wife and children

• wives had v. limited powers of making a will (Holcombe, Perkins)


• coverture

• advantage of coverture

husbands had a legal duty to protect and provide for their wives

• coverture intended to protect married women but

caused much suffering and allowed for abuse at the hands of their husbands

wives unable to make contracts, i.e. buy and sell


• negotiating coverture

• married women had to buy goods and services for household and family

• law recognised this and modified coverture by

• doctrine of ’necessaries’

allowed married women act as husband’s agent

wives could make contracts in husband’s name

for the supply of necessaries suitable to their station in life

• married women’s use of the doctrine of necessaries = a strategy to evade the control of their husbands

an empowering process.

particularly important in cases of marriage breakdown (Finn)


• equity

• concept of the separate estate

• This was a trust created to prevent property owned by a women before married or acquired after marriage from being owned or controlled by her husband

• Advantages of a wife’s separate estate

wife could spend this money as she wished

she could make legal contracts relating to it

she could use it to run a business independently of her husband

she could make a will leaving it to who ever she wished

her husband could not spend it

if he owed money, his creditors could not claim it

• limitations on separate estate

wives could be ‘kissed or cuffed’ - forced to surrender it to abusive husband

limited to the very wealthy?

women’s knowledge of, and use of, settlements to protect their own property during marriage extended to the non-elite (Berg, Gordon and Nair)

• courts of requests/county courts

married women often appeared on behalf of husbands

coverture implicitly undermined as

wives apparently more articulate and forceful in court than husbands

courts believed to be more sympathetic to wives than husbands (Finn)

• borough customs

applied in towns with a long guild tradition

allowed married women to trade as ‘feme sole’ provided that

their husbands were not engaged in the same business and

did not exercise any control over their wives’ businesses

husbands and wives had to have completely separate enterprises (Earle)



• 18c ‘consumer revolution’ (McKendrick)

wages of women and children fuelled the consumer revolution

women with surplus money would spend on clothing, consumer goods for the home

men spent surplus money on beer, gambling (McKendrick)


• Women’s Consumption – diverse views

criticism of female consumers by contemporaries

depicted as obsessed by material goods - ostentatious, parasitic

‘decorative dependence’

women’s enthusiasm for fashion and new consumer goods typical of

their dependence on men and their status as victims of fashion


women have self-conscious, emotional investment in household goods, clothing etc. (Vickery)

similar attitudes found amongst urban middling women (Berg)

‘affectionate consumption’ –

women bought items as mementos of relatives, friends (Nenadic)

• frugality

concept of the ‘good wife’ as household manager, exercising the virtues of thrift and prudence

much women’s consumption was repetitive, concerned with value for money, avoidance of waste (Vickery)

• ‘moral economy’

traditional values of just prices for essentials still influential

discontent with unreasonable prices - food riots led by women


• gendered consumption

men’s purchases - infrequent, made on impulse, or expensive and dynastic (Vickery)

men purchased new luxury goods and clothes eagerly (Finn)



• women’s property holding and consumption of goods much more complicated than many historians have suggested

• Davidoff & Hall’s belief in the draconian effects of coverture on married women’s property rights challenged by the work of Finn and Berg

• the acquisition, possession and consumption of goods clearly a more nuanced and complex matter than assumptions that shopping and social relations were gender-based would lead us to believe

• a wide range of motives lay behind individuals’ decisions to purchase material goods

• men and women attributed all sorts of cultural and social meanings to their acquisitions