In Britain, until 1870, women’s wealth automatically passed to their husbands on marriage. If they then inherited money, that too went to their husbands. And yet, the 1871 census identified some 141,000 women of ‘rank and property’. There were also numerous wealthy women living lives of relative luxury in spas and resorts such as Bath, Brighton, Bournemouth and Cheltenham. With legislation against them, how did women acquire their wealth?
Firstly, not all women married. At that time, there were numerous ‘surplus’ or ‘redundant’ women. For example, there were 39 spinsters and 13 widows for every 48 wives in London. And this pattern was repeated in many cities. One of the most extreme cases was that of Kensington and Chelsea. In this borough, for every 1,000 single men aged between 35 and 45, there were no less than 3,660 single women in the same age group. And these single women could own property in their own right, just as men could.
The second reason why women could still be wealthy, despite the legal position prior to 1870, was due to the settlement system. This was used by fathers wanting to protect any money they gave to their daughters from passing into the hands of potentially unscrupulous sons-in-law.
A marriage settlement essentially ring-fenced the daughter’s wealth, and placed it under the control of trustees. In some cases, the married woman simply received an income from the settlement but did not make investment decisions. In others, she could influence how the money was managed. The main point, though, was that the husband could not get his hands on the money; even if his wife died before him, the money went straight to her children or back to her family if she had none.
Novels by Anthony Trollope, a chronicler of the middle and upper classes of England from 1840 to 1880, are often concerned with ‘redundant’ upper class women. For example he wrote about Lord Fawn’s seven unmarried sisters in The Eustace Diamonds and Sir Marmaduke Rowley’s eight unmarried daughters in He Knew He was Right.
For every marriage, there is also talk of a marriage settlement. In Is He Popenjoy?, Trollope chronicles the plight of a man who marries the daughter of a rich man. He is forced to live in London, against his wishes, since a London house was included in the terms and conditions of the marriage settlement. In Phineas Redux, Madame Max Goesler, a wealthy widow, marries a penniless Irish MP, Phineas Finn. The wedding is delayed six months so that a watertight settlement can be set up.
As a result, women understood money even without often a formal education. They could translate wealth into income at the drop of a hat. Lizzie Eustace, in The Eustace Diamonds, commenting on a £10,000 necklace being worn by her companion, asks her:
How do you feel, Julia, with an estate upon your neck? Five hundred acres at twenty pounds an acre. Let us call it £500 a year.
Women understood the importance of investing properly, since a fall in income could mean a calamitous drop in social status. They were also careful to bequeath their wealth to other women where they could.
And there is plenty of evidence of mothers encouraging their children to marry money, as did Lady Arabella in Doctor Thorne: “you MUST marry money”. Perhaps it was this need to think about money which laid the foundations for today’s canny women millionaires?
Witness: “I don't think so. The date of the marriage was not in any way fixed.”
The Coroner: “He always appeared to have plenty of money?”
Witness: “I suppose so; I didn't think about it.”
The Coroner: “You never heard him complain of being hard up?”
Witness: “Everybody complains of that, don't they?”
The Coroner: “Was he a man of cheerful disposition?”
Witness: “He was very moody, never the same two days together.”
The Coroner: “You have heard what your brother says about the deceased wishing to break off the engagement. Had you any idea of this?”
Witness: “Not the slightest.”
The Coroner: “Can you think of any explanation now?”
Witness: “Absolutely none.”
The Coroner: “There had been no quarrel?”
The Coroner: “So far as you knew, on the Wednesday evening, you were still engaged to the deceased with every prospect of being married to him shortly?”
Witness: “Ye-es. Yes, certainly, of course.”
The Coroner: “He was not—forgive me this very painful question—the sort of man who would have been likely to lay violent hands on himself?”
Witness: “Oh, I never thought—well, I don't know—I suppose he might have done. That would explain it, wouldn't it?”
The Coroner: “Now, Lady Mary—please don't distress yourself, take your own time—will you tell us exactly what you heard and saw on Wednesday night and Thursday morning?”
Witness: “I went up to bed with Mrs. Marchbanks and Mrs. Pettigrew-Robinson at about half-past nine, leaving all the men downstairs.
Up until very recently (and in some parts of the western world continuing to this day) women were not thought to be interested in “manly” pursuits,and men of course would not be interested in what a woman was up to. After a dinner with guests, therefore, women would withdraw to their own “withdrawing room” or go upstairs, while the men would remain in the room withbrandy and cigars and talk about hunting, or the stockexchange, and so on.
I said good night to Denis, who seemed quite as usual. I was not downstairs when the post came.
Up until the beginning of WWII, mail would be delivered at least twice and sometimes three times a day.
I went to my room at once. My room is at the back of the house. I heard Mr. Pettigrew-Robinson come up at about ten. The Pettigrew-Robinsons sleep next door to me. Some of the other men came up with him. I did not hear my brother come upstairs. At about a quarter past ten I heard two men talking loudly in the passage, and then I heard someone run downstairs and bang the front door. Afterwards I heard rapid steps in the passage, and finally I heard my brother shut his door. Then I went to bed.”
The Coroner: “You did not inquire the cause of the disturbance?”
Witness (indifferently): “I thought it was probably something about the dogs.”
The Coroner: “What happened next?”
Witness: “I woke up at three o'clock.”
The Coroner: “What wakened you?”
Witness: “I heard a shot.”
The Coroner: “You were not awake before you heard it?”
Witness: “I may have been partly awake. I heard it very distinctly. I was sure it was a shot. I listened for a few minutes, and then went down to see if anything was wrong.”
The Coroner: “Why did you not call your brother or some other gentleman?”