The Independent Businesswoman
Married women may have played a diminishing part in their husbands' businesses, but many widows and spinsters ran their own businesses and virtually any type of record will throw up the occasional female shopkeeper, victualler or clothing manufacturer. The problem is to determine just how sizeable a minority of all businesses were run by women, what sort of
businesses these were and the relative success of women in business compared to that of men.
There were certainly large numbers of women who, as heads of households, were in a position to be independent businesswomen, contemporary data suggesting that some 10 to 20 per cent of London households were headed by widows, while many spinsters lived independently as well. All these women had to make a living somehow, but the records show that for most this living was not a very good one. Of those who paid the 1692 Poll Tax, only 19 per cent of widows but 65 per cent of widowers paid more than the basic 1s. per quarter, while the disparity was greater still for single people living alone, with 13 per cent of bachelors and less than 2 per cent of spinsters being assessed above the basic rate. Women were also over-represented in that majority of people too poor to pay any tax at all.
These figures suggest that only a small proportion of widows and single women were living well, a fact that is no surprise, despite the literary emphasis on the wealthy widow. What the figures do not tell us is how these women acquired their living. There was a wide range of possibilities, quite apart from the poor relief or charity which supported many London women. Both widows and single women might have rentier incomes derived from legacies or the realization of their former husband's businesses, while an income made up of rent paid by lodgers was another common scenario. They might be living off wages or piece-rate earnings or, possibly, off immoral earnings as a bawd or a prostitute. They might be living from the profits derived from running a business which they had either built up themselves or taken over after their husband's death. Finally, they could of course be deriving an income from any combination of the above.
It would be impossible to determine accurately how many women fell into any of these categories and the best that can be done is to look at a variety of sources to see what they can tell one about the business life of women. To start, there are the bankruptcy records for the years 1711–15, which have been analysed for other purposes elsewhere in the book. There seems little doubt that, if women were substantial traders, they would appear in these records, since there is no reason to assume that they were either more careful, more competent or
more lucky than men or that the male creditors of women were particularly chivalrous. One finds in fact that in these five years that were just eighteen women bankrupts from London, who formed 2.8 per cent of the total of metropolitan bankrupts. This is a small number but, in order to place it in context, one should perhaps think more carefully about just what was the population at risk. It seems a reasonable assumption that most potential bankrupts would be drawn from those liable to pay more than the basic rate on the Poll Tax. If this is true, then the 2.8 per cent of female bankrupts should be compared with the 7.7 per cent of heads of households paying surtax in 1692 who were women, a comparison which suggests that just over a third of such women were in 'business' and so liable to become bankrupt. It can finally be noted that the eighteen women bankrupts included six people described as 'chapwomen', probably shopkeepers, four vintners or tavern-keepers, two milliners, a woodmonger, a coffeewoman, a mercer, a barber-surgeon, a silkwoman and a periwig-maker, the last three being the partner of a man.
One gets a rather different picture when one analyses those London creditors who sued bankrupts, fifty-three of whom, or 6.4 per cent, were women whose debtors covered the whole gamut of the London business world. Women were thus more than twice as likely to be a creditor as a bankrupt. Only three of the female creditors were given an occuptional label: two merchants, who were the partners of men and the only two partners amongst the women creditors, and a silk-weaver from Southwark. The remainder of the sample included one infant, eight spinsters and forty-one widows, some of whom possibly had occupations but most of whom probably did not. This analysis provides some clues to the role that London women played in business. Some, but not very many, were independent traders. A much higher number, perhaps twice as many, were investors in metropolitan businesses run by men but most of these women played no part in such businesses except to draw a quarterly interest payment.
Rather more light on women in business can be obtained from the policy registers of the Sun Fire Office. The analysis below is based on seven registers covering the years 1726 to 1729, which record a total of 3531 London policies, of which 317 or just under 9 per cent were taken out by a woman. In
Table 6.1 above, this sample of women property-owners is divided into three groups, those who insured household goods and furniture only, those who in addition insured houses or other buildings and finally those who insured stock in trade, the rather bold assumption being that women in the first group lived mainly off wages, annuities or paper securities such as stocks and bonds, those in the second group off rents and those in the third off the profits of a business.
The table also subdivides the sample by marital status but, as can be seen, the clerks in the insurance office were not very consistent in recording this, which is unfortunate for our purposes. This is particularly true of those who insured stock in trade, presumably because one tended to think of such women as innkeepers or milliners rather than as widows or spinsters. Nevertheless, one or two points can be made from the table. First, the ownership of property by wives does not seem to have been very important, unless they dominate the unspecified insurers of stock in trade, which seems unlikely. Secondly, spinsters had a rather more important role in the London business world than one might expect, being over 10 per cent of the sample and probably much more, as many of the unspecified businesswomen were probably spinsters. Finally, widows quite clearly dominate the female property market, especially the ownership of houses, from which they could draw a rental
income possibly supplemented by catering for lodgers, a role which made good use of those household skills which they had acquired as wives.
One can now look at the sorts of business run by women who insured their stock in trade or who can be identified by a trade description. In Table 6.2 above, these businesses are analysed by broad categories. This shows that the typical business for a woman was exactly what might be expected: running a catering establishment selling food or drink, or running a shop selling food, textiles, clothing or such fancy goods as toys, glass, china or perfumes, while pawnbroking was another occupation with a fairly high proportion of female participants. All these businesses might be run by spinsters as well as by widows, such as
the milliners' shop run by Alice Hall and Mary Plume in Exeter Exchange or the cheese shop run by the sisters Ann and Sarah Woodman in St John Street. Where widows did dominate was in the group of occupations headed 'miscellaneous', nearly all of which are really 'male' trades taken over by widows after their husbands' deaths.
This analysis can be continued by looking at post-mortem inventories, starting with the estates of the first fifty London widows whose inventories are kept in the series PROB4 in the Public Record Office, all of whom died between 1660 and 1700. Five of the fifty women had no assets except their clothes, a few household goods and perhaps a little cash, so that no idea is given of how they had supported themselves; maybe by wages, charity or an annuity which died with them. Nine of the women were definitely running a business when they died, since their stock in trade is listed. Two had shops selling mainly muffs and tippets and similar goods. Then there was a shop with the typical stock of the haberdasher/milliner type of business, an alehouse, a carter, a plumber and a glazier, the last being the most valuable business with nearly £2000 worth of assets. Finally, there were two women who were definitely running some sort of business, the exact nature of which cannot be determined from the inventory.
Next, there is an intermediate group of twelve women whose estate consisted of clothing, jewellery, household goods, cash and an item simply described as 'sperate debts', 'debts sperate and desperate', 'debts due to deceased' etc. None of these twelve inventories mentions any stock in trade or a shop, but it is possible that they are small businesses whose stocks have been sold before valuation. On the other hand, these widows might have been money-lenders, quite a common role for women, as has been seen, or they might have been pure rentiers, as were the remaining twenty-four women in this small sample, whose assets, apart from their household goods and other personal belongings, consisted entirely of bonds, bills, leases and unpaid rent or interest. Nine relied mainly on an income from houses and fifteen on an income from loans secured by bonds or bills. The business life of some of these widows could hardly have been simpler—just one piece of property or one bond representing virtually all their assets—such as that of Elizabeth
Dallender, who owned the lease of a property in Buckinghamshire worth £1200 and had total assets of £1250, or of Joanna Stratfold of Shoreditch, who had £168 'oweing on a bond' out of total assets of £173.
A similar pattern can be found in the inventories of widows in the records of the Court of Orphans, though there tended to be rather more businesswomen and rather fewer pure rentiers in this source. Nonetheless, the businesswomen conformed to type and nearly all engaged in 'women's' businesses, in those small businesses concerned with food and drink, textiles, clothing and pawnbroking, which were seen when the fire insurance records were analysed. There is, for example, Rebecca Heatley, whose 1670 inventory reveals a small shop with a wide range of ready-made clothing, such as stockings, drawers, frocks, shirts, shifts, aprons and petticoats; Mary Lee, a small tallow-chandler with thirty-seven dozen candles in stock; Grace Bartlett, who had kept on her husband's business as a poulterer and had sixty-nine chickens and nine ducks in her yard in St Andrew's, Holborn, and twelve rabbits, three pullets, three partridges and over 8000 rabbit skins in the shop within. Then, there were a dyer, a mercer and an upholsterer, silkwomen, haberdashers, hosiers, mealwomen, chandlers, distillers, coffee-shop- and dramshop-keepers, as well as two pawnbrokers, for one of whom an excellent inventory survives.
Anne Deacon, who died in 1675, kept her shop in Limehouse and in the list of goods in the garret and in 'the little roome below the garrett', were fifty-three small and not so small bundles of pawned goods, mostly bedding and clothing, odd assortments of goods bundled together to raise the wind, such as the 'pair of calico sheets, child's coat, calico shirt, tufted holland mantle, shirt, cap, piece of stuff, thimble, pillow and pillow-beer' that were valued at thirty shillings. Furniture and kitchen goods also found their way to Mrs Deacon's shop, as did a large number of rings. One can see a pattern here, similar to that of Victorian and Edwardian England, by which poor families acquired such goods as linen sheets, high-quality clothing and gold rings, which could be admired in times of prosperity and pawned in the times of austerity that would inevitably follow.
Other widows made a perhaps more respectable living by lending money to the prosperous or by renting out apartments
in the houses which they owned. Mary Greene drew £24 per annum in interest from a loan to John Dennett and Co., and she got a further £143 a year from the rents of two houses in Crane Court, Fleet Street, one of which was occupied by the Earl of Suffolk. Hester English drew a similar income from her investments, £135 in rents and over £50 in interest from bonds, bills and mortgages, her business affairs being managed in the traditional way by Mr Walton, a scrivener. These were good solid incomes, sufficient to live a respectable life as a middleclass widow and still accumulate for the sake of the children. Such incomes could be supplemented if need be by selling household skills. Many of these widows had a room in their house called 'the lodgeing roome' and such people often have an unpaid debt listed for the 'dyett' provided for their lodgers. There was also a wide range of other possibilities, apart from running a regular business. Margaret Holloway, for instance, was able to add to the £55 a year which she got from the rents of three houses in Crown Court, Threadneedle Street, by taking in laundry, £5 being owed to her at her death 'by Mrs Smith and severall other persons in small petty debts for washing'.
What can be said in summary about women in business? There certainly was a female presence in the London business world. The bankruptcy records suggest that possibly a third of all women of property ran a business and the fire insurance records indicate that these businesses were some 5 to 10 per cent of all businesses in London. They also show, however, that women concentrated very heavily on particular female types of business and that not many widows carried on their husband's business if it was not suitable to their sex. There were, however, many exceptions to this rule and the occasional woman can be found running practically every kind of business, as merchants, ironmongers, coopers, glaziers, even in the armaments industry, two women's fire insurance policies covering a saltpetre refinery and a sword cutler's business. Nevertheless, most women ran feminine businesses, not many of which were likely to lead to massive accumulation.
The other point that is obvious from this chapter is the enormous importance of women, particularly widows, in the London investment markets. Women must have owned a sizeable proportion of the London housing stock (or at least of
the long leases of that stock) and a woman as landlady must have been a common experience, many such women coupling their simple rent-taking function with the provision of meals, the washing of clothes, nursing and other similar services. Women, too, played a vital role in the provison of loan capital through the bond and mortgage markets, one man's accumulation of business capital being realized by his widow to provide another man with that vital loan which would enable him to build up his business in his turn. It is no wonder that people with such liquid assets should have been so sought after as marriage partners, since marriage enabled the new husband to acquire the assets without paying the 6 per cent interest, and of course to acquire an unpaid housekeeper into the bargain. These material considerations were important aspects of marriage but, as will be seen in the next chapter, there were other aspects, even love and romance, which have to be considered.