Skip to content

Women of substance

Updated Wednesday, 25th January 2006

Rich women are not a modern phenomenon. In the 19th century there were hundreds of thousands of women of ‘rank and property’. Discover the secrets of their success.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

The Money Programme ‘Filthy Rich and Female’ has brought to our notice the surprising number of female millionaires, women such as the author J.K. Rowling, Anita Roddick of Body Shop, and Martha Lane Fax of These women have earned their money in business, often making their millions, like men, when the business they founded was floated on the stock market or sold to a large company.

But starting a business is not the only way to become rich. Women can also acquire wealth through marriage or inheritance, as the shipping heiress Christina Onassis and the Queen of England are aware. In the past, when middle and upper class women did not ‘dirty their hands’ with what was called, disparagingly, ‘trade’, inheritance was the primary means of becoming rich.

A detail from a twenty pound note Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Alan Mather |

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?

Whether you're male or female, get your money in order: Discover The Open University course You and your money: personal finance in context

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.

"a fall in income could mean a calamitous drop in social status"

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?

Further Reading

'Frank must marry money: men, women and property in Trollope’s novels'
presented at the Cork Conference on Money and Culture, May 2005
Janette Rutterford and Josephine Maltby

'“The Widow, the Clergyman and the Reckless”: Women Investors in England, 1830 to 1914’
Feminist Economics, Special Issue on Women and Wealth
Janette Rutterford and Josephine Maltby

Gentlewomanly capitalism: widows and wealth holding in England and Wales, c. 1800-1860
Economic History Review
David Green and Alastair Owens




Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?