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Reviewed by:
  • Men,Women and Property in England, 1780–1870
  • Albert J. Schmidt
Men,Women and Property in England, 1780–1870. By R. J. Morris ( Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv plus 445 pp. £55, $95.00).

This work by Morris, a highly respected social/economic and urban historian at the University of Edinburgh, is heralded as "an innovative study of middle class behavior and property relations in English towns in Georgian and Victorian Britain." The book, moreover, "offers a new reading of ways in which middle class families survived and surmounted the economic difficulty of early industrial society" (cover jacket blurb).

The means, really strategies, which the merchant and industrial elite of Leeds (the author does not include practitioners in the professions) employed to preserve their assets are at once the focal point of the book and the author's signal achievement. In effect, survival strategies were devised at a time when financial institutions offered insufficient safeguards in coping with recurring financial crises and when illness or disease not infrequently cut down family entrepreneurs in their prime.

Although Morris' methodology—his concentration on Leeds' families from the 1820s to the 1860s—advertizes this work as one of social and economic microhistory, his interpolations from this localized analysis illumine middle class behavior on a macro stage. The author's presentation is in the form of fascinating vignettes of Leeds' affluent personages—distilled from wills, property deeds, account books, diaries, and letters. These 'stories' reveal how the lives of the privileged were "embedded in a network of family relationships" quite inseparable from their properties.

This linkage, which the author calls "central to eighteenth and nineteenth society" (p. 75), is superbly articulated in his notion of a property cycle (ch. 4), which is repeated and even embellished in the conclusion (ch. 10). Contending that the cycle incorporates an essential entrepreneurial dimension which defines early Victorian middle class behavior in property terms, Morris spells out the [End Page 218] strategy as one which evolved chronologically from a quest for high risk/high yield property by youthful venture capitalists to that settled upon by passive and likely aging rentier capitalists content with low yields derived from secure pensions, loans, government stock, and utilities.

This bare bones chronicle is but the half of it, the other being the causes of and remedies to diminish nineteenth-century propertied Britons' anxieties. In treating the most worrisome of these—insolvency, unexpected death, a blemished reputation—Morris believes that the most promising survival strategy lay with the networked family as "the only effective agency through which the individual decision taker could spread risk" (p. 370). This family was inevitably multi-faceted—widows and children, to be sure, but also aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and perhaps others. The unique feature which made this family network effective was the so-called gift network, really a sub-network, which solidified family relations through exchanges of material goods, visits, loans, and various kinds of mutual support. It was assumed that in times of stress or distress the family, governed by bonds of kinship and self interest, could and would insure that the property cycle's being kept in good running order. Morris' carefully drawn portraits of the Leeds mercantile and industrial elite, his masterful treatment of their family and property cycles, and his unraveling of family networks derived from these vignettes—all of these serve as correctives to whatever in this text that might appear amorphous.

Other aspects of this work which bear on the property relations described above include the author's treatment of wills (ch. 3), the urban landscape (ch. 5), and women and trusts (chs. 6 and 7), of course, also relate critically to the cycle and its coping strategies. Morris' remarks about the Leeds built environment—one which according to the author was increasing in size, density, and complexity—is testimony indeed to the linkage between the physical attributes of the urban landscape and middle class property strategies. Nor is the female role in family property strategies denigrated: rather than dwell on women's proverbial subordination in property matters, Morris highlights the importance of women in the family network, notably their participation in the property...


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pp. 218-219
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