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‘A Banker’s Daughter’: The Challenge of a Familiar Source – Hazel Vosper

Is there a primary source that you inevitably reference in your work? When reading a new article or listening to a paper being presented do you anticipate the appearance of that familiar source? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are not alone. My research interests focus on women who invested in financial securities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I’m particularly interested in their experiences as female investors, and in who and what influenced their investment activities. Some of my research looks at the question of how women acquired financial knowledge, and that leads me to a familiar primary source. Historians with similar research interests have frequently made reference to a financial advice book published in 1863 entitled ‘Guide to the Unprotected in Matters Relating to Property and Income’.  The book was printed in a handy A5 size and was bound in red leather with gilt lettering. Perhaps its popularity with modern day researchers owes something to the writer’s eminently quotable style, for example: ‘Seldom consult ladies in business matters: they usually know little or nothing of business. It is much like the blind leading the blind’.[1] At the time it was published financial advice books were relatively common. What made this one more unusual, and which makes it somewhat compelling for historians, was that the author was a woman and its target readership was female.

The author styled herself ‘A Banker’s Daughter’. In real life, she was Emma Galton and her father had indeed been a banker (in Birmingham). Galton was related on her mother’s side to Charles Darwin, with whom she corresponded, and her youngest brother was the eugenicist Francis Galton. Following her father’s death, it was spinster Emma who managed the family finances, displaying an interest in money matters that presumably excluded her from her own accusation that women were ‘blind’ with regard to business. As well as practical advice on how to keep accounts and write cheques, her book contained investment advice. Galton assumed her female readers would only have a small amount of capital to invest and recommended that they should seek the safest possible investments for it. Galton’s advice was that an unprotected woman needed a man to help her manage her financial affairs. She counselled her readers to ‘Seek a sensible and upright Friend, who is a good man of business.’[2]

Guide to the Unprotected ran to seven editions with the last edition published in 1900 just four years before Emma Galton’s death. The fact it enjoyed multiple versions gives an indication of its success, with an 1891 Glasgow Herald review of the sixth edition commenting that the latest version was ‘a valuable testimony to the appreciation it has met.’[3]

Although Guide to the Unprotected has been frequently cited, it is usually the first or second version that appears in a bibliography. This somewhat selective referencing interested me and provided an opportunity to engage with a familiar and well-used source from an alternative perspective. How, I wondered, had the advice changed in the years between the first and last edition? The late Victorian period was one of social, economic and legal transformation which for some women enabled them to increasingly exercise a degree of financial agency. This transformation was brought about by, amongst other reasons: improved access to education for girls, which led to higher literacy and numeracy levels; more employment opportunities, especially for middle-class women; and the removal of restrictions on married women’s right to own property such as company shares or government bonds.

I anticipated that traces of these significant changes would be reflected in the pages of later editions, so I compared the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 7th editions of Guide to the Unprotected which was not an arduous task given each edition is only about a hundred pages long. The British Library holds three editions and various editions can also be found in online digital libraries. At the conclusion of my reading exercise, it came as somewhat of a surprise to discover that there was very little difference even though new editions always informed its readers that it was a ‘Revised Version’. In later versions there is a one-page section that refers to the ‘great change’ that resulted from the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 which the author simply summarised as meaning that a wife’s money no longer belonged to her husband. Later editions also included limited updates to reflect the growing variety of securities available to investors. Otherwise, the final edition in 1900 is remarkably similar to the first edition in 1863. The advice remained the same, but it seems unlikely that the needs and attitudes of many of the potential female readers were similarly unchanged.

The exercise was not wasted though, quite the opposite. Although the focus of research is often on the explanation for, and impact of, change, in this case the value was in thinking about the fact that there had been so little change. I sought out comparable financial advice for women from the period and found that ‘A Banker’s Daughter’ was representative of a certain discourse on women and their dependency on male financial guidance. This narrative  could be found in advice books and newspaper articles well into the early twentieth century. However, I also discovered an alternative discourse that was much more aligned with the wider social and legal changes of the period which emphasised women’s capability to act on their own behalf albeit constrained by a lack of financial knowledge. Here the advice was not for women to find a male advisor but rather for women to educate themselves in money matters with alternative advice books providing the requisite information to help them do so. It was the narrative of (constrained) capability that was on the ascendancy, as were the number of female investors, in the Edwardian period.

From the perspective of a researcher, my conclusion is that even familiar sources can offer new insights and that stasis can sometimes be as interesting to investigate as change.

[1] A ‘Banker’s Daughter’. Guide to the Unprotected in Everyday Matters Relating to Property and Income. 7th ed. London: Macmillan & Co, 1900, pgs. 5, 106.

[2] Forrest, D.W. Francis Galton: The Life and Work of a Victorian Genius. London: Elek, 1974, pgs. 107-9.

[3] Glasgow Herald. ‘Literature (Book Review of “A Guide to the Unprotected” 6th Ed. by A Banker’s Daughter)’, 24 September 1891, pg. 4.


Hazel Vosper is a PhD researcher in the History Department at Lancaster University. Her research is focused on the experiences of female investors in financial securities covering the period 1850 to 1914 in England.