Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830 By Dr Briony McDonagh Winner of the 2018 Women’s History Network Book Prize

In this post we hear from the 2018 WHN book prize winner, Dr. Briony McDonagh about her monograph: Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830.

The book and the related research project emerged out of a realisation that there was shockingly little written about the women who owned and improved large landed estates. Whenever one visited a country house or picked up a book on the aristocracy, one learnt lots about the male landowners who pushed forward parliamentary enclosure and agricultural improvement on their estates. But nothing about female landowners and farmers and their contributions to landscape change. Social and economic histories of the long eighteenth century too had largely ignored women as a class of landowners and improvers. And what little had been written suggested women managed landed estates only in exceptional circumstances.

Yet years working with the papers and correspondence produced in managing landed estates – and now stored in various UK archives – had revealed a different story. I’d found brilliant examples of aristocratic and gentle women who owned, managed and improved country houses, parklands and associated agricultural landscapes. And, I believed, it was a story worth telling both in the houses and landscapes themselves – for example in guidebooks and interpretation boards – and in a book.

Drawing on examples from across Georgian England, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830 offers a detailed study of elite women’s relationships with landed property, specifically as they were mediated through the lens of their estate management and improvement. It provides an explicitly feminist historical geography of the eighteenth-century English rural landscape, addressing important questions about:

  1. The scale of women’s landownership
  2. The role played by single, married and widowed women in the management and improvement of landed estates
  3. The ways gendered mattered to these women’s experiences of improving the landscape. It thus addresses important questions about propertied women’s role in English rural communities, whilst contributing to wider cultural debates about women’s place in the environmental, social and economic history of Britain.

As I demonstrated in the book, women owned roughly 10 per cent of land included in a large sample of parliamentary enclosure awards (a useful source to assess women’s landownership but one that had not been previously used in this way). Women were always a minority of landowners, but a significant one nonetheless. These female landowners were drawn from across the social scale, from widows owning cottages to wealthy aristocratic women owning tens of thousands of acres. And they came to own land in a variety of different ways: not only inheriting as heiresses and being provided for as widows, but also via purchases and litigation, and even as wives. Given the existence of coverture, married women could not easily own property but many made provision via ‘separate estate’ or managed property on behalf of absent or incapacitated sons, husbands or fathers. Put simply, female landowners were far from the ‘rarity’ other historians had previously assumed them to be.

Not all female landowners directly involved in managing their properties, but many were active and dedicated managers and improvers of landed estates. As the more than 70 case studies featured in the book show, many women offered careful supervision of estate business and tight control of decision-making. Some kept the estate ledgers themselves, while others were involved in the more hands on aspects of estate management, negotiating with tenants about rent, arrears, tenancy agreements and repairs, carefully managing timber resources, overseeing the home farm and sometimes – as in the case of Mary Clarke of Chipley, Somerset – acting as the farm bailiff. Even women geographically distant from the estate might retain tight control over estate policy via the detailed correspondences they maintained with stewards and agents. These women knew their properties intimately, and were often also actively involved in improving their estates, whether that was achieved by promoting enclosure or drainage bills, introducing agricultural improvements to the home farm or subsidizing the costs of hedging, draining and other improvements on the tenant farms. In doing so, they made important contributions to the remaking of the English landscape at a time of considerable social, economic and environmental change.

Yet this is not to suggest that propertied women’s experiences of landownership and estate management were directly analogous to those of their male landowning peers. Rather, gender mattered in the ownership, management and improvement of landed estates. Female estate-managers were disadvantaged not only by their rights under the law, but also by assumptions about the gendered nature of knowledge and expertise, by their education and upbringing, by their shoes and clothing, and by expectations of appropriate female behaviour. Thus the stories told here of aristocratic and gentle women’s agency in managing and improving landed estates are always balanced against those examples of women for whom the legal framework, gendered expectations and individual circumstances combined to frustrate their ambitions. Moreover, just as there were also distinctions and differences in the way male landowners approached the task of estate management, so too the empirical evidence underlines the huge diversity of experience amongst estate-owning women. Age, maternity, personal aptitude and previous experience all impacted on women’s enthusiasm and willingness  to take on estate management and improvement, as they did also on how successful or otherwise they were as managers and improvers. Yet while no one woman was entirely representative of propertied women’s experiences as landowners, estate managers and improvers more generally, taken together their stories map out the possibilities and opportunities for women, as well as some of the frustrations.

What next?

In Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, I was determined to recognise the contributions of those other than upper class men, to highlight the role played by the wives, daughters and mothers of wealthy, landowning men. I focused on the female owners of large and medium-sized agrarian estates, though there were others too who helped to shape the landscape. These included men and women below the level of the gentry whose collective actions and individual agency had material impacts on the landscape as we see it today. As such, I envisaged the book as standing testament to a wider project to uncover alternative historical geographies of the British landscape which recognise the contribution of those – including women and the poor – so often written out of existing histories.

Yet in celebrating these subjects of the book I was keen to stress that they were hugely wealthy in comparison to most of the population of early modern England, and as such privileged by their class and family connections if not by their gender. In pointing to women’s achievements as landowners and improvers, we must recognise too that their activities and decisions had potentially disastrous consequences for others further down the social hierarchy, including other women.

So in thinking about what I wanted to do next, I knew I wanted to work on the contributions to landscape change made by those below the aristocracy and gentry – and specifically non-elite women. I’ve been lucky enough to win a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship for a project on Gendering the Early Modern Commons. As I said in the funding application, ‘whilst scholars recognise that commons were never public spaces open to all, the existing literature is remarkably gender-blind. Women’s experiences of commons and enclosure have been unproblematically equated with men’s, even whilst we know that gender shaped early modern women’s lives in important ways’. So for the next few years, I’ll be working on this new project, aiming to write a new feminist historical geography of the landscape, critically examining – for the first time – the implications of gender for the early modern commons. Watch this space for the new book in a few years’ time!

Want to know more?

Those that would like to know more can read an extended review of Elite Women here: https://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/2288. Or the book is available now in hardback and ebook, and in paperback from March 2019: https://www.routledge.com/Elite-Women-and-the-Agricultural-Landscape-17001830/McDonagh/p/book/9781409456025

Biography

Briony McDonagh is a historical geographer and early modern historian at the University of Hull, UK. She has published widely on the medieval and early modern British landscape, on women’s histories, and on the historical geographies of enclosure, property, protest and the law. Her book, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830 (Routledge, 2017), won the Joan Thirsk Memorial Prize and Women’s History Network Book Prize. She is co-editor of Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500 (Palgrave, 2018) and Hull: Culture, History, Place (LUP, 2017). Briony is Chair of the Historical Geography Research Group, co-editor of Historical Geography (University of Nebraska Press) and 2019 President of the British Science Association’s Geography Section.

Funding acknowledgement

The Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape project was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (2010-2014) and an Arts and Humanities Research Council Early Career Fellowship (2014-2015). Gendering the Early Modern Commons is sponsored by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (2019-2020).