Gender Place and Memory 1400-1900

Welcome to the website of the Gender, Place and Memory Research Cluster, based at the University of Hull. Starting in September 2016, members of the Cluster including senior academics, post-doctoral researchers, and doctoral students will be working on various projects examining women’s property and material culture; women and the law; gender and emotional attachment to land, landscape and environment.

Keep up-to-date with our discoveries by reading our blog, and following our Twitter feed.


Women’s History Network book prize



Dr Briony McDonagh was awarded the 2018 Women’s History Network Book Prize for the best first book in women’s history or gender history for Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1760-1830. The prize was awarded at the Women’s History Network annual conference in August 2018.


The blog below is re-posted from a Women’s History Network blog post of February 2019.

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

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).

Two Widows in the Court of Exchequer: Isabel Parkinson v Frances Parkinson

What was the legal solution when two widows presented identical claims to a large portion of land and a property? And, what if both of their claims were supported by the wills of their deceased husbands?

The Court of Exchequer is most commonly known as a financial department of medieval and early modern English government. Yet, it also heard equity cases across the early modern period. Despite being a smaller alternative to the Court of Chancery, it drew a wide range of cases and, like Chancery, was often used strategically to counter-sue. Whilst Exchequer court records have been referenced in research that considers equity courts and women’s experience of the law, few histories are available that consider the equity side of the Exchequer specifically and none offer a focused exploration of women’s use of the court.

Parkinson of Fairsnape crest. Gules on a cheveron between three ostrich feathers argent as many mullets sable
Parkinson of Fairsnape crest. Source: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol7/pp141-142

In 1659 Isabel Parkinson filed a suit in Exchequer against her mother-in-law Frances Parkinson, in retaliation to a suit in the Court of Common Pleas. The dispute centred on three large portions of land spread across parts of Lancashire in Fairsnape, Bleasdale and Blindhurst as well as a property in Heysham. Frances’ husband, Robert Parkinson, had died eighteen years earlier and, in lieu of Frances’ dower, had left her the land and property in Heysham to be used for the remainder of her life. Their son, George Parkinson (who died two years before the suit was taken to Exchequer) left his wife Isabel the same land and property in his will, in lieu of her dower.

Taking the accounts of Isabel and Frances together, an interesting story is revealed. Following Robert’s death in 1641, Frances moved into the property in Heysham, which his will stated was for her use until she died. Isabel argued that Frances had accepted this land and property as her dower in full, which Frances denied. In February 1651, Frances leased the same land and property to Robert Lords and William Clifton, taking a yearly rent of £20. It was during this time that George Parkinson, Frances’ son and the executor of his father’s will, married Isabel. In 1656 George sold his inherited land and property in Bleasdale to Thomas Blackburne, Isabel’s father. Whilst Isabel stated that her mother-in-law agreed to this sale, Frances denied this. She laid claim to the lands and took out two writs of dower against Isabel and her father at the Assizes in 1658.

Frances’ Answer and corresponding depositions largely focus on the dishonesty of Isabel’s claims and the deceitful practice of her son George. According to Frances and a number of witnesses, George had visited Frances at her property in Goosnargh a month before his death and asked to borrow her lease to the property and the lands in Heysham. Frances had agreed to this and George had assured her that he would return the lease within the week. Witnesses confirmed that he did not return it, and when Frances demanded that he do, he told her that:

‘it was then in his trunk at home safely locked up and that he had then forgot it but the next time he came he would bring it her or send it within a week’s time…about a fortnight after the said George Parkinson died’.[1]

Whilst Isabel claimed that Frances was aware and supportive of all decisions made regarding the inherited land and property of Robert Parkinson, the main focus of her claim was on the character and behaviour of her mother-in-law, specifically in regard to her use of the land and property left to her. Whilst one witness recalled Frances saying that the collection of the rent was all she had, Isabel and many more witnesses recounted how she had greedily claimed that she would take as much as she could:

‘it was true she had enjoyed or taken the said profits of the said tenement since her husband’s death and that she intended to have it during the continuance of the lease if so long she lived but although she had received the profits of that she would have more if she could get it’.[2]

Ultimately, the court gave credence to Isabel’s account of a greedy widow who had incurred large legal fees for both parties across numerous jurisdictions, laid claim to land and property that she had no right to, as well as unfairly and in an unequitable manner, enjoyed the profits, rent and use of the land and property in Heysham. Frances was ordered to pay £179 and 1 shilling to Isabel for damages and anguish, or to repay the profits that she had taken from Heysham since she had started taking rent in 1651.[3]

This case is not only a testament to the richness of Exchequer court narratives, but more broadly it is indicative of the value of exploring the voices behind litigation. Narratives such as these reveal the multifaceted nature of litigation, as well the strategies employed by a combination of women and their legal counsel to fight for their rights in English equity law.

By Alice Whiteoak: PhD Student at the University of Hull and member of the Gender Place and Memory Research Cluster. You can follow her on twitter here and read more about her research here.

[1] The National Archives (TNA) E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the defendant, Jane Sager wife of Robert Sager of Goosnargh, aged 30.

[2] TNA E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the plaintiff, Thomas Mather of Warring, yeoman aged 27.

[3] TNA E126/8: Lancashire, 16th July 1659, Isabel Parkinson v Frances Parkinson.


Estate management during the Civil Wars: the case of Margaret Roper

The Gender Place and Memory research cluster hosts a team of researchers whose ongoing work is establishing how significant women were as managers of households and estates. From litigating for property and overseeing inheritance, to handling accounts and collecting household objects, women could play an integral role in the development and maintenance of property and land. What happened, however, when that estate was thrown into chaos by the events of the Civil Wars? This blog will explore the case of one woman, Margaret Roper, to see how she managed her estate during this turbulent period.

Section of an order from the Kent Sequestration Committee (TNA, SP 28/210/142)

The Ropers of Kent (descendants of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret Roper) were known to be recusants and, as such, they were presented to the Quarter Sessions for not attending their local church during the 1630s.[1] In 1641, with divisions between Parliament and King growing, Parliament passed an Ordinance requiring the houses of recusants to be searched for arms. As a result of this search ‘several Chests or Trunks of the Length of a Musket, of a very great Weight, wherein it is conceived, are Arms and Ammunition’ were found in the house of Anthony Roper, Margaret Roper’s husband.[2] His lands were confiscated by Parliament, according to their policy of sequestering the estates of their enemies, and when he died the following year his widow Margaret was unable to access any part of his estate.

The confiscation of the Roper estate meant that local Parliamentary sequestration committeemen became responsible for collecting the rents from tenants and disbursing any money on estate repairs. So, not only was Margaret unable to collect the profits from the lands but the management of them was placed in the hands of local agents. This was bad news for Margaret’s estate. One of her tenants, John Menvill, asked the local sequestration committeeman if he could be abated his rents ‘owing to the barrenness of them’.[3] The account books of the sequestration committee show that her estate went from receiving 308li from tenants in 1646 to 119li in 1649 (from, roughly, £23,000 to £9,000 in modern money).[4] Furthermore, Margaret’s own house had fallen into disrepair and she needed 20li to repair it.[5]

The Roper Gate
Plaque that marks the location of The Roper Gate in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, Kent: the only remaining section of the Roper family house

Despite what her estate suffered as a consequence of the wars, Margaret was proactive in trying to achieve the best for herself and her family’s property. She joined numerous other widows in petitioning the central Parliamentary Committee to ask to pay a fine to regain her lands (although unfortunately that petition does not survive).[6] Furthermore, while Parliamentary agents should have been receiving the profits from Margaret’s property, they discovered in 1647 that she had been collecting rents from the entire estate.[7] Additionally, Margaret succeeded in obtaining money to repair her home in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, after her cousin Henry Roper wrote personally to a local Parliamentary agent to ask him to intervene on Margaret’s behalf.[8]

Margaret utilised her family connections, and even disregarded the confiscation order on her estates for a time, in order to maintain her estates during the Civil Wars. There is little doubt that the 1640s and 1650s were a challenging time for landowners. In addition to sequestration, the billeting of soldiers on people’s property and the plunder enacted by roaming armies all took their toll on civilians who managed land. Nevertheless, during this turbulent and chaotic period women remained vital as managers and defenders of estates for themselves and for future generations.

Post by Hannah Worthen, PDRA for the Gender Place and Memory research cluster. Follow her on twitter here and read more about her research here.

All images are author’s own

[1] Kent History and Library Centre, Presentment Roll, Q/SRp/1/m.1v.

[2] ‘House of Commons Journal Volume 2: 12 January 1642’, in Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 2, 1640-1643 (London, 1802), pp. 371-375.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), SP 28/210/160.

[4] TNA, SP 28/210/3; SP 28/210/12. Conversion made using The National Archive’s Currency Converter: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/

[5] TNA, SP 28/210/161.

[6] TNA, SP 23/3, p. 110.

[7] TNA, SP 28/210/159.

[8] TNA, SP 28/210/161, 162.


Women, Dollhouses and the Possession of Space

This Boxing Day, the BBC will be screening a dramatization of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist, a fictionalised story based on Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse. Oortman’s dollhouse, now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is beautiful, elaborate and enormous. It represents a wider trend for women to have, create and curate dollhouses in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Netherlands. These were much in the same mode of activity and thinking as their male counterparts compiling their cabinets of curiosity; but for women, the dollhouse represented an educational and aspirational tool where they could build their own world, a microcosm of the domestic sphere which they could control.

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman (c. 1686-1710)

Dollhouses are fascinating: today seen as a toy, what the dollhouse meant for early modern women was highly different. Women exercised ownership and their own aesthetic values in building their own houses on a small scale, spending considerable amounts commissioning artwork and furniture from key manufacturers and artists. It constituted an educational space where women, and younger girls, could role play at being a mistress of a household, whilst also engaging with contemporary fashion for scientific collections and a burgeoning market for luxury goods.[1] Indeed, Oortman’s house was rumoured to have cost as much as a real house on a canal in Amsterdam.[2] Yet they were not all about confining women to the domestic sphere. As Susan Broomhall points out, whilst at first glance dollhouses appear to indicate the limitations of their ambition, it cannot be ignored that women were engaged in making, collecting, leisure and cementing relationships through the medium of the dollhouse.

Although dollhouses are often viewed as a highly gendered object, and clearly had a specific meaning for women during this period, they could be owned by men too. For example, Albrecht V of Bavaria ordered a cabinet house in 1558, which was to go alongside his collection of five miniature towns. Life in miniature could be a curiosity to explore for both genders.[3] Dollhouses also took on a distinctively gendered identity through their inheritance, particularly in the Dutch case, passed down the matrilineal line. This encouraged female relatives to maintain the control, decoration and curation of domestic space in their own ideal image.

It is not only the Dutch who were fascinated by dollhouses. Indeed, the National Trust has a site dedicated to some of their dollhouse highlights, including a beautiful eighteenth century dollhouse at Uppark, and Beatrix Potter’s dollhouse at Hill Top, where she imagined her famous tales. Perhaps the most famous dollhouse in England is that belonging to Queen Mary, built for her by Sir Edward Lutyens, between 1921 and 1924. By commissioning a house from a leading architect, it shows no expense was spared, and it was to be as true to life as possible to encapsulate Queen Mary’s ideal home. Perhaps the most charming aspect are the two hundred books in the library, penned exclusively by famous authors of the day. Dollhouses were a place to showcase wealth, control and the exercising of excellent taste.

Lizzie Rogers, PhD Student, University of Hull

[1] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, Parergon 24:2 (2007), 50-55.

[2] Rijksmuseum, Dolls’ Houses. Available online: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/works-of-art/dolls-houses [Accessed 14.12.17].

[3] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, 51-52.


Image: Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman , wikimedia.


Pre-marital contracts: A study through history

Most people are familiar with the concept of a pre-nuptial agreement. The media is rife with salacious stories of celebrities whose marriage breakdowns are eased by the existence of a pre-nuptial agreement, and those who are drawn in to lengthy and costly proceedings over the lack of one. High profile cases, such as the 2016 divorces of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, spark debate and breed speculation whether a breakdown of marriage is anticipated by entering in to such agreements. Either way, these agreements appear relevant only to the rich and famous.

stormm blog
Married To An Old Maid — A Rake’s Progress series, by William Hogarth

It may perhaps be surprising therefore for readers to learn that marriage settlements (or a pre-nuptial agreement in modern parlance) were used far more widely in the early modern period than they are today, nor were they something only used by the wealthy. Planning for life beyond a parties’ marriage was not an uncommon feature of marriage preparation and negotiation in the early modern period. Families often wished to protect their daughter’s property from being absorbed into their son-in-law’s family. Many were concerned to ensure that their daughter’s husbands could not ‘kiss or kick’ from her property which would have reverted to her (and thus her natal family) upon her husband’s death.[1]

As such, many families began from the mid seventeenth century onwards to use trusts in order to secure a wife’s separate property. This usually gave her access to income but also protected the realty and personal capital from harm; most importantly, such trusts could be (and were) enforced through the law of equity.

One example of how trusts functioned is demonstrated through the life of a widow named Catherine Langwith. Catherine sought to protect her assets when embarking on her marriage to her second husband, the Reverend Robert Younge in 1782. In the settlement, Catherine secured £20 per annum for her own separate use. During their short and difficult marriage, Younge attempted to assign some marital property away, but was rebuffed by lawyers, who advised him that without her agreement, or a court order, he could not dispose of property against which Catherine’s separate estate was secured.[2] After four years of marriage, the parties entered in to a separation agreement, once more protecting Catherine’s assets from her husband. Catherine continued to demonstrate financial shrewdness when she corresponded with her cousin after the death of her estranged husband, determining that she would seek to recover all she could, ruminating that “we had better take the very Best Counsil opinion upon it.”[3]

The existence and implementation of marriage settlements has bred debate amongst historians, particularly as to whether they benefited women. Scholars such as Lloyd Bonfield and Amy Louise Erickson argued that settlements represented a shift towards greater equality[4] and gave women ‘more power over property than previously allowed.’[5] By contrast, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall suggested that trusts removed women’s independent economic agency over their estates and subsequently female access to the marketplace.[6]

It is these and other debates which inform my doctoral research. Over the next few years of my PhD research, I will be exploring women’s agency within early modern pre-marriage agreements, focusing in particular on the question of whether women had greater autonomy over their property than the letter of the law suggests. As is clear from the case of Catherine Langwith, even though trusts may have been set up to protect against overbearing husbands, many women were pro-active in using settlements for their own ends. Catherine would have been secure in the knowledge that such settlements were enforceable in equity. Today, a pre-nuptial agreement is only one factor that English courts will take in to account when deciding a disputed case. One reason given for this is that women may be pressurised into accepting an arrangement that is not in her best interests. As with Catherine Langwith, many eighteenth-century women were using legal devices with aplomb; perhaps the courts of today could reflect on these advantages.

In other words, examining the marriage settlements of the past may inform how we view pre-marriage arrangements of the future. In realising the extent to which pre-marriage settlements were used by a broad range of people in the early modern period, it may allow us to re-evaluate the benefit of using them now. This may also lead us to accept them as a feature of our everyday lives, rather than leaving us to uncomfortably peer and wonder at the private lives of the rich and famous.

Stormm Buxton-Hill, PhD Candidate, University of Hull

Image: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

[1] Courtney Stanhope Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the Effects of Marriage on Property and on the Wife’s Legal Capacity (London: Reeves and Turner, 1879), p.204.

[2] UDDDU/21/25

[3] UDDDU/20/9

[4] Lloyd Bonfield, Marriage settlements, 1660-1740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 120

[5] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1995), p.19;

[6] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 209-11

*CALL FOR PAPERS* Women’s Negotiations of Space, 1500-1900

cfp logoWelcome to the ‘Women’s Negotiations of Space, 1500-1900’ conference, to be held at the University of Hull on Thursday January 18th 2018. This one-day conference, organised by PhD students from the Gender, Place and Memory Research Cluster, is generously supported by the Women’s History Network Small Grants Postgraduate Scheme and the University of Hull Graduate School. We aim to bring together scholars, early career researchers and postgraduate researchers working on all aspects of women’s spatial histories between 1500-1900.

Contact us at womensspace18@outlook.com

Follow us at @womensspace18 and @Women_and_Land

CFP 2Abraham Bosse, Salon de dames, 17th century.


Date: Thursday 18th January 2018 (9.30am to 5pm, to be followed by a wine reception and conference dinner)

Location: University of Hull

Keynote Speakers: Dr Ruth Larsen (University of Derby) and Dr Nicola Whyte (University of Exeter)

Doreen Massey argued that ‘particular ways of thinking about space and place are tied up with, both directly and indirectly, particular social constructions of gender relations.’[1] This conference will investigate how women have used their agency to negotiate gender constructions in space-time; and the ways in which women’s agency has been curtailed through constructed spatial limitations.

Due to generous funding from the Women’s History Network and the University of Hull Graduate School, we are able to offer a number of small travel or accommodation bursaries to PG students and ECRs. Details will be available shortly.

Possible themes include, but are not limited to, women’s roles and experiences in:

  • Mobility and travel across space and life-cycles
  • Domestic spaces and families
  • Working and professional spaces
  • Negotiations in legal spaces and engagement with the law
  • Experiences of property ownership and relationships with property
  • Agriculture, estate and land management
  • Movements and impact on political spaces
  • Social spaces and networks
  • Building, renovating, and managing country houses and estates
  • Geographical, social and familial networks of and between women
  • Women’s histories in heritage spaces and public history: reflections and methodologies

Please send an abstract of up to 350 words for 15 minute papers, including a short biography, to the conference organisers at: womensspace18@outlook.com by 30th September 2017.

Organisers: Stormm Buxton-Hill, Helen Manning, Lizzie Rogers, Sarah Shields, Alice Whiteoak.

[1] Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994), p. 2.

‘I will be mistress of my own’: newly-widowed women in the Georgian elites.

In series two of BBC’s Poldark, the death of Francis Poldark left his wife Elizabeth a young
widow and guardian of their son who was heir to the estates. As guardian Elizabeth became the overseer of the Poldark estates and mines, and in episode 8 she expresses her frustrations at her new responsibilities:


Poldark: Series 2, Episode 8: BBC

I’m at my wits’ end with Tabb. He contradicts everything I say – as if he thinks he is master here now. And now these letters have come – all these questions which apparently only I can answer: a tithe of one pound, six shillings on the seines of certain fishing boats in Sawle. Should the fishermen be pressed for money? I don’t know? Should they? Can I afford not to press them? Whose need is greater?

Elite Georgian widows often found themselves with new responsibilities upon the deaths of their husbands. Some, like Elizabeth, were reluctant managers. Martha Baker of Penn in Buckinghamshire was widowed in 1727 after 41 years of marriage and 17 children. She wrote to her brother in 1728 that ‘before [her husband’s death] I was not concern’d with these affairs & indeed never liked it’. Despite this, Martha sought advice in aspects of estate management and became an efficient and capable businesswoman for the rest of her life, and even managed her son’s estates when he was ill or absent. Martha, like Elizabeth, was keen to assert that she had the ultimate authority in regards to the property and estate and not stewards such as Tabb, or, in Martha’s case, her interfering son. When her son Dan went behind her back to cut and sell wood on one of her jointure estates, Martha demanded the process be stopped until she was in agreement, writing to her brother Joseph Mellish that ‘while I live I will be mistress of my own’.

Likewise, Lady Anne Cust of Grantham in Lincolnshire was widowed in 1734 and had nine minor children’s property and fortunes to manage as well as her own jointure estates. She quickly took advice as to how to keep efficient accounts and was respected as a landowner and estate manager in her own right. Not only was Lady Anne a custodian of her children’s property but she invested in new land and increased their assets. Her business acumen extended well into old-age. In a letter to her grandson in 1771 when she was 77 years old, Lady Anne wrote ‘I wish you may bye, both the estate at Normanton & Barkston & if you have not money now to do it, I will readely sell out of the Funds to assist you’.

Other women were not so fortunate as to be ‘mistress of their own’ when their husbands died. Widows with no children were often expected to make way for the (usually male) heir and set up a new, smaller establishment for themselves in a town or ‘retired place’. While widowhood meant the loss of status and estates for some women, for others it was a time when they flourished in their new roles as estate managers. It was certainly not unusual for widowed women to take control of property and estates, nor, as seen from the examples above, was it frowned upon. Newly-widowed women could be encouraged by brothers, lawyers, and stewards to maintain and increase their assets by becoming capable and efficient managers in their own right.

Sarah Shields, PhD Candidate, University of Hull

Making memory, crafting reform: the ballads of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk

Ballads and folk songs have a long and diverse history in Europe and they continue to be used as a means of raising awareness about political and social issues around the world. Designed to be sung to simple formulaic tunes and phasing, balladry is a flexible art form that can easily be committed to memory. This lends ballads an inherent social dimension in keeping with and testimony to their historically important place in popular social movements.

The Ballad of Anne Askew

During the late medieval and early modern period, and especially with the advent of print culture, the potential for the wider dissemination of ballads grew and ballads eventually made their way onto broadsheets. For the religious reformers of the sixteenth century, the broadside ballad was an important device for galvanising communities and cultivating popular support, since the ballad, as an innovative form of anthem or hymn, could work with the popular imagination, and, as research in the history of emotions has shown, was readily responsive to the emotional regimes current in the cultural milieu.[1] The ballads of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk are two very good examples of ballads that manipulate emotional conventions and invert expectations of gender, artfully invoking issues of place and memory in order to present a compelling and rousing popular history.

Anne Askew (ca. 1521-1546) was condemned as a heretic Protestant divorcee during the reign of Henry VIII. In the ‘Ballad of Anne Askew’, Anne, a self-cast authoress of reformed spiritual practice, moulds her prison cell and the ballad she performs into platforms for protest and instruction. In her ballad, Anne rejects and condemns out-dated and corrupt rituals and performances of penance, framing the story of her imprisonment in a lament for a much longed for garden – suggesting a new Eden. Working in dialogue with echoes of the written Word of God in Scripture, Anne reinvigorates the instructive power of the written word for a new age, making the history of her persecution in its ballad form complement the ‘new learning’ so feared by the establishment and so fundamental to the Protestant Reformist movement of the fifteenth century.

Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk

The broadside ballad also proved to be a fitting devise for cementing the legacy of another female religious reformer of the Early Modern era: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk (1519-1580). Katherine was an important patron of Protestant culture during the reign of Edward VI. However, when the crown passed to Queen Mary in 1553 and the primacy of Roman Catholicism was reinstalled, Katherine was placed in a dangerous position. Katherine fled to the continent with her family and servants. The family’s exile was made famous in the ballad of The Duchess of Suffolkes Calamite, a ballad which retained its popularity well into the eighteenth century, demonstrating the efficacy of the ballad form as a means of crafting and fixing commemoration of a protest figure. In the Duchess’s ballad, in ways resonant to those in the ‘Ballad of Anne Askew’, moments of implied literary and religio-historical parallelization operate as nexuses capable of integrating the reader (with his/her own storehouse of emotional memories and iconic exempla) into the ballad’s story. Thus, the ballad becomes a site for establishing a community bound by cultural memory.

Broadside ballads are complex multi-media devices for spreading news and ideas and for disseminating tools in the form of stories and histories vital to social and political movements. In the case of the histories of Anne Askew and the Duchess of Suffolk, their ballads were a means of presenting female figures of reform and resistance in ways that invoked the shared emotions, memories and cultural histories of readers so that these figures of resistance were aligned with the socially integrated currency and gendered agency of past icons and instigators of reform. In the face of political and religious strife, broadside ballads and ballad culture offered its audiences roles in the making of the reform by enabling readers and singers to participate in moments of memorialization, and in so doing, to become agents of protest and change.

Dr Sarah McKeon, Academic Coordinator Heritage Consortium, University of Hull

[1] See Sandra Garridos and Jane Davidson, ‘Emotional Regimes Reflected in a Popular Ballad: Perspectives on Gender, Love and Protest in ‘Scarborough Fair’, Musicology Australia, 38.1 (2016), 65-78.


Image of The Ballad of Anne Askew: A ballad of Anne Askew, intituled: I am a woman poore and blind, 1624. Tract Supplement / A3:3[57], Bib name / number: STC (2nd ed.) / 853.5. Early English Books Online.

Image of Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk: Portrait of Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) – Royal Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6384466

Gender, Place and Memory Research Cluster Seminar Series

In a break from our usual #womenshistorywed blog posts, the GPM team are delighted to announce the inaugural Gender, Place and Memory Research Cluster Seminar Series. We will be welcoming five academics from across the UK to the University of Hull to share their research on a wide variety of topics connected to our research aims from across the medieval, early modern and modern periods. Our exciting programme will launch on International Women’s Day where Professor James Daybell (Plymouth) will be exploring gender, power and materiality in early modern England, and then continue through April, May and June. Full programme details are below, all are welcome and we look forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday 8th March

Cohen Lecture Theatre 1


Gender, Place & Memory International Women’s Day Seminar

‘Ungloved: Gender, Power and Materiality of Early Modern English Gloves’

Professor James Daybell, Plymouth University

Wednesday 5th April

Cohen Lecture Theatre 1


Urban Topography, Municipal Texts, and Memory in late medieval England and Ireland

 Dr Eliza Hartrich, University of Sheffield

Wednesday 26th April

Cohen Lecture Theatre 1


Gender and Economic Development in early modern England: The Role of Asset Formation

Dr Judith Spicksley, University of York

Wednesday 17th May

Cohen Lecture Theatre 1


Local Concerns, Global Impact: The influence of early Anglo-American firms at home and abroad, 1815-1840

 Dr Emily Buchnea, University of Newcastle

Wednesday 7th June

Cohen Lecture Theatre 1


Men’s use of space in early modern medical interactions

 Dr Jennifer Evans, University of Hertfordshire



Her ladyship’s Christmas bounty: elite women, charity and the festive season

‘Father Christmas’, Fun, 24 December 1879

250 years ago, it was common for landed families to make gifts to the poor at Christmas and other set times of the year. The goods involved varied from estate to estate and year to year. At Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, beef was distributed on the 21st December every year on behalf of Lady Lucas, while at Stoke Gifford and Stapleton in Gloucestershire – estates owned by Elizabeth, dowager duchess of Beaufort – both beef and bread were given out.[i] Elizabeth Prowse of Wicken in Northamptonshire, sold a beef cow to the poor every winter at the subsidized price of 2d. a pound and in 1783 gave them the meat for free ‘it having been a hard winter for them’.[ii] Much the same thing was happening at Lanhydrock in Cornwall where beef and potatoes – or sometimes beef soup – were provided to poor families.[iii]

‘The Awakening of Father Christmas’ Punch, 26 December 1891

At Ashby St Ledgers in Northamptonshire, the Ashley family held a Christmas dinner for their tenants from at least 1740 onwards. The men and women were seated separately and were served with a range of meats including beef, mutton, goose and rabbit, plus some greens and plum pudding to finish the meal. By the early 1760s, two dinners were being held: one for the cottage tenants and one for the poor. No mention of the dinners was made in the early nineteenth-century accounts but meat and coals were being given to the poor at Christmas, as well as flour for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and a Valentine’s penny to 30 poor children.[iv] At times of the year when the weather was often harsh and people were in great need – especially following poor harvests – such charity could prove crucial to the survival of the rural poor.

This form of country house charity had long been in existence and was typically seen as a peculiarly feminine responsibility. It fell to the landowner’s wife to oversee as part of her well-established role as ‘Lady Bountiful’. This included making gifts of money, clothing, food and medicine to the poor, as well as patronising or even founding schools, churches and almshouses, achievements celebrated both in these women’s lifetimes and in post-mortem obituaries and memorials. Yet, as propertied women themselves, Lady Lucas, the duchess of Beaufort and Elizabeth Prowse embodied both the landowner and Lady Bountiful; the iron fist and the velvet glove. This was a responsibility which sat differently with different women, so that for some female landowners, charity went well beyond the customary and expected giving at Christmas to encompass much more strategic efforts to relieve poverty and improve living conditions amongst the least fortunate. Indeed, some even combined their philanthropy with managing the estate, overseeing building works and pushing forward schemes for agricultural improvement and landscape change. But this is a story for another day!

In the meantime, Happy Christmas from all of us in the Gender, Place and Memory research cluster @UniofHull. We hope you have a wonderful, well-deserved break!

Dr Briony McDonagh, University of Hull


[i] Gloucs Archives, D2700/QP14/1; Beds RO, L30/11/132/27, 60, 62, 63, 90; L30/11/40/9.

[ii] Northants RO, 364p/67-70.

[iii] See, for example, Cornwall RO, CL/5/406.

[iv] Northants RO, ASL 1226 and 351.

Illustration of ‘Image of Father Christmas’ from “Fun” (London, England), Issue 763, 24 December 1879, p 256, Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Christmas#/media/File:Father_Christmas_from_England,_1879.jpg

Illustration of ‘The Awakening of Father Christmas’ By John Tenniel (1820–1914) – Punch, 26 December 1891, p307, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46951693