‘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:

 

oldark
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

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