Sunday, 19 December 2010

Lady Entrepreneurs of the Regency Period

"To remain single was thought a disgrace and at thirty an unmarried woman was called an old maid. After their parents died, what could they do, where could they go? If they had a brother, as unwanted and permanent guests, they might live in his house. Some had to maintain themselves and then, indeed, difficulty arose. The only paid occupation open to them a gentlewoman was to become a governess under despised conditions and a miserable salary. None of the professions were open to women; there were no women in Government offices; no secretarial work was done by them."- Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of pioneering physician, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) on attitudes to women in the 1860s

The experiences of working class and upper and middle class women in 18th and 19th England were vastly different, but they had this much in common: it was difficult for them to earn money of their own - and when they did it wasn't their own. Prior to the 1882 Married Property Act, a woman's wealth passed to her husband upon her marriage - so did her any money she might earn after her marriage. Affluence did not therefore guarantee power and influence, as Wendy Moore's excellent biography of heiress Mary Bowes demonstrates with devastating impact.

Women did work; by 1851 women comprised 30% of England's workforce. However, generally speaking they worked in low skill, poorly paid jobs. In 1780 women earned about 5 shillings a week and men made 10 to 15 a week - three times as much. The industrial revolution changed the pattern of work for working class women. Before the onset of the industrial revolution, women worked in rural roles alongside their family members, labouring in fields and orchards. By the mid-1800s, they were heavily employed in the factories, providing a cheap, adaptable workforce. 50% of all workers in textiles factories were women. Other industries included pottery, confectionary, breweries, laundry, retail and sewing. Many working class women lived at the poverty line. In the mid-1800s, Henry Mayhew uncovered the working conditions of some of these women:

"I am a shirt-maker, and make about three shirts a day, at 2 1/2d a piece, everyone of them having seven buttonholes. I have to get up at six int he morning, and work till twelve at night to do that. I buy threads out of the price; and I cannot always get work. I am now living with a young man. I am compelled to do so, because I could not support myself... Sometimes we have been for two days with a bit of bread and cold water."

As the quotation at the top of this post demonstrates, the lot of upper and middle class women was not much better. They might be able to eat, but they could not support themselves. They were largely dependent on the goodwill of their menfolk, and any marriage was felt to be preferable to none despite the risks involved in an unwise match. Women, after all, belonged to their husbands along with all their worldly goods. Male adultery, for example, was not grounds for divorce and if a woman did leave her husband her children belonged to him. She did not even have the right to see them. The account of Mary Eleanor Bowes' violent marriage to Andrew Stoney demonstrates just how difficult it was for a woman to extricate herself from even the most horrendous of situations.

Given the challenges involved in women making and keeping money, and in their gaining power and influence in their own right, I am always absolutely fascinated when I stumble across examples of female entrepreneurs. I referred in an earlier post to Teresa Cornelys, who established the masquerade in England with her fabulous events at Carlisle House. This week I came across two other examples of women with successful 19th century careers in both traditional and non-traditional female industries.

The first I stumbled across in Douglas Hill's Regency London, a great little guide to some of London's regency gems. The guide reads: "note also the 'Coade stone' doorways (a special composition material whose basic ingrediants remained a secret throughout the widespread use of it in late Georgian building)." The reference was enough to intrigue me to dig further. Imagine my surprise when I found that Coade stone was the invention and product of not a Mr Coade, but a Mrs Coade - Mrs Eleanor Coade.

Mrs Eleanor Coade (1733 - 1821)

Mrs Coade was not, in fact, a married woman at all. She used the title Mrs in business circles, presumably because it provided her with greater status and respectability.

Eleanor Coade was the brains behind the Coade stone empire. She called her product, Lithodipyra a pseudo-Greek name which referred to the twice-fired process of its creation. Coade stone was a kind of ceramic and one which was used widely in the building boom of the Regency period, particularly by Robert Adam. The wikipedia entry for Coade stone tells us:

"The showrooms of Mrs Coade's Artificial Stone Company, in Westminster Bridge Road, provided a huge array of 'off the shelf' solutions for builders and architects, ranging from small keystones for over front doors to corner and window features and almost entire fa├žades. The factory was in Lambeth, London, where the Royal Festival Hall now stands."

Mrs Coade was not without rivals. Richard Holt was already manufacturing (a different) artificial stone in the area of her factory and around 1730 Holt was in "a business and advertising war" with another business man, Batty Langley. In 1767, David Picot announced he had set up "a manufacture of artificial stone" and George Davy also ran similar adverts. Despite being a woman in a male dominated field, both Mrs Coade and her stoneware enterprise were more successful and longer lasting than any of her competitors. She outlasted them all, numbering amongst her clients George III.

She died in 1821, aged 89 leaving bequests to the Baptist minister at Lyme Regis, the Independent Minister and the Church of England Vicar. The bequests were for distribution amongst the poor.

Mrs Bell

My second female entrepreneur was a married woman both in name and in truth. Her husband is well known to all fans of Regency fashion as the brains behind the much cited La Belle Assemblee: Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine - the Regency equivalent of Vogue. La Belle Assemblee frequently showed designs invented by Mrs Bell - Mr Bell's better half. Mrs Bell was a top London milliner and modiste, with fashionable premises (initially) on Upper King Street, Covent Garden. Her products ranged from bridal gowns to riding habits.

Mrs Bell's designs included the 'Chapeau Bras' - a hood which folded away into a bag and the bandage corset, which was worn by no less than the Duchess of Kent, to support her stomach when pregnant with Queen Victoria.

In 1824, Mrs Bell ramped up her self publicity by becoming director of The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, another Mr Bell production. Another elegant monthly magazine, its editorial comment provided considerable advertisement for Mrs Bell's latest shop the Magazin des Modes at 3 Cleveland Road opposite St James Palace.

Mr and Mrs Bell's clever publicity and promotion ensured that they gained and maintained pole-position as both fashion retailers and trend-setters in the Regency World.

I love stories about women like Mrs Bell and Mrs Coade who, married or unmarried, managed to find success and credibility in their own right in a society where the odds were stacked against them. Their stories are fantastic tinder for the imagination - a basis for future heroines! I'm not the only one interested in female entrepreneurs of yesteryear - last year, Kingston University ran a competition looking for nominations of inspiring female entrepreneurs through history. The full list of twelve is here.

Mrs Coade
Hill, Douglas, Discovering London 7: Regency London
Kelly, Alison Mrs Coade's Stone, as reproduced on The Churchmouse Website.

Mrs Bell
Ashelford, Jane, The Art of Dress: Clothes through history 1500-1914

Women in the 19th Century
Ashelford, Jane, The Art of Dress: Clothes through history 1500-1914
Thompson, E.P., Yeo, Eileen, The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle 1849-50.
BBC History
Marriage in the 19th Century (Spartacus)
Roles of Women in the Industrial Revolution

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