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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Book cover: Men, Women and Property in England, 1780-1870: A Social and Economic History of Family Strategies amongst the Leeds Middle Classes

Author's response


Men, Women and Property in England, 1780-1870: A Social and Economic History of Family Strategies amongst the Leeds Middle Classes

R. J. Morris
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2005
ISBN: 0-521-838-088; 458 pages, price £55.00

Theodore Koditschek

University of Missouri

First, I would like to thank Ted Koditschek for his very positive review. Even, his criticisms tend to read like the concert audience with its cries for more. A few reflections are called for rather than a formal reply. He is right that some of the concepts have been present in my writing for many years, but then it has been a privilege to have begun academic life in the late 1960s well before the era of the RAE-driven rush to publication which now affects so many younger historians. I had the privilege of time to refine and supplement the ideas with which I had begun. In fact this book began life as a chapter in an earlier book, a chapter which outgrew the space available. He is right that I have not explored every relevant situation for my middle-class study, but I hope that others will take, test and modify the notions of the property cycle, networked family, 'nuclear' preference, reserve army of cousins, urban peasants, rentier republics and contradictions of gender that helped me make sense of the material that I analysed. Ted Koditschek is clearly correct to say that the preferences of the property cycle vary with individual, period and place, but it seems reasonable to propose that knowledge, risk preference and institutional change are the major dimensions of such change. He asks about the influence of religious and political identity in property cycle related behaviour. Almost certainly this was linked to the knowledge flows which each network provided. It was thus no accident that the Quaker merchant was early into railway shares and dealt through a Quaker share broker in London. We also need to trace the changing nature of gender subordination as indicated by property relationships. The evidence suggests that the legitimate sphere of female action reduced through the eighteenth century up to the 1840s before beginning a slow and uneven expansion. Indeed the section on the Married Women's Property Act was provided as an epilogue to the main part of the book, in order to show how the processes identified earlier interacted to produce pressures for change.

Koditschek is right that the Leeds focus of the study was downplayed. In part this was because the nature of Leeds had been discussed in my earlier book Class, Sect and Party. The Making of the British Middle Class: Leeds 1820–50 (Manchester, 1990). The virtue of Leeds as a case study derived from the nature of its middle class with a mixture of commercial, manufacturing and professional leadership as well as the relatively wide base of its industry in textiles, engineering as well as pottery, chemicals and leather goods. Leeds shared the qualities of provincialism and urban growth with many other centres but without the extremes of a Manchester or even a Bradford. The second reason for underplaying the specifics of place was the manner in which the nature of the research design – the focus on family stories – led the analysis. The Leeds based 'stories' rapidly led to other locations – London, rural Derbyshire, Belfast, Riga and beyond. Taking the family and the 'private' produced a very different, though related geography to the focus on the public sphere and civil society.

Koditschek correctly mentions that one empirical core of the book is the sample of wills from the early 1830s, but this was partly designed to provide a population against which to test and place the micro-histories which came from the family papers. These micro histories were presented as mini narratives embedded in the analysis of the book rather than as a resource to be fragmented by theme and period. This strategy of presentation hopefully preserved some of the integrity of individual and group experience. Each narrative thus involved revisiting themes as well as asserting new ones. Thus the early vignette of the Oates family involved fairly simplistic analysis which could be revisited later (of insecurity as a key to middle-class practice, of the complexity of family structure). Equally the more 'national' based chapters 2 and 9 were designed, not so much to provided a comprehensive history of the middle classes (plural) but as templates against which the narratives could be evaluated. It matters that wealth accumulation seems to become a little easier in the 1850s and 60s. The nature of the middle classes will emerge from the experience of Jane Hey, Joseph Henry Oates, John Taylor and the historian's walk down Neville Street and Merrion Street. Those tables provide basic parameters of analysis and understanding. Perhaps the real criticism of those chapters is that they were national, whilst the micro narratives led me to Ireland, Jamacia and the Baltic. Was the Leeds where I began enquiries the centre of England, Britain, the United Kingdom, the Empire, the Atlantic economy or something even more amorphous?

Anyone who follows these ideas into different periods and places will have very different problems of research design to solve. It is to be hoped that the concepts evolved in this book will prove robust enough and the ingenuity, opportunity and persistence of future scholars strong enough to stitch together the longer-term narrative Koditschek rightly demands. Jane Hey was worried about her railway shares and the tenants of her shops in Leeds. I have always wondered what the university pension fund did with those deductions from my salary cheque each month. The property cycle is still here.

December 2005

Original review

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