11. Women and the city: investment, banking and the spread of women’s financial activity in early eighteenth-century England

Anne Laurence (Open University)
2 July 2009

The tale of the financial revolution in early eighteenth-century England is usually told in terms of the development of financial institutions following the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the expansion of the stock market, especially during the period of the South Sea Bubble of 1720. But much of this would have been impossible without changes – both through legislation and in the courts – that made the transfer of funds between individuals, banks and joint stock companies easier and more secure. These changes made it possible for private individuals, both men and women, to start to use banks and the stock market without being part of the commercial elite of the City of London. It is in this period that the ‘city’ ceased to be a geographical location where banking and stock market activity took place and became a virtual space in which the new financial markets operated.
In particular, this transformation affected women. For the most part they had been outside the commercial and mercantile networks that had characterised the limited financial markets that existed before 1694. Acts of Parliament of 1698 and 1704 and the development of the use of letters of attorney allowed money to be transferred more securely and stock to be bought and sold without the owner visiting the company offices in person. While newspapers during the South Sea Bubble wrote of the visibility of women in ’Change Alley, what was significant in reality was the participation in the market, often for the first time, of women living in the provinces or who visited London only occasionally.
This paper will explore the impact of the new ‘virtual City’ on women’s finances and consider the extent to which their experience differed from that of men.

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