This issue plays out in my Work in Progress, Captain Stanwick’s Bride, therefore, I went searching for minute details regarding whether women could inherit property after their husband’s demise. Although I thought I knew the answer, I wanted to check for some of the more obscure points in such a scenario.
Unfortunately, “informal” and “instructional” type blogs all over the web continue to proclaim that women in the time of the Regency, and decades after, had NO legal rights. It is repeated over and over that while a woman could inherit property, she could not control it. It is even said that if a woman inherits property that a male had to be in charge of it and could sell it or lose it, say in a gaming debt.
In reality, property laws were some of the strictest laws around, and even guardians of minors could be held responsible for what they did to a minor’s estate.
A female, who had reached her majority, meaning twenty-one years or older had as much right to own and control property as her brother. It is true, however, that legacies left to females often were further protected by conditions. This was not done in every case, but was executed in many. These conditions were not in place because the female could not have a say in her property, but, rather, to protect it from a MAN. The worse condition of females at the time was that they almost ceased to exist after they married. Married women’s ability to own and control property was severely limited. Whereas, widows often had a very free hand. Such is the situation in my story mentioned above. The hero’s late wife despised the idea that her father could direct her to whom she should marry, and she despised asking for additional pin money from her husband, but she would have enjoyed the freedom being a widow would have brought her. Her brother says he “will protect her,” but the late Mrs. Stanwick refused. She wanted her freedom.
Most of the restraints placed on property inherited or deeded to women were not placed there because it was thought a female could not handle all there is to oversee any property, but to protect the property from a husband or brother or uncle, etc.
There was no legal process that would allow a man to take charge of an adult spinster’s property and sell it. The courts would have returned the property to woman and make the man disgorge the money.
Legally, when it was determined that the guardian exceeded his authority, property sold by the guardian of a minor—male or female—had to be returned and the money refunded after the minor came of age.
The situation and conditions of females was restricted and bad enough without presenting it as worse.
The Married Women’s Property act was not passed until 1870’s. There had been agitation about this matter throughout the century. Caroline Norton did much to change matters, but the story of Catherine Tilney Long (or Tylney-Long)—a great heiress–—probably had as much influence.
“Caroline Sheridan was born in London on 22 March 1808 into a grand but impoverished family. She was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her father died when she was eight years old, leaving the family with serious financial problems. So when George Norton, who was Tory member of parliament for Guildford at the time, asked to marry Caroline only eight years later, Caroline’s mother was keen for the match to succeed. Against her wishes, but fearing for the well-being of her family, Caroline conceded.
“The marriage was an extremely unhappy one and Caroline was the victim of regular and vicious beatings. She found solace in her writing and the publication of her verses ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ (1829) and ‘The Undying One’ (1830) resulted in her appointment as editor of ‘La Belle Assemblée’ and ‘Court Magazine’. With these appointments and publications came a taste of financial independence.
“In 1836, she finally left from her husband who, despite previously encouraging the friendship, now claimed that Caroline was guilty of adultery with the home secretary Lord Melbourne and sued Melbourne for seducing his wife. Norton lost the case but Caroline’s reputation was ruined. Norton refused Caroline access to her three children and her subsequent protests were instrumental in the passing of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839.
“Norton later attempted to take the proceeds of her writing. Her campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce included an eloquent letter to Queen Victoria, which was published. Caroline’s efforts were influential in the passing of the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857.” (BBC History)
“[Catherine Tilney Long] was the eldest daughter of Sir James Tylney-Long, 7th Baronet, of Draycot, Wiltshire. Her only brother James had inherited their father’s fortune but died just short of his eleventh birthday in 1805, meaning that the vast estates gathered by the 7th Baronet in Essex, Hampshire, and Wiltshire and financial investments in hand worth £300,000 devolved to Catherine. These estates were said to bring in total annual rents of £40,000. She thus became known in fashionable London society as “The Wiltshire Heiress” and was believed to be the richest commoner in England.
“Her suitors included the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, keen to pay off his great debts. She eventually chose William Wesley-Pole (b. 1788), who on 14 January 1812 assumed the additional surnames of Tylney-Long, changing his name by Royal Licence. The couple married on 14 March 1812, but his extravagance meant the marriage was an unhappy one.
William gained an appointment as Gentleman Usher to George IV in 1822 (rendering him immune to arrest for debt) and left Britain to escape his creditors around 1823. Whilst on the continent he began a relationship with Helena Paterson Bligh, the wife of Captain Thomas Bligh of the Coldstream Guards, eventually abandoning Catherine entirely. She died in 1825, leaving her children in the care of her two unmarried sisters, Dorothy and Emma. William had only had a life interest in Catherine’s property, although he was responsible for the demolition of Wanstead House in 1825 to pay off some of his debts and also unsuccessfully tried to gain custody of their eldest child William, on whom Catherine’s fortune had devolved.” (Catherine Tylney-Long)
Sarah Lady Jersey inherited a large part of her grandfather’s interest in a bank. She attended the board meetings. There is no record of Lord Jersey taking any part in the affairs of the bank, though his son did when he came of age.
Property left to a woman as dowry was meant to be given to the husband when she married. It was never expected to be hers. If the property was included in the dowry, it often had a condition attached that it return to her father’s (or mother’s) family if she died without legitimate children. The husband could not legally sell or give away this property. It was being held to protect her future, providing her a home and income when her husband passed, and she must make way for son’s wife.
All property and all money left to a female was not expected to be used as a dowry.
One of the purposes of a marriage settlement was to “protect” any unprotected property from being wasted, sold, or otherwise dealt with by the husband. He was supposed to be content with the income and any money his wife had.
I must say that one very weak point in this protection was that the husband seldom received more than a slight slap on the wrist for violations.