Small fortunes : property, inheritance and the middling sort in Stockport, 1800-57
This thesis is concerned with understanding some of the social relations of property transmission among the middling-sort community of the northern industrial town of Stockport in the early-nineteenth century. Studies of the social relations of property in nineteenth-century England have often been written around the concept of class. The thesis begins with a brief, but critical, evaluation of recent theoretical and empirical studies of class. This is done in order to highlight some of the difficulties of using class as a conceptual framework for understanding the importance of property within the social worlds of those who owned it. An alternative approach is advanced which foregrounds the study of property itself. It is argued that by paying attention to the practices of property ownership and transmission it is possible to explore both the material and discursive significance of property to its owners. The following chapter reviews the literature on inheritance in order to demonstrate the range of issues that the study of property transmission can cast light upon. In addition, it sets out a methodology for studying property transmission practices, highlighting the importance of exploring inheritance within its legal, social, economic and local contexts. Accordingly, chapter three introduces Stockport as the local context for this study, examining the way in which economic opportunity, risk and uncertainty affected strategies of property accumulation, ownership and transmission. The remainder of the thesis investigates various spheres of the lives of the middling sort - including politics, professionalism, social networks, the family and business activity - through the lens of property transmission. Focusing on the national scale, chapter four begins this task by considering the reform of the legal machinery of succession. The protracted political debates that surrounded these reforms are examined in order to highlight the ways in which reformers aimed to create a legal system that guaranteed the rights of middling-sort, male property owners to securely and freely transmit all kinds of estate. Retaining an interest in legal matters, the next chapter moves the focus back to the local level by exploring the ways in which the making of wills and the disposal of estates forged a variety of social networks among Stockport's middling sort. As well as creating a demand for professional knowledge and expertise, such activities provided a source of status for those involved. It is also argued that such processes were central to the creation of gendered discourses of property transmission. Through a detailed examination of inheritance strategies recorded in the wills of Stockport's inhabitants, chapter six examines the role of property transmission in the social reproduction of middling-sort families. Particular attention is paid to the way in which inheritance strategies hinged upon gendered understandings of property and domesticity. The final chapter looks at inheritance and the family firm, demonstrating the close links between business survival and family provision. Resisting historiographical convention, it is argued that this evidence reveals the importance of considering the interconnectedness of the different spheres of the life of the middling sort rather than assuming their separation. The thesis concludes by restating the importance of property in disclosing the social worlds of the nineteenth-century middling sort. It also sets out the significance of the research in understanding the role of property and the middling sort in nineteenth-century Britain.