Trading Places

Women and the birth of England’s stock market.

Detail of a playing card from a South Sea Bubble crash-themed pack, 1720s. Courtesy Harvard University.

When the government of England and Wales created the National Debt in 1694, those from the higher echelons of society were given opportunities to invest money. Through government bonds, lotteries and eventually publicly listed companies the stock exchange was born, effectively creating the modern market. In the alleys around the Bank of England, trading began in earnest and continued into the 18th century. 

During the same period, the law of coverture effectively removed the right for a married woman to own property or take part in financial activities. Yet women investors accounted for between a third and a fifth of the total amount invested in the stock market during its early years. This is not to suggest that women experienced equality in the 18th-century stock exchange, but that, for those who were financially able, buying and selling stocks offered them a financial independence that helped to define their identity.

The records of public companies such as the South Sea Company or the Royal African Company reveal a pattern of significant female investment. Women made up roughly 30 per cent of the total amount invested in them and a similar proportion of the numbers of investors. And, once their money was invested, women did not passively rely on annual yields, but actively traded stocks as often as their male peers. 

The fledgling stock market did not exclude women, simply because no one had thought to do so. Women took advantage of this ‘oversight’ and were largely successful in the enterprise, making money far more regularly than losing it. As a result, stock trading became an almost unisex activity. Advertisements on the subject did not exclude women as they did for things such as the sale of property. Newspaper articles offering advice on how to trade would have been more than accessible for middle-class women in the early 1700s and the arithmetic required to trade was likely to be possessed by most of this class. 

Women as the sole trader in their family were also not uncommon and Hester Pinney is one of the best-known examples. She was first involved in her family’s lace trading business, which operated from the Seven Stars tavern in the inner walk of the Royal Exchange during the late 1600s. Following her father’s death, she moved into the stock exchange in 1705 and became one of the most well-documented female traders in the records. This is largely because of her extensive connections to other prominent families, such as the aristocratic Booth family, to whom she gave advice. Correspondence went back and forth with various men asking for her input and advice, which she provided. Pinney’s nephew, Azariah, also relied on her for advice, once writing to ask her the meaning of the term ‘sunk’ and openly admitting ‘I do not take in the London papers so knew nothing of it till your last letter’, when referring to South Sea stock. Her brothers often commented on her financial acumen and pragmatism. There was always, however, an underlying tone of uneasiness and suspicion about women dealing in the stock market and in their letters Pinney’s own brothers sometimes took offence at her blunt speaking. 

The level of financial independence and power that such women possessed also translated into a degree of power in companies. As shareholders, they were able to vote in general meetings and stand for positions as officers, giving them a greater political voice than ever before. Take, for example, Eleanor Curzon, the unmarried daughter of Sir Nathaniel Curzon, baronet. Allowed control of her own finances, she became heavily involved in the shareholder meetings of the York Buildings Company. She is, however, just one example among rafts of women engaging in company votes found in corporation documents. 

Investing in the stock market was also seen as a patriotic act, as it often funded conflicts. Governments launched annuities to help finance numerous wars on the continent, which were marketed with a stress on one’s patriotic duty to invest, something that their letters show these women were fully aware of. Sarah Churchill is a pertinent example. Better known for her connection to Queen Anne, she also acted as the sole trader for her family despite being married. She noted in a letter that: 

I lent such sums to the government as reduced the interest from six per cent to four per cent; thinking it would have had a good effect for the security of the nation.

She translated her financial influence into direct political power, demonstrating her direct understanding and influence in political circles. 

However, the involvement of women in the stock market was not a wholly progressive story. Only those with the financial means, which needed to be considerable, could engage in the exchange and, in its early years in particular, it was a very London-centric enterprise. Although this also applied to men, the consequences of marriage meant that many women were unable to take up the pursuit. Sarah Churchill was an exception: Elizabeth Freke, for example, brought a considerable amount of money into her marriage but was not able to use it before her husband’s death. Just one month after he died, though, she moved to London and invested in government annuities. 

After the South Sea Bubble broke in 1720, which saw stock prices fall dramatically almost overnight, the morality of the stock market came into question. Many writers and satirists portrayed it as folly and conflated it with an immoral, irreligious lapse. Women bore the brunt of this and were quickly depicted as irrational and emotionally driven – even though their previous activities in the stock market had proven otherwise. 

On a pack of South Sea Bubble-themed playing cards, women made up a third of the pack, generally portrayed as frivolous with their money – an embodiment of the loss of morality experienced during the crash. In artwork, the market itself was often portrayed as female, symbolising its unreliability, irrationality and temptation. 

Despite all the gains women made in the stock exchange, this shift was never to be a widespread and permanent one. The stock exchange produced a paradoxical space for women in the 18th century, in which they were able to exercise formal agency, but it did not last. 

 

David Challis is a journalist and historian.