How to find a Georgian heiress

Marriages for money, although they had been criticised on moral and practical grounds for centuries, were still very common in eighteenth-century European society, particularly among the wealthy and landed classes. Even in Jane Austen’s supposedly romantic novels, money is always a consideration when deciding whom to marry, to the point that some of her characters contract entirely loveless matches in order to escape the horrors of penurious spinsterhood.

Mercenary marriages were, however, bound to continue so long as ladies were financially dependent on men and so long as gentlemen, idle or otherwise, felt that their present income was not enough to fulfill their social ambitions. Marrying a wealthy woman was simply one of the easiest ways for cash-strapped gentlemen to indulge their expensive tastes, given that in almost all cases the wife’s money would become her husband’s to spend as he wished. This matrimonial strategy was particularly necessary for the younger sons of peers and landowners, as they were often financially short-changed by the inheritance system which favoured older brothers. Marrying an heiress might have seemed more palatable than a career in the law, the military or the Church, which were the standard options for men in their position.

Yet how were men supposed to work out how much money a potential wife really had? There was, after all, no point in wasting time and effort courting a lady who might turn out to have little or nothing to her name. Word of mouth on this matter could be unreliable. In fact, the plots of not a few contemporary novels turn on the realisation that a lady has less money than her suitor believed, thus placing the match in jeopardy (see, for instance, Catherine and the younger Tilney brother in Austen’s Northanger Abbey).

William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.
William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

But lo! help was at hand to save fortune-hunting men from confusion and misery, in the shape of a 1742 pamphlet entitled A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory. Compiled by a Mr B. M–n (who, tellingly, signs himself as “a younger brother”), its purpose is made abundantly clear in the prefatory address ‘To all Widowers and Batchelors’:

“There are undeniably several Widowers, but many more Batchelors in the perplexed Situation [of finding a wife]; some want Acquaintance among the Ladies, others want Introduction; and hence it is that the poor Maidens themselves often sympathise; for I make no Manner of doubt, but Numbers are willing to meet either Widower or Batchelor half Way; now could any Method have been found more expedient to remove these Stumbling-blocks in the Road to Fortune and Matrimony than the following? […]

“Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice, and a fine Collection of Ladies; – Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next [publication] may be a new Sett. I heartily wish you all Success”.

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This handy document is essentially a list of the wealthiest women in Britain, listing their names, places of abode, reputed fortunes and the amount they had in the stocks. The main body of the text is charmingly divided into ‘widows’ and ‘spinsters’, the latter category covering young unmarried women as well as old ladies. Many distinguished family names are to be seen in the lists – Byron, Cecil, Cavendish, Howard, Seymour, Walpole, Grosvenor and Curzon, among others. Even the Prime Minister’s daughter, Maria Walpole, is listed; her address is given as Downing Street, and her reputed fortune as £80,000 (circa £7,000,000 in today’s money).

Most fortunes in this list are in the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds, with the exception of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, to whom the author assigns a reputed fortune of ‘Millions’ – an absolutely staggering amount of money at the time. Incidentally, this would have been referring to the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who was 82 years old at the time this pamphlet was published. Not a conquest for the fainthearted, then.

In the case of there being more than one daughter, aristocratic sisters are listed separately. For commoners, the author merely inserts the number of sisters beside the family name to indicate that an address contains multiple marital targets. Thus we see the Misses Mabbott of Ormond Street, who had £15,000 apiece, listed simply as ‘Mabbott (2)’. Picking a family with many daughters might increase the odds of finding a beauty among them, but these young ladies were also less attractive to fortune-hunters as the parental inheritance was generally spread more thinly. Witness for instance the eight Misses Barker of Chiswick, or the seven Corbett sisters living in Mayfair, each of whom had the misfortune to come with only £5,000, as opposed to some of their contemporaries with tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, having a large number of daughters posed quite a financial problem for all but the wealthiest parents, as each young lady was expected to provide a dowry and perhaps be entitled to some inheritance upon the deaths of her dear mamma and papa. Their families often got little in return, unless they managed to contract politically or socially useful alliances.

One might think, faced with all this, that A master-key is a cynical, even callous production, aiming shamelessly at the financial and emotional exploitation of women. While this is true, its author was at least more honest about the sordid material concerns which lay behind many contemporary marriages than the many sentimental novels of the time.

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Further Reading

B. M-n, A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory (1742)

“The Bank of Mum and Dad”, funding students since 1200

Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:

“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting. 
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun. 
Farewell.”

Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin
Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin

Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:


“To his son G. residing at Orl
éans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!

Bentham's letter of February 5th 1762 to his father
Bentham’s letter of February 5th 1762 to his father

Dear Papa
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son
J. Bentham”