Amazing Regency Businesswomen - A Guest Post by Michelle Styles

His Unsuitable Viscountess - Amazon Link - She's about to undo her dress and as usual, she doesn't seem to be wearing supportive undergarments. AS IF. A few weeks back, author Michelle Styles emailed me about her new book, His Unsuitable Viscountess ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ), which comes out this month. Michelle wrote: 

My latest Regency His Unsuitable Viscountess is published in August. [The heroine] is a Regency businesswoman who has to make a marriage of convenience in order to keep control of the family business under the terms of her stepfather's will. When I was doing my research, I was shocked to discover the two highest paid bankers in the 1820s — the Peeresses (Lady Jersey, Patroness of Almacks [was] the head of Childs and the Duchess of St Albans, the head of Coutts aka where the Queen still banks) have no modern biography.

My reaction: WHAT?! I had no idea! I asked her to tell me more, because this was fascinating stuff. She wrote an article for us about it, and here it is. Thank you, Michelle! 

‘Were there any successful Regency business women?’ my editor asked with scepticism  evident in her voice when I first proposed the idea which became His Unsuitable Viscountess. ‘Georgette Heyer never had any businesswomen as heroines. Make sure your ideas are historically accurate, Michelle. Our readers demand it.’

Luckily, I was able to point to Eleanor Coade, the owner of Coade Stone. Coade stone was used in most of the statues in the period. However she was unmarried, partly because she wanted to keep control of her business.  I’d discovered her when I read Five Centuries of Women and Gardens by Sue Bennet and was really intrigued by how a successful businesswoman would have coped in a very masculine world.


The English Marriage - it has an illustration of a man's legs between a woman's clearly in The Coitus Position. SHOCKING! My editor accepted my research but wanted to make sure a heroine could get married and not lose control of her business. The Married Woman’s Property Act which gave women the right to be more than chattels of their husband happened in 1870. The key of course was in the settlement or marriage contract. If the wording was right, the woman could retain control of her assets. If it was wrong, she was at her husband’s mercy until the Married Woman’s Property Act. The English Marriage by Maureen Waller makes this quite clear.  But I wanted to show my editor real women who had succeeded, preferably ones who were involved in the ton.

I started to research the problem, and my jaw literally fell to the ground. The two highest paid bankers of the 1820’s were Sarah Sophia, the Countess of Jersey who ran Child’s bank and Harriet Mellon Coutts, the Duchess of St Albans who ran Coutts. Unfortunately there are no modern biographies of these women. I suspect that it is because they don’t fit the model either for the feminists who like to think the women only became emancipated after the women’s right movement started or for the men of their day as women in business were thought to be somehow unfeminine. The best resource for women bankers (including the 14 who were literally licensed to print money in the Regency period) is Women Who Made Money – Women Partners in British Private Banks 1752 -1906 by Margaret Dawes and Nesta Selwyn.

Harriot Mellon Coutts was a famous late Georgian actress who married the elderly owner of Coutts four days after his mentally ill wife died. His three daughters who had married into society were less than pleased. When the eldest daughter, Baroness North sought to make a mockery of her by presenting her at court, Harriot was able to turn the tables as the Prince of Wales was a long-standing fan and greet her warmly. When Thomas Coutts died, he left the bank to Harriot, rather than his three daughters as they had been so horrible to Harriot. Because of her theatrical connections, Coutts attracted some of the more famous names including Richard Sheridan, Henry Irving, Sir Walter Scott and Fredric Chopin. Harriot was also great friends with Mrs Jordan, the Duke of Clarence’s mistress. Coutts remains the Queen’s bankers. After five years of widowhood and actively running the bank, she married the Duke of St Albans who was half her age. She continued to take an active role in the bank, making sure she had the appropriate settlement (think pre nuptial agreement) When Harriot died, she left the bank to her favourite of Coutts’ granddaughters, a girl who had been neglected by her mother. The granddaughter did not take an active part in the bank but preferred to concentrate on philanthropy.

The Countess of Jersey inherited her bank because her mother eloped with the Earl of Westmorland.  Lady Jersey was the eldest granddaughter as Robert Child refused to have the eldest son, the future Earl of Westmorland inherit. Sarah became the senior partner when she reached her majority in 1806, a position she held until her death in 1867. Her husband whom she married in 1804 never had anything to do with the bank. Like Harriot, Sarah had rock solid settlement which clearly spelt out what belonged to her. Sarah served as one of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s  during the Regency period and had the unique position of knowing who was financially solvent or not. She is the woman responsible for introducing the quadrille and eventually approving the waltz at Almack’s.

It puts a whole new complexion on the process through which vouchers were granted. When the Lady Patronesses had access to this sort of information, did they really need to consult with Beau Brummell?  Or was this merely men, and in particular Brummell’s first biographer,  trying to play down the importance of the Lady Patronesses’ inside knowledge? It is far easier to proclaim you were cut by Brummell than admit you were refused entry because you were let in the pockets. One male historian offered the opinion that Lady Jersey only went to the bank to read ladies magazines! Huge rolling of eyes and reaching for the sick bag when I read this. Lady Jersey retained the right to hire and fire the other partners in the bank. Child’s eventually became part of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the name is currently used for its private banking arm.

When faced with this information, my editor agreed I could write my story with a Regency businesswoman. His Unsuitable Viscountess, where my heroine has to marry within four weeks or lose the family business under the terms of her stepfather’s will as her mother did not have the proper settlement, is the result. Earlier this year I discovered why Georgette Heyer did not have any businesswomen heroines when I read the Jennifer Kloester biography ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) — Heyer didn’t approve of women in business, particularly successful women, a very Edwardian point of view. It echoes the Dawes and Selwyn book – for a number of reasons there were more top women bankers in England during the Regency period than there were during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Hopefully more people will start to explore this aspect of the Regency and celebrate the women who were feminists before the notion truly existed.

Is that not fascinating? Styles also told me that, “another one who gets overlooked is Sarah Rice, the model for Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ), again no modern biography. She ran the pigeon carrier service that the Rothchilds used to get info on the war. It was her pigeons which brought the news of Waterloo. The Rothchilds might not have made money but Sarah certainly did.”

Styles added, “It puts a whole different complexion on the Regency.” 

Doesn't it though? It makes more sense to me now that the patronesses of Almack's had such power: to control society, you have to control access and money, and they did. That's a lot of power right there. 

Thank you to Michelle Styles for putting together so much of her research for us. Three cheers for powerful women! 


General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Natalie says:

    Love this slice of history! Thank you so much for bringing it. Social power and financial power—those patronesses of Almack’s were even more hard core than I knew. (I also like this because it enriches Loretta Chase’s new series, in which ambitious businesswomen marry dukes and such.)

  2. 2
    Diane Gaston says:

    Great article, Michelle! Just goes to show how rich and interesting the Regency period was. It makes sense that readers love it so.

  3. 3
    Lynne Connolly says:

    Fascinating post! Lucy Inglis’s study of the 1731 London Poll Tax shows the tradition of independent businesswomen went on long before the Regency, too.
    Don’t forget my ancestress, Hester Bateman, who ran one of the most successful silversmithing companies in the country.
    Just goes to show, you don’t have to make stuff up to make the Regency interesting. pooh on the spies and pirates, this is far more interesting!

  4. 4

    Yes the patronesses were far more hard core than I thought. It rather gives one pause as to why they would need Brummell’s opinion on anything. Or perhaps it was easier to say that you didn’t get vouchers because of Brummell than to admit to being let in the pockets!

  5. 5
    Michelle Styles says:

    Diane I so agree. The scary part I find is that in 1812 14 women held licenses to print money (ie they were senior partners in a bank) but 1905, there were no women senior partners in banks.

  6. 6

    Thank you, Michelle!  People tend to have an image of what women’s roles were like through history that is filtered through the Victorian age, and it’s a filter that was essentially designed to sieve out women of strength.  When you go back and actually look at primary sources, individual diaries and accounts, what you get is something very different indeed.

    Historical attitudes towards sex are a lot different than what people tend to assume, too. :)  All that was cut, and it can still be hard to find the unexpurgated versions, even with someone as famous as Pepys.  (Unless you have a particular expertise in the subject, you don’t even realize you’re getting an expurgated version.)


  7. 7

    How totally cool that your ancestor ran a silversmith company. Apparently my g g grandmother was a silversmith in Sweden.
    And yes, I agree you don’t have to make stuff up to make the Regency interesting. It was an absolutely fascinating time.

  8. 8
    Gail Leinweber says:

    Thanks for the article! It reminds of discovering Gertrude Bell’s biography. If you’ve never heard of Ms. Bell she’s the one who drew the lines on the map that became modern Iraq, among other fascinating things. As powerful as she was though, she would definitely not fit in with the current feminist movement. If anyone is interested check out Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell.

  9. 9

    Laura, I so agree that people tend to see what women’s roles were like through various filters. I would also include the filter of the late 1940s as women were encouraged to fight germs instead of Germans. But the historical attitudes were v different than what we might imagine…

  10. 10

    I love Gertrude Bell! She is such a fascinating person.  She of course orignally did not support the votes for women movement ( her stepmother was a rabid anti-suffergette) because she felt there were other more productive advances that needed to be made for women and their condition. The Bells hail from the North East of England and so I read all about her when I was doing some research for another project. A totally remarkable woman full of huge contradictions. She should be better known than she is.

  11. 11
    Jennifer Faye says:

    Michelle, what a wonderful article. I love learning that some women were powerful back in history. It makes you wonder about the men who became involved with them. It would have had to be a challenge to their egos since powerful women were so uncommon. And I wonder what the other women thought of these powerful ladies. Were they secretly rooting them on? Or did they think they were foolish and that they should settle down and let a man run the business? Something tells me these powerful women might have had money but were lonely. Society has a hard time accepting people who are different, especially back then.

    I can’t wait to read your book and see how you handled these issues. *G* Just have to get through these revisions and hopefully I’ll have a little break for some R&R (read and relax).

  12. 12
    Bets says:

    I think my TBR pile just got thicker. :)

  13. 13
    Lijakaca says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! We really do see a lot of history filtered through what gets passed on, and a lot of what gets written down, and published, and passed on, is written and/or approved of by men. It would be so interesting if some feminist historians (male or female!) would dig up more details of these stories and publish them!

  14. 14

    That’s fascinating! Thanks!

  15. 15

    Jennifer—I do hope you enjoy it!
    I think it is hard for successful businesswomen , no matter what age. Look at how they are often protrayed in today’s media. And if they have a bad hair day or wear the wrong heels, someone comments. I hope it is getting better but…
    And a strong woman can always take on a strong man. I think it depends on the person if they were lonely or not.
    Sara Rice was supposed to have had a good marriage until her husband died quite early on. They were business partners. I think Lady Jersey had a decent marriage, but it was an aristocratic marriage. Harriot Coutts by all accounts had 2 good marriages.

  16. 16

    I would love for some historian to actually start in investigatng this very under researched part of the Regency. I am not sure why they have been overlooked. It is possible that they do not fit the mould and sometimes the focus seems to be on women after the suffragette movement started. Sometimes it depends on the interests of the historian doing the research. It think there would be a market for this sort of thing. I write fiction, not non ficition biography so I live in hope that someone will be inspired to write something.

  17. 17

    You are welcome. I find it absolutely fascinating as well.
    It is wonderful when you suddenly a glimpse of a successful woman. For example Margaret Campion who ran a shipping company out of Whitby and engaged in trade with Russia. Or the three sisters—Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah Darby who founded the Coalbrookdale bank in Shropshire. Two were also partners in an iron works. Coalbrookdale bank eventually became part of Lloyds bank in 1874. Elizabeth Fry was very partonising about them—calling them a group of widows who were keeping the company afloat while waiting for their sons to grow up. She neglected the fact that one was one (Sarah) was unmarried and that they had founded the company!

  18. 18
    Virginia E says:

    The only reason for the Patronesses to consult Brummel is that it certainly wouldn’t do to approve someone that the Prince Regent wouldn’t accept. One simply can’t buttonhole the acting monarch/heir to the throne over these pesky details. It was much easier and far more discreet to pick the Beau’s brain to avoid a social disaster. Hard reality was that “crown” disapproval trumped everyone else’s approval, at least in public.

  19. 19

    Lady Shefton (again a woman without a modern biography) was in the Prince Regent’s inner circle. A true intimate of it. Among other things she sponsored Mrs Fitzherbert in society.  Her husband was one of the founders of the Infamous four in hand club. It was when I started to look at the women and their social connections, I had to wonder—why did they need him.  Brummell was very good at self publicity and he had a fantastic biographer in Gronow. It was not in either of their interests to downplay any role he might have had.
    I am not saying that Brummell did not have some influence but I rather suspect that it was not as large as it is sometimes made out to be…

  20. 20
    Karin says:

    This is fascinating, and completely news to me, despite having read dozens & dozens of Regency novels. Why do you think the idea of women as independent business people took a step backward after the Regency era? Was it Queen Victoriea’s influence? Or some sort of backlash? 
    Thanks for the great research, His Unsuitable Viscountess is going on my TBR list right now!

  21. 21


    I think there are a number of contributing factors:
    1. The consolidation in the banking industry, particularly during the 1830s
    2. the growth of the cult of the Lady and so women were forced into a more decorative role because societal expectation. Equally a move towards philanthropy as opposed to business. For example the woman who inherited Coutts after Harriot died had no interest in banking but spent her energy on good works. She married an American late in life and her relations successfully argued that because she had married a foreigner she had broken the terms of the will.
    3. the various depressions—starting after the Napoleonic War, but also including the depression of the 1830’s and the late 1840’s. Depression tends to favour men in the workplace
    4. many of the women did have sons and passed the firm to the most capable son. Sara Rice bypassed her eldest (Jane Austen’s friend) in favour of her younger one. Lady Jersey left the bank to her son.
    5. the rise of professionalism which caused women to be excluded from various job/opprtunities.
    6. the rise of higher education for men. Higher education for women comes more during the 2nd half of the 19th century when women start fighting back and demanding entrance to the professions.
    I think it is something worthy to be explored by a historian!

  22. 22
    Lucy Ashford says:

    What a great article, Michelle. I was particularly interested to read that Georgette Heyer didn’t approve of women who went into business. Lots of fascinating stuff. And people think that historical romance authors don’t have to do much research…!!  I’ve already noted your new book as a definite TBR

  23. 23

    The Kloester biography of Heyer is well worth a read. I was so pleased when I discovered it as the point had bugged me for awhile.  It is somewhat amusing that Heyer didn’t approve as her income from writing contributed to the family’s income. But there again she also didn’t really read her contracts. I was also surpised to learn that she sold her books on single book contract, and was furious at being accidentally locked into a mult book contract.
    One of the reasons I love writng historical romance IS the amount of research you have to do.

  24. 24
    Lynne Connolly says:

    We only discovered when my uncle did the family tree. We expected a line of reprobates and ne’er do wells so it was a lovely surprise!

  25. 25
    Lynne Connolly says:

    I think it was the Victorian attitude to “women staying in the home” and the reduction of the importance of the home. In ages past, it was “the household,” and had influence over a number of spheres, but in the Victorian era, it was looking after the house, and that was about it.
    We shouldn’t forget Mrs. Gaskell, who as well as being a wonderful novelist, was a social reformer in early Victorian days, working with Friedrich Engels to record the awful conditions the urban poor suffered.
    Also, it just occurred to me that the “onlie begetter” of the Regency genre is generally considered to be Georgette Heyer, whose most successful books were published in the 1950’s, itself an era of women being persuaded back into the kitchen.

  26. 26
    Virginia E says:

    In one sense, they really didn’t need him. Brummell was an upstart outsider. On the other hand, he amused and distracted Prinny for a while.  I suspect that the Patronesses chose not to pick a direct confrontation with Brummell, but rather for him to make a mistake.

    Brummell certainly had some influence. If you stop and think about it, we still follow his standards for the perfect gentleman: good personal hygiene, understated elegance, physically fit, and one who makes the most of his potential in a postive way.

    I suspect that the biographers had a tough time because the situation was rather complex. He had manipulated and offended the future king of England (risky bit that). He was a social upstart that manipulated the highest ranks of society for both good and bad. He upset the established social order of the day. On the other hand, one can only imagine what Prinny might have been like without his pet George. And who wants to admit that they allowed someone to make a fool of them? It’s more comforting to make the villian out as a larger than life unstoppable force who really wasn’t such a villian…

  27. 27

    Family trees are wonderful things. You can find out about all sorts of interesting people who are more interesting because they happen to be related to you.

  28. 28

    It is why Heyer’s biography is such an interesting read. It is sometimes important to know an author’s filter/world view to understand why certain things came about. She also mostly ignored self made men who contributed so much to the growth of the Industrial Revolution.
    And that is why I think it came as such a surprise to me that someone like Lady Jersey was in the forefront of society and was *in trade*. Apparently when one of her daughters married an Esterhazy, the Esterhazys were surprised to learn where the Jersey’s money came from…as they had assumed Lord Jersey accounted for most of it. Not so.

  29. 29

    Yes I agree there were probably a number of people who were pleased to see him fall.
    And I don’t deny he was influential in men’s dress etc. I have to wonder if the power subscribed to him was for other reasons.
    However what I found very interesting when I read Dorothy Nevill’s memoirs was that she named someone entirely different as being responsible for the manner of a gentleman’s formal evening clothes. Dorothy Nevill was a debutante in the 1830s, famously caught in a summer house with a known rake, hurriedly married off to a cousin and never allowed in court until after Queen Victoria died but hugely influential behind the scenes with the Tory party. She was writing at the turn of the century.

  30. 30
    Hannah E. says:

    I figured that was why Heyer didn’t write about businesswomen.  She was too good a historian not to have known about this data, but she was also a class-conscious British woman writing long before the feminist movement. 

    Thanks for the article, Michelle.  I would read a lot more historicals if more authors were writing about this type of historical heroine.

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