Power: How much power did my female ancestors have?

They say that knowledge is power, and having read of a woman’s role in society in the 18th Century, I imagined that my female ancestors from this period were most likely illiterate and subsequently had little power. Checking back through the branches of my family tree, the Biggs family line appears to have recognised that women in the family should have basic literacy skills, and in reading further about the wives of farmers in this period, it is clear that they played a significant and essential role.

The Biggs men in the 18th Century were yeoman farmers, owning their land and regarded as upper-middle-class in English society. During this period, yeoman farmers were regarded as patriarchs, controlling the family, owning property. stock and other items of considerable monetary value. All valuables that might have come with a woman into her marriage became the property of the husband, she was restricted to “household” activities and expected to be submissive towards her husband. However, if a farm was to be successful, such as that owned by the Biggs family of Potterne, the wife needed to be a business partner with her husband, directing certain parts of the farm economy with ‘so large a portion of skill, of frugality, cleanliness, industry, and good management . . . that without them the farmer may be materially injured’ (J. C. Loudon, An encyclopaedia of agriculture (sec. edn, London, 1831), p. 1036.) 

In looking for women who would have undertaken similar roles and shared experiences in this period with Biggs women I came across Mary Bacon (1743-1818), an 18th Century farmer’s wife who lived in Hampshire. Her ledger provides information on recipes, cures, farming and account records etc as well as a list of books that provided insight into her reading habits. She had copied sections of loved Bible stories together with religious musings and hymns illustrating how important her religion was in her life. Based on this it would appear that having a wife who was literate would be of enormous value to her husband and family. Unfortunately, this book is no longer readily available and I have only been able to read exerts but I hope to be able to gain access to it in the National Library in Canberra in the not too distant future.

Mary’s ledger shows that for farmers’ wives to do their work effectively, literacy skills would be important. Examining signatures on marriage registers is used by historians as a legitimate means to estimate literacy (Schofields, R S, “Dimensions of Illiteracy in England1750-1850”). The Marriage Act of 1753 required couples to sign the marriage register, so I went back to marriage records to review if my female ancestors could write. While most women in each branch of my family tree were able to write their name by the 19th Century, this was not the case in the 18th Century except for my Biggs family line that shows the women were literate by the mid 18th Century.

Looking for the first female ancestor I could identify as literate I traced back to the daughters of James Biggs and Mary Miel (my 5xgreat grandparents) both of whom were illiterate. However, at the time their three daughters married; Grace married 1770; Ruth married 1781; Jane married 1780; they were able to sign their names . It is Grace’s signature on the marriage register that provides the earliest evidence of literacy among my female ancestors.

Marriage register from Church of England, Potterne, showing signature of Grace Biggs in 1770

An essay by Nicola Verdan ‘…subjects deserving of the highest praise’: farmers’ wives and the farm economy in England.”(https://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/51n1a2.pdf). shows “Women were not narrowly confined to the farmhouse … those sections that ‘belonged’ to the house, and therefore the wife, included the kitchen garden, the dairy, and the farmyard. She would be responsible for pickling, preserving and cooking…, making wine, …. the manufacture of butter and cheeses in the dairy, and finally, rearing of pigs, hens and other poultry in the farmyard… She would have spent much of her day preparing provisions for the kitchen table, not only to feed the family but also any servants and labourers that were housed or fed on the farm.” The essay paints a powerful picture of these women who were the lynchpin of England’s strength and success.

Even more evidence of how highly the Biggs women were regarded is given when looking at the will of Thomas Purnell. He was Ruth’s husband and they had seven children, three sons, the eldest twenty-three and married at the time of his father’s death, and four daughters. It was normal practice for fathers to leave the majority of their estate to their eldest son. In acknowledgement of the love and partnership Ruth and her husband Thomas shared she was made sole executor and main beneficiary of her husband’s estate.

The will of Thomas Purnell, 1805 husband of Ruth (nee Bigg) Purnell

In my eyes, they are not only women of power but of love and commitment and I am so proud to share some of their DNA.

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