One of the defining features of 19th-century Britain was the widening ownership of wealth. Economic transformations, including the rise of industrial economy, increasing real incomes, growing commercial interests in an expanding empire and the development of financial markets at home, offered new opportunities for generating wealth and underpinned the emergence of a new property-owning middle class.

The fortunes and longevity of this group depended on how individuals and families responded to the market, and passed economic opportunities on to the next generation. The transmission of wealth at death in England and Wales was a key means by which middle-class families were able to reproduce themselves and maintain their economic and social status. Wealth and property ownership underpinned political power, participation in civil society and were integral to individual and family identity. Inheritance developed was the primary way in which social inequality could be reproduced across generations and over time.

This unique and interdisciplinary project investigates broader significance of wealth and inheritance in 19th and early-20th century Britain. The project team, consisting of academics based in history and geography departments from three UK universities, will analyse the social, economic, cultural and political significance of inheritance.

At the centre of this project is an extensive national-scale study of how people passed on wealth through inheritance from 1853 to 1940. The specialisms of the team members will allow for innovative anaylsis of this data and new insights into a number of important topics, such as how the transmission of property differed over time and over space, the importance of passing wealth to friends and family, and their involvement in the transmission process, in addition exploring the impact of the Married Women’s Property Acts on women’s wealth-holding and bequests. The project members will contexulise these patterns through the examination of inheritance law, the evolution of estate taxation and understandings of the cultural meanings of propety transmission.

This research will generate a new and integrated insight into inheritance in 19th and 20th century Britain, demonstrating its importance for understanding social inequality and intergenerational well-being and justice.

The project is funded by the Philomathia Foundation and the Isaac Newton Trust.

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Pictures above reproduced with the kind permission of the Hampshire Record Office.

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