Maritime Business Women

It is easy to assume that nineteenth century middle-class women spent their time looking after the house and children while their husbands toiled in the work place. Detailed research into the maritime communities around the coast of England reveals a rather different picture.

During the nineteenth century women were very involved in the maritime industry. Many were owners of shares in ships, some owned fleets of ships and some were owners of shipyards and other associated businesses (see Books).

Mrs Mary Ross, shipbuilder

Mrs Mary Ross, based at Rochester, was a warship builder. She had a shipyard in Rochester, which she inherited when her husband died and here she built warships from 1808 to 1815.

Here is a letter of 1810 from Mrs Ross to her customer, the Navy Board, in which she expresses her annoyance at their delays.

“I received your letter of 22 informing me that it is now your intention that the Vigo shall be launched instead of being kept on the slip until April or May and you desire to know when she will be ready - in answer to which I beg leave to acquaint yr. Hon Board that after you had expressed a wish to have the ship remain on the slip, I fully signalled in my mind that such was your determination and in consequence I had some of the shipwrights & joiners discharged. She would otherwise have been finished and long before this launched but you are now pleased to alter from your first intent I beg to assure you that every exertion shall be used to have her launched as soon as possible which I hope will be the 20 or 21 February.” 
The National Archives

Mrs Ross was not the only woman running such an important shipyard. Mrs Frances Barnard ran one of the largest yards on the Thames employing over 300 men and her yard built East India Ships and also warships for the navy during the Napoleonic wars.

Mrs Jane Avery, managing owner

Women ran sailmaking businesses, chandlers, navigation schools and even heavy industry such as industrial forges. They also invested in shipping and some became the business manager of the ship, known as a managing owner. Jane Avery was based at North Shields, she was managing owner of several ships in the 1850s and 60s.

With so many people holding shares in one ship (there could be as many as 32 owners), it was usual to appoint one of them as the managing owner. This person took the key decisions, handled the finances, managed the paperwork and communicated with other owners.

Jane's husband, George, was a shipowner with shares in more than eighteen vessels. He died in 1857 leaving Jane, aged 41, with eight children aged from one to 18. Jane began (or possibly continued) an active career as shipowner and managing agent. At the time of George's death she inherited full ownership of two vessels, Beecher Stowe and British Lion.

Jane added to her fleet and, with sole ownership of most of the vessels, she was in complete control. Her ships travelled to India, Singapore and the Mediterranean. From 1857 onwards she bought several additional vessels, wholly owning most of them and being named as their managing owner. Later she passed some shares to three of her children, but she did not relinquish control.

Jane Avery's ships:

  • Beecher Stowe, built 1853
  • British Lion, built 1856
  • Eddystone, built 1860
  • George Avery, built 1862
  • Hesse Darmstadt, built 1863
  • Blair Atholl, built 1864
  • Jane Avery, built 1865
  • Life Brigade, built 1866

Widows, spinster and wives were involved in many aspects of the shipping world. See Helen Doe’s bookEnterprising Women and Shipping in the Nineteenth Century.