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History, economics, business, politics…and Sussex

British Female Entrepreneurship

Picture Credit: [Cropped] “Dame Anita Roddick plaque” by J’Roo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Researching this topic revealed some surprising results. For example, I was unaware that nearly 30% of businesses in Victorian Britain were owned and run by women. ‘Female Entrepreneurs’ is a big subject, and it doesn’t do it justice to try to cover it in a few pages. All that can be managed is to focus on a few aspects and leave it to you to read further from the sources referred to in this paper.

To start at a comparatively recent time, Dame Anita Roddick comes to mind. Born in 1942 to a Jewish-Italian family, Anita Perella was the third of four children. She grew up in Littlehampton, West Sussex and is remembered as one of Britain’s leading female entrepreneurs as the founder of The Body Shop. On 27th March 1976, she opened the doors to her first shop in Brighton, having become interested in environmental activism at an early age through her world travels. From small beginnings, simply to pay the bills, it quickly grew into a business with more than 2,100 stores and more than 77 million customers, operating in more than 20 countries. When asked about how she succeeded in a tough male-oriented business world, she famously said:

‘If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.’

From the beginning, Anita Roddick’s business plan was quite simple: to create a cosmetic range from natural ingredients and rather than rely on vanity to sell her products, she would appeal to her customers’ concern for the environment. Her company was one of the first to boycott the use of ingredients that had been tested on animals. By combining low-key marketing, consumer education and social activism, The Body Shop rewrote the rulebook for the $16 billion global cosmetics business and made Roddick one of the richest women in England.[1]

Back in time
You need to go back nearly 4,000 years ago, to 1870 BC, in the city of Assur in the north of Iraq, for the first, or one of the first, female entrepreneurs. In that place, at that time, was a woman called Ahaha who discovered a case of financial fraud. She had invested in long-distance trade between Assur and the city of Kanesh in Turkey – she and other investors had pooled silver to finance a donkey caravan delivering tin and textiles to Kanesh to exchange for more silver. The trouble was that her share of the profits had disappeared in a puff of smoke. It is not known whether or not she got her money back.

A recent book (published in 2020)[2] gives new insight into a remarkable group within this community: women who grabbed opportunities that opened for them and took on roles more typically filled by men at the time. These Assur women became the first-known businesswomen, female bankers and female investors in the history of the world. 

At that time, ‘complex’ financial instruments and business structures enabled this trading to work. For example, ‘naruqqum’, which literally means “bag”, and was a joint-stock company in which Assyrian investors pooled their silver to fund merchant-led caravans over many years.

The merchants also had their own business vocabulary, such as:

  • “The tablet is dead” meant that a debt had been paid, and the clay-tablet contract recorded that it was cancelled (settled).
  • “Hungry silver” referred to silver that was not being invested but was idly sitting around instead of being put to profitable economic use.

Cécile Michel, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, is the author of the book: Women of Assur and Kanesh: Texts from the archives of Assyrian Merchants.[3]

The 18th Century: City (London) Woman Traders
In London, an outdoor exhibition of City Women traders in the 18th century was held between 21st September and 18th October 2019[4]. The introductory text on the website says:

‘In the 18th century, many women worked in luxury manufacturing and sales in the Cheapside area between St Paul’s and the Royal Exchange. They were not only employed to make the clothing, jewellery, prints, fans, trunks and furniture on sale; they also ran some of the businesses.

These women, all of whom were members of London’s livery companies, employed thousands more in their trades. Some of these elite employers produced highly ornamental trade cards to advertise their business. These represent only a fraction of all the business women trading over the 18th century. Others we know of through their printed products (e.g., Sarah Ashton, fanmaker), or an insurance policy (Eleanor Coade, merchant), or livery company records (Martha Gurney, printer).

Most of the surviving business cards are in two collections in the British Museum. The first collector was Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818). The sister of Joseph Banks, who collected items of natural history, she collected material relating to the social history of her own day. The second collector was Ambrose Heal (1872-1959), arts and crafts furniture designer and heir to Heal’s furniture shop which had been established in Tottenham Court Road since the 1850s.’

There’s a YouTube video available online at: as well as several audio files at as well as downloads from:

Victorian Times
Women formed a sizeable part of the business population, owning 27-30% of all businesses between 1851 and 1911. Compare that with statistics from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which show that 21% of businesses were women-led in 2017.

Research by Carry van Lieshout confirmed that close to 30% of businesses in Victorian Britain were run by women, a proportion that was much larger than previously estimated. This work is based on the British Business Census of Entrepreneurs, created at the University of Cambridge as part of the project ‘Drivers of Entrepreneurship’ under Professor Robert Bennett.[5]

While nowadays, the sectors with the highest proportions of female involvement include education and health services, where women constitute 50% of owners, back in Victorian Britain, the most women-dominated sectors were clothing manufacturing and personal services. In 2017, manufacturing was one of the lowest sectors for female business participation at 12% – unchanged from 1901.

And while several of the Victorian manufacturing businesses that were run by women were related to the textile industry, there were also many women running more traditionally masculine trades: an example is Eliza Tinsley, who in 1871 owned a nail and chain manufacturing firm in Dudley, Staffordshire, employing 4,000 people[6]. The business produced wrought iron, nails, rivets, chains, chain cables and anchors.  The company website (yes, the business is still going) says[7]:

A picture containing building, outdoor, old, city

Description automatically generated‘English School’, 19th Century, Snow Hill, Holborn, London

Attribution: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  File URL:

‘Many employees were outworkers, living in chain-maker’s cottages – visiting the company site once a week to collect materials and then returning the next with finished products.  Chain making was incredibly labour intensive and the heat, dirt and strength involved resulted in a very male-dominated industry – making Eliza’s success even more of an achievement.’

Case Studies: 17th and 18th Century
An article by Pamela Sharpe. Lecturer in Social and Economic History at University of Bristol, Tasmania, Australia,[8] sets the scene about women entrepreneurs:

‘Women inhabited some unlikely settings in the early modern world, and in some cases, their impact extended well beyond the confines of their home and local community. Case studies of British businesswomen in the early industrial era establish their presence in the areas of long-distance trade, heavy industry, and high finance. Research on specific families or regions has revealed that from about 1650 to 1780, women-owned and actively manipulated a good deal of family and business capital. The fashion trade offered scope to businesswomen who could exploit “separate spheres” to their own advantage.

‘Women edged out of overseas trade during this period in favour of the expanding domestic retail sector, particularly for luxury goods. By the late eighteenth century, as the infant mortality rate dropped and life expectancy increased for the middle orders, more sons survived, fewer women were left widows, and younger women were more occupied with childcare. While changing social attitudes emphasised the ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women, changing demographics formed the practical underpinning of these social conventions.’

In recent years, the number of women-owned businesses has  risen exponentially. But female entrepreneurship is not just a hallmark of the modern era: Since as early as the 17th century, women have been forging their own paths in various trades. From merchants to ironmasters to dressmakers, these historic women shattered glass ceilings and broke stereotypes and rose to the top of their industries.

An analysis[9] of female business success and failure in Victorian and Edwardian England by The Economic History Society concluded:

‘This research indicates that Victorian and Edwardian businesswomen were perfectly able to trade in a fashion similar to the one of their male counterpart and, if anything, they were more successful. This leads to a basic and probably intuitive policy implication: if we want more women to successfully engage in business, all we have to do is to remove the economic, social, and cultural barriers that limit their access to opportunities.’

An analysis of female business success and failure in Victorian and Edwardian England was carried out in an article written in March 2018 by Jennifer Aston (Oxford University) and Paulo di Martino (University of Birmingham), available online on the Economic History Society website[10]. It makes for interesting reading. The full paper was published in the Economic History Review, accessible here.

In introducing the article, Jennifer Aston says:

‘Do women and men trade in different ways? If so, why? And are men more or less successful than women? These are very important questions not just, or not only for the academic debate but also for the policy implications that might emerge, especially in countries such as the UK where, rightly or wrongly, we believe in personal entrepreneurship as one of the main antidotes to unemployment and to the crisis of big business. In economic history, it has traditionally been argued that women and men traded in similar ways up to the industrial revolution, but since then, women have been progressively relegated to a “separate sphere” allowed, at most, some engagement with naturally “female” occupations such as textiles or food provision. Although more recent literature has strongly undermined this view, a lot of ground has still to be covered, especially about the period post-1850s.

Atlas of Entrepreneurship[11]
A new resource has been launched that gives new insights into entrepreneurship development up to the start of the 20th century. It enables Regional Studies researchers, students and schools to look at the geography of entrepreneurs recorded in the censuses of England, Wales and Scotland for the period 1851-1911. It’s available as a brilliant online interactive Atlas of Entrepreneurship.[12]

Challenges of Workplace Equality for WomenPicture Credit:Challenges of Workplace Equality for Women” by treasury_curator is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Sources and Further Reading

Free Downloads

  1. Sourced from: Anita Roddick’s biography ay:

  2. See:

  3. Excerpted from:

  4. See:

  5. Source: Article by Carry van Lieshout, Portrait of a lady: the female entrepreneur in England and Wales, 1851-1911, at:
  6. Source:

  7. See:

  8. See:

  9. See:

  10. At:

  11. Citation: Bennett, R. J., van Lieshout, C., Smith, H., Montebruno, P. and Lucas-Smith, M. 2020. BBCE: Atlas of Entrepreneurship. Accessed on [30/3/2022]

  12. Source: The British Business Census of Entrepreneurs – BBCE – is the primary source for large scale information on the business population of entrepreneurs in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Introduction by Bob Bennett (University of Cambridge, UK). See: Citations: Bennett, R. J., van Lieshout, C., Smith, H., Montebruno, P. and Lucas-Smith, M. 2020. BBCE website – The British Business Census of Entrepreneurs. Accessed on [30/3/2022].

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