Independent Women: Investing in British Railways, 1870-1922

  • Graeme G. Acheson; Gareth Campbell; Áine Gallagher and John D. Turner
  • Economic History Review, 2020
  • A version of this paper can be found here
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What are the Research Questions

When we think of the investing community of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, our minds might immediately think of characters such as Rich Uncle Pennybags(1). It turns out that Uncle Pennybags should be joined, if not replaced, by “Rich Aunt Stuffed-Pockets”. Scholars have documented the rise of women investing during the nineteenth century but this paper focuses on answering two important questions about the development of female investors:
  1. How did this phenomenon progress into the twentieth-century?
  2. Whether women shareholders over a century ago behaved differently from their male counterparts?

What are the Academic Insights?

By analyzing the shareholder constituencies of railways(2), which were the largest public companies at the time and a popular investment among the middle class, the authors find:
  1. Women were playing an important role in financial markets in the early twentieth century: there is evidence of the growing importance of women shareholders from 1843, when they made up about 11 percent of the Great Western Railway shareholder base, to 1920 when they constituted about 40 percent of primary shareholders. By the early twentieth century, women represented 30 to 40 percent of shareholders in each railway company in our sample, which is in line with estimates of the number of women investing in other companies at this time.
  2. At a time when joint shareholdings were fairly common,
    • Women were much more likely to be solo shareholders than men, with 70 to 80 percent of women investing on their own, compared to just 30 to 40 percent of men. When women participated in joint shareholdings, there was no discernible difference as to whether they were the lead shareholder or the secondary shareholder, whereas the majority of men took up a secondary position in their joint shareholdings.
    • Women were more likely than men, and solo investors more likely than joint shareholders, to invest locally. This suggests that while men may have used joint investments as a way of reducing the risks of investing at a distance, women preferred to maintain their independence even if this meant focusing more on local investments.
    • Male and joint shareholders were more likely than female and solo shareholders to hold multiple railway stocks. This could imply that men were using joint shareholdings as a means of increasing diversification. In contrast, women may have been prioritizing independence, even if it meant being less diversified.

Why does it matter?

These findings provide evidence that women shareholders were acting independently by choosing to take on the sole risks and rewards of share ownership when making their investments as a single shareholder as opposed to sharing the risks and rewards via a joint shareholding. The conclusions of this paper paints a more nuanced picture of how we should think about female investors in the past.

The Most Important Chart from the Paper:

The results are hypothetical results and are NOT an indicator of future results and do NOT represent returns that any investor actually attained. Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect management or trading fees, and one cannot invest directly in an index.


The early twentieth century saw the British capital market reach a state of maturity before any of its global counterparts. This coincided with more women participating directly in the stock market. In this paper, we analyze whether these female shareholders chose to invest independently of men. Using a novel dataset of almost 500,000 shareholders in some of the largest British railways, we find that women were much more likely to be solo shareholders than men. There is also evidence that they prioritized their independence above other considerations such as where they invested or how diversified they could be.

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