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Memory Lane: Georgian Ashbourne wasn't entirely a man's world...

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: May 07, 2014

  • Ashbourne, 1795, John Aitken, A Description of the Country from 30 to 40 Miles Around Manchester

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Pete Collinge, an historian living in Ashbourne, talks about Barbara Ford, who ran a business in the town.

IT may come as a surprise to modern readers that women in Georgian England ran businesses.

But, in 1800, about 10% of Ashbourne's enterprises were owned or managed by women.

One owner was Barbara Ford (1755–1840), a 33-year-old widow.

In the summer of 1788, she took over her husband's malthouse in Back Lane – now Union Street.

With seven malthouses, Ashbourne was a renowned centre for the production of malt, which was used in the brewing and baking industries.

Malt was made from barley and involved a complex series of processes.

Producing quality malt relied on detailed knowledge of how barley was grown, when to harvest it, how long to soak it in water for and, most importantly, how to control the temperature needed to germinate the grain.

Barley had to be bought at market, customers supplied and the tax man kept happy.

So, how did Barbara gain enough knowledge to run a malthouse? The answer lies in her family background.

She was the daughter of wealthy farmers John and Margaret Wheeldon, of Cronkston Grange, near Hartington.

Her aunt and uncle, Ann and Joseph Goodwin, farmed the estate at Biggin Hall and her husband's family were tenant farmers at Little Park, on the Okeover estate.

Grain was produced on all these farms, so Barbara would have been fully aware of what good barley looked like.

She may even have produced ale at Cronkston, as this was a task often performed by women on farms.

The Back Lane malthouse employed about five people. It was larger than most malthouses and was able to process 400 pounds in weight of barley a week.

The cost of barley to the business could be enormous, however. In the mid-1790s, Barbara was spending about £750 a year on barley – but disastrous harvests in 1800 sent the price of grain soaring.

By 1801, the cost of barley to Barbara's business had risen to about £2,400.

Beyond her business, Barbara used her position and wealth to support the interests of the town.

With grain prices rising, it was widely suspected the price paid for it at Ashbourne market was being fixed and, worse, the market was being brought into disrepute by unscrupulous people selling adulterated grain and short weights.

In September 1800, Barbara – along with 41 other residents – formed a society to prosecute people found to be cheating customers in the market.

They acted quickly and, in the same month, a man was fined £5 for selling half-a-stone of adulterated flour.

Barbara was also a founder and patron of the Ashbourne Female Friendly Society in 1806, even though she was too old to be admitted as a member – the upper age limit was 40. Working women paid weekly into this fund and, in times of need – such as childbirth, illness and death – it helped them out.

So, as well as running a business, employing people and protecting the town's business interests, Barbara helped other women in the community.

Of all Barbara's skills, perhaps she was best at financial management.

In 1809, she negotiated a marriage settlement – like a pre-nuptial agreement – for her daughter, Mary.

Barbara arranged for Mary to have £1,000 for her own use. This meant Mary's husband could not have access to the money.

In return, Mary gave her mother all the property she had inherited when her father died, including the malthouse.

When Barbara died in 1840, all the property was returned to Mary.

Mary also inherited £9,000 in cash – about £400,000 in today's money.

In Barbara, we can see that a woman's place in Georgian Ashbourne was far from just being in the home.

She played an important part in creating the society in which she lived.

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