All mod cons in ye olde 'des res'

July 2, 2004

As the Anglo-American Conference of Historians gathers, we offer three takes on its theme, wealth and poverty.

Adrian Green glimpses the start of the modern property market in a 16th-century estate agents.

Housing has long been an important asset for those of moderate as well as immoderate wealth, and it has had a vital part in the rising prosperity of the middling sort in England from the later 16th century onwards. Before that time, the commercial value of housing had motivated landlords to erect buildings for rent; but in the two centuries from about 1550, the nature of the housing market altered as a broader range of people bought or built to let.

Their tenants were part of the growing numbers of people who were charged a commercial rather than a customary rent, and they obtained their accommodation through the market rather than through inheriting a family home. The "upper middling sort", especially members of the professions, retiring tradesmen and well-off unmarried women, relied heavily on income from houses, cottages or lodgings. This group included urbanites who invested in houses rather than aspired to landed gentility.

The mechanisms of the housing market also changed. By the early decades of the 17th century, specialist property agents had emerged to orchestrate the sale or letting of property. Property advertisements were placed in newspapers in London, beginning in the middle of the 17th century. These included notices for houses, shops, farms and other commercial and industrial premises. These ads stress the "conveniences" of housing.

Advertisements targeting the genteel encompassed "sumptuous apartments" in towns and "seat houses to suit a private family" in the countryside, with emphasis placed on the number of heated rooms, domestic services and decoration, garden features and the proximity of leisure amenities.

Commercial aspects were more prominent in ads for middling properties, with the appurtenances of shops and farms enumerated in detail.

Yet the distinction between genteel private houses and public commercial establishments should not necessarily be taken to imply a status division, as differing forms of property catered to different stages of life. Those retiring from trade or acquiring a residence away from commercial interests in middle age might earlier in life have occupied lodgings and bought small houses as newlyweds.

A commercial housing market was not new to the early modern period, and similar issues affected housing in the centuries before 1550. It was the development of print advertising and specialist agents and the emergence of new forms of exchange (notably auctions), along with the changes in the practice and legal framework of tenure and the new notions attached to "property" and "market" that made this property market different from its predecessors.

And yet, in important ways, this period did witness the beginnings of our modern property market. Perhaps the most instructive lesson from this period is the way in which social obligations were bound up with economic transactions. This was a society of householders, not house owners, and interpersonal relationships were inescapably part of the housing market when few people possessed full and outright ownership. Family and friendship, as well as the personality and policy of institutional and individual landlords, played a big part in the decisions made over where to dwell. While plenty of people were given a hand in climbing the property ladder, others were shoved off it.

Adrian Green is a lecturer in the department of history at Durham University.

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