Oct 01

Building a 19th Century English Town by Polly McCrillis

2014-01-13 00.19.21-2Please welcome Polly McCrillis to my blog. Polly writes historical romance under the pen name Isabel Mere. As  a medievalist, I have a special interest in the area of England’s south coast she’s talking about today. It’s just down the road from the historic town of Hastings.


Thank you for having me as your guest, Anna.

While doing research for Almost Denied, the fifth book in my historical romance Almost series, I came across an article about the laws of land ownership in 19th century England. Specifically, laws pertaining to women being landowners. It was lengthy and brimming with legalese jargon but I was able to interpret it well enough to learn that a wife at that time could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract. Through marriage, a woman’s existence was incorporated into that of her husband’s, a husband and his wife being viewed as one person and that person was the husband. He, and any male could own property. In contrast to a married woman, one who never married or was widowed was allowed to maintain control over her property and inheritance. Since by law an unmarried adult female was considered a femme sole, a single woman, she could make contracts in her name, own property and control its disposal. If she married, the only way she could reclaim property was through widowhood.perf5.500x8.500.indd

Well, this rankled me on so many levels. I’m no novice when it comes to researching for my books so I knew that a wife was merely a shadow in her husband’s life, not an individual really, rather more a piece of property he could tend to or ignore. Nothing new here, but I hadn’t given much thought to that in regards to a wife’s right to own a piece of land. And if she inherited land from her family, it would become her husband’s property and he would have complete say in what became of it. From this research a character began to emerge, a woman, with property, fearful that it would be taken away from her. How did she come by it and who wanted it?

Enter James Burton. Further research led to much information about Mr. Burton (1761-1837), a Scotsman christened with the name of Haliburton, shortened in 1790 to Burton. James Burton was probably the most significant builder of Georgian London, responsible for large areas of Bloomsbury, St Johns Wood, Clapham Common and many homes around London’s Regent Park. The gross value of the houses he built there is in the region of £2,000,000.

In 1826, at the age of 65, Mr. Burton decided he wanted to build a town on land owned by him and under his supervision. He envisioned this town as a seaside resort for the well-to-do. The population of Britain was rapidly increasing, (already 13 million by 1815), in large part due to the Industrial Revolution and expansion of international trade, resulting in a new generation of wealthy people. Financial markets at home, growing commercial interests and a rise in industrial economy offered new opportunities for generating wealth and there were many people who were very good at it. Burton saw an opportunity to tap into their monetary acumen and assets.

240px-East_Sussex_UK_location_map.svgBeing that he lived in London, James Burton had some traveling to do to find land he deemed fine enough for this resort. He settled on a piece of land that had been part of Gensing farm, a section of land that had belonged to Charles Eversfield, when upon his death in 1818, was sold for development by his trustees. The strip of land had a frontage of 1151 yards (a mile is 1760 yards) along East Sussex’s seafront near Hastings, as far southeast as you can get in England and still be on terra firma. land. He purchased the land in 1828 for £7800. (As I did in the acknowledgments for Almost Denied, I again thank Alison, the town’s curator and historian for providing me the details of the purchase as well as history of the town.) Burton named the town St. Leonard-on-Sea (now known as St. Leonards) after the old parish, a church that had ceased to be used after 1428.


Drawing by John Foulon 1834



Drawing by John Foulon 1845 St. Leonard’s Hotel centre


Before James died in 1837 he completed St. Leonards Hotel (now Royal Victoria Hotel), as well as the South Colonnade and several tall seafront houses. His son, Decimus, saw to the town’s remaining construction.

I’ve traveled to the UK, but no further south than London. A dream of mine is to have a book signing at the St. Leonard’s Hotel; I’ll sit on the wide veranda, sip my tea and nibble on cakes and envision Colonel Ross Rayne and Gianna LeBon strolling hand in hand on the beach along The English Channel’s seaside. How romantic!St. Leonards beach now

Looking east towards Hastings

Looking east towards Hastings

Gateway to Burton’s St. Leonards

Is there a place you’ve set a book in that you haven’t been to but would like to visit?


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  1. Sandy

    Hi Polly,
    I enjoyed your post very much. Women have had to fight for their rights all their lives and still do, especially in the Middle East.

    1. Polly

      Hi Sandy. You’re so right. Women in the US and many other countries are exceptionally fortunate to have the freedoms they do. Not to be taken for granted.

      1. Sandy

        You’re so right we should never take our freedoms for granted, or we could lose them again.

  2. Judy Baker

    Polly, interesting post – women have come a long way since the 1800s, but there’s still a long road to travel in all parts of the earth. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Polly

      Thank you, Judy for taking the time to visit. What I learn from researching past centuries always makes grateful that I have what I do. So many before me can’t say the same.

  3. Melissa Keir

    Great post. It is funny that only when men wanted/needed women’s votes, were they given rights (Wyoming). I really wonder if women had a choice in not marrying. Could they decide to not marry and keep their own property?? Or would society force them out?

  4. Polly

    Hi Melissa, I think the decision to marry was one the woman could make for herself if there wasn’t pressure from the family to wed. If they didn’t marry they could keep property as long as it was bequeathed by the family – or a widow.

  5. Pat Amsden

    We take for granted the rights so many women in the past fought for. I hope your dream comes true and you’re able to sit on the veranda sipping tea and eating dainty cakes while envisioning your characters walking towards you.

    And yes, I often envisage myself and my characters in various scenes. Often they involve chocolate.

  6. Maggie Bolitho

    Thanks for an informative blog that reminds us of the importance of research and not applying contemporary values to prior periods.

    I remember a sociology prof saying that, in Canada, women were once categorized in the same legal-rights category as drunkards and lunatics. I wish I’d thought to record the source of that comment.

    We should never take our liberty for granted – or stop striving for greater parity with men.

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