Hidden investors: what joint shareholders tell us about social institutions and inheritance

October 5, 2022 | Blog
Home > Hidden investors: what joint shareholders tell us about social institutions and inheritance

by Janette Rutterford (Open University), Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos (Open University), and Carry van Lieshout (Open University)

This blog post is based upon the authors’ article forthcoming in the Economic History Review.


In the wake of the Companies Acts of 1856 and 1862 and the introduction of limited liability, a striking change took place in the British shareholding population. A growing number of individuals from a widening social spectrum, including the less affluent, began to own stocks and shares. Gentlemen, solicitors, and peers of the realm were joined by retailers, professional men, skilled workers, and women as owners of company securities.


There has been growing interest among researchers in the history of UK shareholders and their investment behaviour. In recent years, researchers have turned to shareholder registers to establish how many shareholders there were in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when individual investors accounted for more than 98 per cent of names in the registers, far outweighing financial institutions. How many of these individual investors were there? Who were they? Which shares did they prefer? A rough estimate puts the number of UK shareholders at no more than 2.5 per cent of the total population around 1900. As for who they were, there is evidence that women represented an increasing proportion of individual investors over time, reaching 45 per cent of investors in number and 33 per cent in value by the 1930s. Another finding is that women invested proportionately more in lower risk securities—such as fixed interest bonds and fixed dividend preference shares—than did men, with a bias toward railway securities and government bonds.


The missing element in all of these findings is that they fail to distinguish between shareholdings and shareholders. British companies allowed more than one investor to hold shares jointly and provided details of the joint shareholders’ names in their share registers. Researchers, though, have treated the first-named or primary holder as sole owner, ignoring any co-owners listed in the register. As a result, the number of shareholders and their gender have been mis-estimated, and the role of joint holdings as an investment strategy ignored.


In our article forthcoming in the Economic History Review, we fill this gap by analysing joint holdings using a dataset of 261 lists of shareholders of 47 companies registered in England and Wales, compiled between 1870 and 1935, and comprising a total of 31,629 holdings, which amounts to 35,848 individual investors. Our findings show that a significant number of UK investors—about one in five—were involved in joint holdings between 1870 and 1935. Analysis based only on first-named investors in this sample would leave out about 12 per cent of total shareholders.


We also find significant differences between the use of joint holdings by men and by women. Our results show that women were more likely to hold shares on their own: 88 per cent of women in our sample were solo shareholders compared to only 77 per cent of men. This difference has been explained as evidence of women exercising their independence from men. But our findings lead to a completely different explanation of this phenomenon.


Familial tiesexamples include married couples, parents and their children, and unmarried siblings—as well as people acting in the capacity of executors explain some joint holdings. For instance, a widow might act as executor of her husband’s will after her husband’s death, together with a family member or friend, with both becoming de facto joint holders. However, solo holders could also take the role of executor, and we find that it was more common for women to appear as sole executors than men.


Most importantly, given the broad scope of our sample, across different types of securities and sectors, we found that in sectors with a high proportion of low-risk securities recommended by the law courts as suitable for trusts—so-called trustee securities, such as the railway sector preferred shares and debentures—women appeared as solo investors in significantly higher proportions than men.  This was simply because some men were acting as financial intermediaries, such as trustees, most commonly in pairs; they were listed in the shareholder register as joint beneficial owners, as English (but not Scots) law required. The English registers provide no information on who the ultimate beneficiaries were, though many of these were likely to be women drawing income from a trust fund. This hints at an underestimate of the number and importance of women investors, as ultimate beneficiaries. What at first glance seemed to suggest higher preference of women for solo and independent shareholding was in fact the latent effect of existing social institutions of ownership where men acted on behalf of others in a fiduciary role as well as being direct owners of shares.


To contact the authors:






Acheson, G., Campbell, G., Gallagher, Á., and Turner, J. D., ‘Independent women: Investing in British railways, 1870-1922’, Economic History Review, 74 (2021), pp. 471-95.

Rutterford, J., Green, D. R., Maltby, J., and Owens, A., ‘Who comprised the nation of shareholders? Gender and investment in Great Britain, c. 1870–1935’, Economic History Review, 64 (2011), pp. 157-87.

Rutterford, J., Sotiropoulos, D. P., and van Lieshout C. ‘Individual investors and social ownership structures in the UK before the 1930s: Joint holdings and trustee investment’, Economic History Review (forthcoming).

Stebbings, C., The private trustee in Victorian England (Cambridge, 2003).