Estate Acts of Parliament, 1740–1800


  • Michael McCahill

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    • I wish to thank Professor Andrew Kaufman for providing access to material in the Harvard Law School Library and for directing me to authorities which could answer questions regarding legal issues; Mari Takayanagi, who instructed me on how to use the Portcullis system to find the correct citations for acts, petitions, judges' reports and the manuscript minutes of the Lords' committees; and Zoe Stanwell at the British Library, for her help in finding references.


This study of 18th-century estate acts draws upon the range of manuscript and printed materials relating to 428 estate bills to determine the nature of these measures, the backgrounds and motivations of their sponsors and their impact both upon the properties of individual promoters and on the broader economy. Estate acts enabled small proprietors, gentry and grandees (including a number of women) to free themselves from restrictions imposed by settlements and made it possible for them to sell, lease, exchange, partition, mortgage, alter earlier acts, or make other amendments to existing settlements. Many authorities have stressed the degree to which this legislation promoted economic growth, but the principal finding of this study is that, in the largest number of cases, they were utilised to alleviate indebtedness incurred primarily as a result of personal extravagance and secondarily because of overly generous provision for widows and younger children. While attesting to the positive economic contributions of landowners who tapped mineral resources and promoted urban development, the largest number of bills illuminate the costs of sustaining their self-indulgent and unproductive expenditure.