The History of Women in Estate Agency – the 1880s and 1890s

3 December 2021

Winter 1890 Fashion Plate (Winterthur Museum Library – Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1880s estate agency was almost unheard of as a career for women, especially as we know it today. Home ownership was relatively unusual, and was largely the preserve of the upper classes. Estate Agents were generally employed to manage portfolios of property for the landed gentry, and a significant part of their duty was to collect rents. This was big business – especially as property letting was far more common than today. It was usual to sell freehold property by auction, rather than by private treaty.

Estate agents operated a powerful old boys network, and would almost invariably employ their sons and proteges in their businesses. The pages of the estate agents’ yearbooks and journals of that time are full of gentleman estate agents, with not a lady in sight. Women rarely if ever worked for them, let alone heading up their own agencies. But times were changing.

There was a well established season for lettings in the UK which followed the rhythm of Parliament. Upper class families set off for the London season in late October with the opening of the new session of Parliament, and returned to the country in June with the summer recess. Women saw a gap in the market, matching up house hunters, who were mostly women, with their ideal London homes or holiday residences. Thus the majority of women coming into estate agency during this period established letting agencies.

The first lady I have found who took up estate agency in her own right in the 1880s was Miss Eliza Langley of Reading, Berkshire, who was born in 1834 or the New Year of 1835 in River, near Dover. Should you be inspired to find out more about her, a photo of Eliza, some of her personal papers, and some records of her business, ‘Lovejoy’s Library and Estate Agency’ are held at the Berkshire Record Office.

By 1871 Eliza was an assistant in George Lovejoy’s successful circulating library, said to be the largest of its kind outside London, with more than 70,000 volumes, and 268 registered susbcribers. George had taken over the business in 1832. It incorporated a bookshop, stationery sales, and a small printing business publishing local directories and almanacs. He was operating a small employment agency by 1834, and a letting agency from at least 1836. His business premises were at 39 London Street, and he lived next door at number 37. Eliza was lodging with his sister Mary by 1871, then with George and his family by 1881. Eliza must have been an astute businesswoman, as George nominated her to manage the business, on a salary, in the event of his death. When George died in 1883, George’s widow and unmarried daughters moved away. Eliza took over the running of the business, including the letting agency. She purchased the business from George’s trustees in 1884, when she was 46 years old.

Eliza’s letterhead was a CV in itself:

Lovejoys Circulating Library. Office of the Southern Counties’ Estates Register and Lovejoys Household Almanack & Year Book. Miss Langley, Bookseller & Publisher. Stationer. Bookbinder. Printer. Engraver. Die Stamper. &c. Land House And Estate Agent. Agent for the Liverpool and London and Globe Fire & Life Insurance Company. Second hand books and libraries purchased, 37 & 39, London Street, Reading.

It seems that Eliza used the printing and distribution channels of the existing operations to enlarge the estate agency business from a list mainly confined to the Berkshire area, to properties across the whole of the South of England. The Southern Counties’ Estates Register which she published appears to have been Eliza’s own property listings publication. Atypical advertisement, in the London Evening Standard, 26 March 1894, read:

THE THAMES and COUNTRY. Miss Langley’s List of Furnished Riverside and Country Houses (a selection of over 250) is now ready, and will be sent on receipt of six stamps. Address Miss Langley, House and Estate Agent, 37 and 39 London Street, Reading, Publishing offices of the Southern Counties’ Estates Register.

A short article in The Sketch published on Wednesday 17 April 1895 corrected a description of her enterprise, thus giving us more details of her business.

In a chat with a lady house which recently appeared in these pages, it stated that another lady house agent, Miss Langley, of Reading, confines herself to houses on the Thames. Miss Langley, who has since 1884 carried on the large establishment of the late Mr George Lovejoy, the well known bookseller and librarian, informs me that this is not so, for Miss Langley has had on her books during the past twelve years not only riverside houses, but houses furnished and unfurnished, situated in all parts of the kingdom, and some on the Continent. She publishes, by the way, the Southern Counties Estates Register.

The Chat in question was with Miss Etta Nauen, of whom more later.

Eliza died at London Street on 22nd December 1897. Her reputation was strong enough that ‘The Bookseller’ published her obituary [The Bookseller No. 482, 13th January, 1898].

Eliza Langley (?–1897) was the proprietress of a well-known bookselling, library, and stationery establishment on London Street in Reading. After serving as a manageress to George Lovejoy, the former owner of the business, she purchased it from his trustees in 1884 and acted as proprietress until her death in December 1897. She was the daughter of George Langley, a paper-maker for Ford Mills, in Kent.

Th business was purchased by William Colebrook Long, who continued with the letting agency.

This article apppearing in the Dundee Evening Telegraph on 3rd April 1891 the lady house agent in Berkshire probably refers to Eliza Langley. The other lady is unknown.

A LADY HOUSE AGENT. Those of my readers, says “Miranda” in Lady’s Pictorial, who are interested the question of the various fields of women’s work, will remember that I referred last year to lady house agent in Berkshire. I have now heard another lady who has started an estate agency, and will undertake to collect rents, make out agreements and inventories, and do the usual work which appertains to the profession. Without doubt, women should make excellent estate agents, and succeed in letting desirable residences to tenants by means of their courtesy and knowledge of details.

In early February 1893 the newspaper correspondent Sydney Carstone in London sent out a synicated news aricle about two women of independent means who had spent several years as house decorators and were now setting up as estate agents in their own name. Carstone wrote:

Your energetic countrywomen Miss Caroline Crommelin and her sister Mrs Goring Thomas have struck out a new course for women by becoming house agents as well as house decorators. Those who know what it is to be at the tender mercies of the ordinary house agent will welcome the advent of a trustworthy, sympathetic and capable substitute  for that unsatisfactory personage. Although the London season can scarcely be said to have commenced as yet, the lady house agents have their hands full looking out for houses, flats and lodgings, furnished or unfurnished, for their numerous clientele. In this brancj of their business Miss Crommelin and Mrs Goring Thomas are assisted by Mr Shaw, son of a well known Irishman – the late Sir Robert Shaw.

These redoubtable women were Caroline Anna de la Cherois Crommelin (c 1854-1910) and her sister Florence Frances De La Cherois Crommelin, who had married a solicitor, Rhys Goring Thomas. Caroline and Florence were not specifically trained or apprenticed to the business, but came into it via decorating a room which their father allowed them to use in Carrowdore Castle. From then on they continued to develop their own taste and style. In 1888 Caroline lauched a business at 12 Buckingham Palace Road called ‘Arts at Home’. Its original remit was the sale of distressed Irish ladies’ handiwork, but as time went on, she developed her reputation as a house furnisher and decorator. Before long her sister joined her in her expanding business. One of the sisters’ specialities was upcycling plain oak furniture, with their own craftsmen adding ornate carving to it.

Tragically Florence died on 21st Feb 1895, aged only 37. A few months later Caroline married their assistant, Robert Barton Shaw. Caroline carried on the business, but she continued to develop the interior design aspects of her career. Robert must have taken a more central role in running the estate agency side of the business. Caroline died in Ramsgate on 1st February 1910.

In March 1894 Miss Etta Nauen launched a letting agency. I have found it difficult to research her life. The most likely person I have found is Henrietta Louisa Nauen who was born in Islington in 1866, the daughter of Edmund Nauer and Rebecca nee Baumann, and lived in Holland Park, Kensington, in 1881. She never married. Tragically she was killed during WW2, aged 77, in Gwendwr Road, Fulham. I hope to find out more about her, as she seems to be quite a strong willed and interesting young woman. She would have been just 28 years old when she started her letting agency. Etta was the subject of several longer editorials and interviews. I do wonder whether journalists heard of her themselves, whether she had a friend in journalism, or whether she was an expert in sending out press releases and engaging the press in her story. The first of these articles appeared in The Queen on 26th May 1894 and was penned by the anonymous ‘Onlooker’. The article gives us some insight into the perceived difficulties Victorian women experienced in finding and building a niche business:

NEW OCCUPATIONS. WHENEVER I HEAR THAT someone has ‘invented a new occupation for ladies’, I confess to hearkening with an inattentive ear. I have no belief in ‘invented occupations’. People do occasionally invent wants (running, I fancy, chiefly in such directions as dressing cases and recipes for making strawberries palatable), but the majority of us find ourselves equipped with such a large assortment of ready-made wants on arriving in this world that we come to the end of life before we have exhausted our outfit. Our principal wants are to be housed, fed, dressed, amused. It is a hackneyed statement of truth, no doubt; but all truths are hackneyed now, they have had such a long run. And another hackneyed truth is that you must catch one of these old wants and supply it if you want other people to supply these same antiquated wants of yours. But nine-tenths of the struggling gentlewomen remain struggling because they persist in offering to do for people just those things that people like doing for themselves, as, for instance, choosing their clothes, washing their face, reading their novels, and taking their lap dogs out walking. In this manner the struggling one tries to deprive her richer sister of her occupation, and the richer sister to whom the adjective “unemployed ” has become the worst term of opprobrium, naturally declines to surrender her claim upon public respect. Meantime the four primary wants remain the monopoly of the clever people.

One of these clever people — l am sure she is clever, for she has studied the want in a most systematic manner — is a lady who has just been made known to me. The want to which she addresses herself is the first in my list — housing — and therewith, it may be said, she combines something of the fourth, or amusement element. For the business upon which this lady has embarked is that of agent for houses and rooms such as people require for the summer holidays. Miss Nauen, 14, Ladbroke Gardens, W. (that is this enterprising lady’s address), has drawn up a Register of houses in the country or by the sea or riverside which appears to me eminently attractive. Having Londoners evidently chiefly in view, the majority of these summer residences are to be found at such places as Dorking, Guildford, Reigate, Maidenhead, Worthing, and so forth, but I also notice that Miss Nauen has brought into her list such places — to take a few at random — as Milford in Hampshire, Nairn and Aberfeldy in Scotland, Torquay, Tenby, and Ottery St. Mary. l am particularly glad to see that Miss Nauen in her prospectus lays stress on the fact that she ascertains for her clients whether the house they contemplate taking has not already been let through other agents. This is a point of great consequence. She abo undertakes to visit houses before recommending them. I notice, too, that very few of the houses in the register exceed in rental the sum that average families of the middle class are disposed to spend per week on their summer outing. Altogether, this seems to me to be one of those “well-laid schemes” which do not “gang aft agley,” the poet’s experience notwithstanding.

It seems to be Etta about whom a short piece was written in the York Herald, published on 1st March 1895.

Yet another avocation once sacred to men has been taken up by women. There is in the West End of London a lady house-agent. She confesses that she is not the only one of her kind, but she at present enjoys a monopoly, as far as her sex is concerned, in the West End of London. Her special occupation is the letting of furnished houses, a class of business which she says has bean very much neglected by the ordinary house agents. The result of her enterprise is described as satisfactory. She has a large and ever-increasing number of houses on her register, and she gets a fair proportion of applications which terminate in an arrangement to her advantage and to that of her clients.

An article in The Sketch later that month gives us some more wonderful insight into Etta’s business and its progress. There are many parallels to be drawn with estate agents starting out today. [The Sketch, Wednesday 27 March 1895].

A CHAT WITH A LADY HOUSE-AGENT. A house-agent’s business, started and managed entirely by a woman, seemed to me something of a novelty; so, ever on the look-out for anything new, on a Monday afternoon I found my way to one of the handsome private houses in Ladbroke Gardens, and inquired for Miss Etta Nauen. There was nothing suggestive of the ordinary business establishment about the trim parlourmaid in cap and apron who showed me into a cosy room at the back of the house which serves as office. But one glance at the bright, dark-eyed little lady, who rose to greet me from behind her writing-table, covered with folios and books of reference, convinced me that, though her surroundings were not those of the conventional house-agent, it was a business woman with whom I had to do. I opened the campaign by inquiring how long Miss Nauen had been in business. “Since March last year.” “In so short a time I suppose it is too early to ask if you are satisfied with your progress?” “No, I do not think so. Of course, initial expenses are very heavy, especially printing and postage, but no business is started without expenditure of capital, and I am quite content with my success up to the present time.” “Do you advertise much?” “Not so much as at the beginning. At first, I put notices in most of the country papers, and sent circulars to all the country rectories and vicarages, so that I might find out what accommodation pretty rural and seaside places could offer. But neither venture was of much good.” “Do you mind telling me why?” “Well, I hardly know, except that, in the first case, country people do not seem to read the advertisements of their country papers. In the second, the clergy sent me ample particulars of their houses, but my clients so often object to furnished rectories, and prefer anything else.” “But what made you think of such an unusual employment?” “It was suggested to me by a City man, who always spends the summer months in some pretty spot, sufficiently remote to be countrified, and yet near enough to town to enable him to run up three or four times a week. He made no restrictions as to locality or terms, yet found so much difficulty in meeting with what he required that he proposed someone should come to the rescue of those wanting to rent furnished houses.” “And you are that someone?” “Yes, I am. Furnished houses, as you will have gathered, are my specialite. The ordinary house-agent hardly finds it worth his while to take much trouble over such a small matter as letting a furnished cottage, say, for a couple of months. The result is that clients are constantly being annoyed by finding that, even among the few ‘orders to view’ given them, some of the houses are still occupied, some are not to let, and others are quite unsuitable. This annoyance I try to avoid by care fully ascertaining, before I give orders, if the property has been disposed of through other agencies.” “Do you inspect personally, Miss Nauen?” “Yes, when desired and practicable, but I have over four hundred houses and apartments on my books, and many are in Scotland and Wales.” “So you include apartments as well?” “Oh, yes, but I make a point of never recommending any unless I can obtain a reference from a recent occupant.” “And your terms are the usual ones, I suppose?” “The same as other agents’, except in the case of apartments, and then I charge a small fee for entering the name upon the books, and another, a trifle more, when an arrangement is completed.” “Do you find it difficult to enforce this charge?” “Sometimes, and I cannot help seeing that there is something to be said on the side of the landlady who is asked to put down half-a-crown and have her name entered on a book which, as far as she knows, may never exist. You see, she has no power of knowing I am not a swindler.” “Then what do you do?” “Enter the name, if I think it wiser, without the fee, and send the lodgers before I ask for anything.” “Do you get many funny letters?” “Some are very droll. Here is one from a poor soul very anxious to let her house, because ‘she has a heavy life insurance to pay, and to keep the kettle boiling.’ Rather a strange combination! Another owner of a cottage writes that she can provide very ‘comphordauble loggings’, the house being in the midst of ‘hills and walleys’, and covered with ‘onezsuckle’.” “Are you the only lady house agent?” “There is the Ladies’ House Agency in London, and Miss Langley, of Reading, carries on the same business, but she confines herself solely to houses on the Thames. I think I am the only lady who, single-handed, undertakes the letting of ‘country, seaside, riverside, and London houses, flats and apartments’, to quote from my circular.” And then the parlourmaid brought in tea, and, after the manner of women, we fell to talking of other topics.

A largely similar interview appeared in the Woman’s Signal on 30th May 1895, penned by ‘J M’.

A WOMAN HOUSE AGENT. INTERVIEW WITH MISS ETTA NAUEN. “The age of talkers must precede the age of practical reformers,” was the sage remark of Tourgenieff on a recent occasion. Tourgenieff is right, and indeed I must frankly own, and I trust it is a sign of grace on my part, that I fully appreciated the force of his dictum, on the occasion of my recent visit to Miss Etta Nauen. That lady is a practical reformer, whereas I — well, perhaps on occasion I am a talker, but to come to the point, I delineated a principle — l always said I should be a house-agent—and to my surprise I found Miss Etta Nauen had already incarnated it in action.

A NEED OF TO-DAY. We have been told to “learn of the past, live in the present, and make our laws to meet its needs,” and Miss Nauen, living in the present, from her experience in the past has learnt that a great need of today is that there should be women house-agents. Who — the house hunter is generally of the feminine gender — has not been in tribulation over the lodgings for the summer, or the house by the seaside into which you want to fit your family; the square family that must be fitted into the round hole? And who so well able as a woman, and perhaps a woman who has suffered, to enter into all the necessary details and find you “just the very thing.” So it will be with sincere pleasure and a sigh of deep relief that the readers of THE WOMAN’S SIGNAL will welcome this lady who has risen up to help them in their hour of need; Miss Etta Nauen, of 14, Ladbroke Gardens, W.

She is a charming little lady, young, bright, and eminently business-like and capable. Although it was long past business hours, Miss Nauen received me very courteously, and in answer to my first question as to what made her strike out so independent a line for an occupation, replied with great frankness. “Well, you see, it became necessary for me to do something, and here I felt was a real want, and an occupation that ought to be remunerative. I know the troubles and difficulties my friends and acquaintances have had to go through when they have wanted furnished houses or apartments at the seaside or in the country. My first intention when I started my agency was to go in for furnished houses only, but very soon I found people came to me for unfurnished ones as well. People living in the country, wanting houses or apartments in town, write and ask me to go and look at them.

WOMEN V. MEN. “Don’t you think,” Miss Nauen asked, looking at me for assent, “that women are more likely to understand and take trouble about the thousand and one details than men?” “Certainly I do,” I replied quickly, ” but tell me, Miss Nauen, you are the only woman house-agent in London, are you not?” “I believe I am the only independent woman house-agent in London. There is one lady at Reading who has taken up the same work, and yet again there is the Ladies’ Agency in Ebury Street, but with those exceptions, as far as I know, I am quite alone.” “And how long have you been in the business, if I may call it so,” I asked. “Only since March of last year. Just about a year and a quarter, you see.” “And,” — hesitatingly — “am I indiscreet, I wonder, if ask you if you have been as successful as you anticipated?” “I will forgive your indiscretion,” said Miss Nauen charitably. “I have been more successful than I anticipated. The expenses are of course very heavy. but no business is started without a considerable expenditure of capital; printing and postage mount up in a truly wonderful way.”

“How did you open fire — I mean, how did you make yourself and your business first known?” “By advertising, principally. I have a large number of country houses on my books, over four hundred (furnished), varying in rent from 12s 6d per week to twenty guineas, situated all over England, Scotland, and Wales, including London, Paris, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and even Jersey, so that I ought to be able to find what people want. But I make a special point of apartments. Realising the difficulties of house hunters, I have established an agency where I propose keeping a register of apartments which can be thoroughly recommended, and I never recommend any unless I have references from people who have stayed there. And again, there is another great point in letting furnished houses, there are not so many formalities to be gone through.” “You have not told me if you have any assistance with your work. Surely you don’t do it all yourself?” “Oh, but I do. You must know l am very systematic and regular. But let me show you my books.

THE LADY OF THE LEDGER. With these words, Miss Nauen brought out some ponderous volumes — ledgers she called them — at which I looked with a certain amount of awe and increased respect for the lady who seemed so at home with them, but I did not ask to be fully initiated into the mysteries contained in those awe-inspiring ledgers; I felt that my time was too short, and therefore, I hurriedly asked Miss Nauen if she went as far as to take the inventories herself when she let furnished houses. “No, that is one thing I don’t do myself. It really is not worth my while, ono can always employ someone to do that.” “In your work you must have a good deal of business with other house agents, men house agents, both in the country and in London. Do you find them pleasant and willing to co-operate with you?” “Yes, indeed, in all cases they have been most kind and helpful. When co-operating with other agents it is the custom to share the commission. And I must tell you that on one occasion an agent in Folkestone sent me my share of the commission before the tenants got into the house.”

PERSONAL INSPECTION. “And you very often go into the country yourself and see the houses?” “Frequently. You see, the more houses you can say you have ‘personally inspected’, the better it is. But really, you know, I find people rarely trust anyone else in the matter of choice. Almost always some or other member of the family goes and interviews it, just as you are interviewing me, for instance. By the bye,” Miss Nauen added, “you may, perhaps, be interested to know that all my printing is done by women.” In that I was particularly interested, for I had observed there was a good deal of printing — circulars, bills, orders to view, etc. — and I was just going to suggest mildly that here was an opportunity for one woman to help another, when Miss Nauen, to whom I must have telegraphed my thought, broke in and told me she had all her printing done by women. “But in your business, Miss Nauen, you must have many disappointments?” “Disappointments! Yes, their name is legion. But now l am getting philosophical. How well I remember my first client, and, simultaneous with my first client was my first disappointment. A lady wanted a house in Surrey, and, after much seeking, I thought I had found just what she wanted ; but when I went to see it, I discovered that the garden did not exist — it was merely a back yard — the much-vaunted pony could hardly crawl — it was a poor old fat beast that had to be led; in fact, everything was wrong. However, I took an infinite amount of trouble and tried other houses, but finally, my client wrote to say her friend had been taken ill and was ordered abroad. Wasn’t that heartrending?”

AN OCCUPATION FOR WOMEN. “Yes, indeed. But tell me, Miss Nauen, what do you think of house agency as an occupation for women?” “As an occupation for women I think it excellent, and women are eminently suitable as house agents; but if you ask me if I think it likely to be a remunerative occupation to a large number of women taking it up now, I should hesitate to say yes. I have been successful beyond my hopes, but then, you know, I am in the van; there is plenty of room in the van for others also, but they must have the necessary qualifications, which are, I think, tact, commonsense, and, certainly, a business capacity. That is where I fear many women fail; they have wasted their life working in an amateurish kind of way. But, of course,” Miss Nauen added, ” I am speaking of the women of the past; the women of today are realising that ‘time is the stuff that life is made of’. But l am getting too serious. Let me show you some of the letters I have had; they might amuse you. “Whereupon Miss Nauen produced some letters which did amuse me, and thinking it possible that some of my readers may be glad to know of lodgings in a farmhouse which are described a follows, I reproduce one here: “I beg to recomand comphordable country lodgins in a larg farm house in a beautful elthy village. Plenty of good milk and fresh eggs with cooking and plenty of out-housing, but no horse or trap, also bathroom, but no bath. Fir putticllers rite Mrs……” J. M.

It is interesting to note that Etta was an Old Girl of Notting Hill High School, the oldest of the schools founded by The Girls’ Day School Trust, (I too am an old girl of the GDST). She served as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Old Girls’ Association, in which position she doubtless encouraged the well educated young girls to pursue a life in business.

The crossover between estate agency and interior decoration was not exclusive to the Crommelin sisters. Two others who followed both careers were Edith Ann Wetton and Mrs Innes.

Edith Ann Wetton (1848–1923) was the daughter of Henry Wetton, a serial entrepreneur, bookseller and shipping agent. In 1881 Edith was living in Chertsey and was listed as a Manageress to a Work Society in the census. Edith launched her business as an interior decorator some time before 1891. In the 1891 and 1901 census she was listed as an house decorator, but during her career she also advertised houses and apartments to let. Two of her London business addresses were 49 Kensington High Street, and 21 Lower Phillimore Place, Kensington in 1899. Her business must have prospered, for by 1901 she was listed as an employer and had a house at 138 Kensington High Street. By 1903 she had moved to 52 Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea, then in 1906 she moved to 54 Church Street, Kensington, where she remained until at least 1912. Latterly she moved to Knatchbull Road, Camberley, and she died on 14th Oct 1923 at 104 Christ Church Road, Tulse Hill. She had never married.

Mrs Innes of 8 Princes Street, Hanover Square, London, advertised property to let in the Morning Post and the London Evening Standard from 1897. She appears to have been principally a house decorator, furnisher, and furniture designer. She also specialised in antique furniture. It is interesting to note that business women of the day were accustomed to some networking, and recommended each other quite freely. Mrs Panton wrote a reply to a reader’s question in a column called ‘Other Folks’ Houses’ in the Gentlewoman on 20th February 1897:

M. B. de H. — I am so truly sorry that I cannot possibly come and see your house before May, when I hope to be in town for some little time, but that I fear will be of no use to you. I can see you here at Brighton quite well, where my fee for an interview is £2 2s, or I could advise you by letter. If you would rather have personal advice let me mention my friend Mrs Innes, of 8 Princes Street, Hanover Square, W.; she has excellent taste and would be quite competent to advise you about your house, and would arrange your furniture to the very best advantage possible. If I were not sure of her qualifications I would not recommend her, I can assure you.

Mrs Innes later placed advertisements in The House. In 1898 she was reported to be training women in the trades of papering, whitewashing and painting. [‘Women and Domestic Art’, The House, 1 March 1898]. She also employed female upholsterers. A typical advertisement for her services in ihe Morning Post in 1897 read:

A LADY, with practical experience and artistic taste, will UNDERTAKE all Details of House Furnishing and Decorating; estimates free of charge.— Mrs. Innes, 8, Princes-street, Hanover Square.

The advertisements for Mrs Innes disappear in 1899, and I have been unable to identify her further, although a Mrs Innes can be found furnishing the set of A Marriage of Convenience, mounted in Eastbourne at the end of the year. [The Stage December 1898].

Another route into estate agency was via running an employment agency. An example of this was the sisters Helen and Isabel Woollan and Mary Anne Philips who launched an employment agency for servants, before diverting into into estate agency. They even went into selling novelties. – their agency name ‘The Decorative Artists and General Agency’ gave them a pretty wide remit!

Women estate agents were still such rarities that it was not unusual for later enterprises to be claimed as the first. A short article in The Queen on Saturday 16 June 1894 reads:

Some remarks recently published in these columns concerning a lady house agent have elicited a letter from Miss Eldrid, 5a Chepstow Place, Bayswater, who tells us that, to the best of her belief, she was the first to open an agency and keep a register of furnished rooms and boarding houses in London and elsewhere, having opened an office for this purpose in November, 1893. Her monthly list for June, she adds, contains notices of both lodgings and furnished houses.

Even as late as 1939 lady agents were claiming to be the first.

WOMAN HOUSE AGENT Another vocation for women has started up. A womanly one also; for who knows as well as a woman the essentials of house and house requirements? A certain woman advertises a list of furnished houses to be let for the summer months. This is first lady house-agent, and very probably others will quickly follow suit.

A postscript to the above article about Miss Eldrid was synicated in June 1894. [Cambridge Independent Press, Friday 22 June 1894]. Here for the first time we see a lack of qualification questioned. We could imagine the same being said of estate agents today.

The first lady house agent has recently set up in business in Bayswater. She issues monthly list of lodgings and furnished houses, and has already made a satisfactory beginning. We do not know what has been done in this case, but we think house agents should be obliged to have some certificate of fitness for a position of so great responsibility. Difficulties between landlord and tenant are of such common occurrence that the agent should have the law relating to such matters by heart. It is not a business to be lightly taken up by any one, more especially by a woman, who has to run the gauntlet of criticism. We see no reason why women should not make excellent house agents, but they certainly need a special training, and should conduct the work with more intelligence and a graver sense of responsibility than some registry offices for governesses and servants have been conducted.

It seems particularly unusual to find a lady estate agent in any other area than the south east. So Mary Vevers in Yorkshire is especially intriguing. Her advert in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 13 August 1896 reads:

MARY VEVERS, LADY ESTATE AGENT, RENT COLLECTOR, Copying done. 1 St Mark’s Terrace.

I look forward to extending this research and adding more articles in the future.