In “Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England” the historian Rory Muir wrote:

Not all gentlemen were rich; indeed, many had little money of their own and had to pursue a career. The eldest son would normally inherit the family estate, while the daughters and younger sons would receive no more than a start in life. The girls would be introduced into society where they might find a husband, and they would receive some money either as part of their marriage settlement or as capital on which they might contrive to live as a spinster. The younger sons would be helped in the first steps of their career, educated for the Church or the law, or found a place in the army or the navy, and they too would be given or inherit a little capital. Their father, and when he died their eldest brother, would continue to use whatever influence he possessed to help them along, but their success would largely depend on their own endeavours and their good fortune. 

Muir argues that younger sons had few choices:

  • The Church. This was safe for the unambitious, but life for most clergymen was humdrum and often poorly rewarded financially.
  • The law offered better rewards but competition was fierce and it was often a struggle in the early years.
  • The navy was a cheaper choice. Boys joined at the age 14 or so without the expense of school or university.
  • The army was more expensive as commissions for each rank were purchased, though this was sometimes waived in times of war.
  • Manufacturing and trade were socially acceptable.
  • Medicine in the early nineteenth century had a lower status than the law.
  • There were desirable positions in Government service, but for these there was fierce competion.
  • India and the colonies were unlikely to produce great personal wealth although there were exceptions

My Georgian and Victorian male relatives, at least most of those I have written about, made their careers as officers in the army and navy or in the colonies as settlers and administrators. The younger sons, prevented by the custom of primogeniture from inheriting any large part of their father’s estate, gave their talents and energies to building the Empire.

There were risks in this, and many died young, but more than a few managed to make a good living abroad, with large families and substantial incomes otherwise unachievable.

My Mainwaring ancestors provide a good example. Rowland Mainwaring (1782-1862), my 4th great grandfather, was the younger son of a younger son. His father was an army officer. Rowland joined the navy at the age of 12 as a ‘young gentleman’ midshipman. His three brothers all joined the East India Company. Four of Rowland Mainwaring’s sons joined the navy, two became clergymen, two joined the East India Company or the India Civil Service, three joined the army, six emigrated to New Zealand, South Australia or India. None chose the occupations of law, trade, manufacturing, or medicine.

As for Mainwaring’s daughters, two died young, one married an army officer and the other a clergyman, so allying themselves, unsurprisingly, with the class occupied by their brothers.

Rowland Mainwaring married three times and fathered 17 children:

  1. Rowland Mainwaring (1811-1826) entered the Royal Navy aged 13. (He died in Sydney of dysentery at the age of 15.)
  2. Sophia Henrietta Mainwaring (1815–1871) married an army (militia) officer.
  3. Edward Pellew Mainwaring (1815–1858) joined the navy at the age of 15 (he left when he was 20). He was the heir apparent to the family estate ‘Whitmore’.
  4. Gordon Mainwaring (1817–1872) was first a cadet at Addiscombe Military Seminary, military school of the British East India Company. He then joined the the 53rd Bengal Native Infantry Company, but soon resigned and emigrated to South Australia. In 1858, his elder brother died with no sons and Gordon became the heir to the family estate ‘Whitmore’, which he inherited in 1862.
  5. Paulina Mary Mainwaring (1818–1825) died young.
  6. Charles Henry Mainwaring (1819–1878) clergyman became rector of Whitmore.
  7. William Arthur Mainwaring (1822–1854) joined the army, becoming a Captain of the 79th Highlanders.
  8. George Mainwaring (1824–1850) joined the army, became a Lieutenant of the 85th Light Infantry, then emigrated to South Australia.
  9. Mary Anne Mainwaring (1828–1865) married a clergyman.
  10. Karl Heinrich August Mainwaring (1837–1906) joined the navy, rising to the rank of Captain. He became harbour master in Jamaica. He retired to the island of Jersey.
  11. Randolph Mainwaring (1839–1902) was educated at University College, Oxford. In 1865 he emigrated to New Zealand, where he worked with several of his brothers for a few years on Manipouri Station, South-West Otago. He became a journalist.
  12. Eugene George Henri Mainwaring (1841–1911) was articled to a Civil Engineer. He farmed with his brothers in New Zealand and then worked as a civil engineer in New Zealand.
  13. Laura Chevillard Mainwaring (1843–1843) died young.
  14. Frederic Mainwaring (1844–1922) went with his brothers to New Zealand. He became a Council clerk there.
  15. Guy Mainwaring (1847–1909) joined the navy, where he rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.
  16. Horatio Mainwaring (1848–1913) entered the Indian Civil Service in its Woods’ and Forests’ Department.
  17. Algernon Mainwaring (1852–1926), educated at Lincoln College, Oxford, became a Clerk in Holy Orders.

As Muir suggests, some of the sons of Rowland Mainwaring were indeed helped in the first steps of their career, some were educated for the Church, and some found a place in the army or the navy. They inherited very little capital from their father. Their success did depend on their own endeavours and good fortune.

Related posts

Wikitree: Rowland Mainwaring (1782 – 1862)

Rowland Mainwaring married three times and had 17 children

Rowland (28) married Sophia Henrietta Duff (~20) (~1790 – 1824) on 31 Dec 1810 in Stoke Damerel, Devon, England. Their children were:

  1. Rowland Mainwaring (1811 – 1826)
  2. Sophia Henrietta (Mainwaring) Coyney (1813 – 1871)
  3. Edward Pellew Mainwaring (1815 – 1858)
  4. Gordon Mainwaring (1817 – 1872)
  5. Paulina Mary Mainwaring (1818 – 1825)
  6. Charles Henry Mainwaring (1819 – 1878)
  7. William Arthur Mainwaring (1822 – 1854)
  8. George Mainwaring (1824 – 1850).

Rowland (43) married Mary Anne Clark (41) (1785 – 1835) on 15 Nov 1826 in Preshute, Wiltshire, England. Their daughter was Mary Ann (Mainwaring) Vaughan-Hughes (1828 – 1865).

Rowland (53) married Laura Maria Julia Walburga Chevillard (~24) (~1812 – 1891) on 11 Nov 1836 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Their children were:

  1. Karl Heinrich August Mainwaring (1837 – 1906)
  2. Randolph Mainwaring (1839 – 1902)
  3. Eugene George Henri Mainwaring (1841 – 1911)
  4. Laura Chevillard Mainwaring (1843 – 1843)
  5. Frederic Mainwaring (1844 – 1922)
  6. Guy Mainwaring (1847 – 1909)
  7. Horatio Mainwaring (1848 – 1913)
  8. Algernon Mainwaring (1852 – 1926).