Harriet Townsend and networks of settler women in business in the Eastern Cape, 1840–1848

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Harriet Townsend was an Eastern Cape businesswoman who established a jewellery and retail shop in the frontier town of Cradock in the 1840s, importing superior goods via Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and using outworkers to finish plain goods to a high standard and make bespoke items to order. The business received considerable assistance from a group of merchant advisors. It developed rapidly and achieved a considerable turnover, with its customer base and the role of its outworkers providing information about networks of association. The extensive economic involvements of other women in Harriet Townsend’s family, and those who acted as her outworkers, are traced. A number of business records spanning the period it operated over are examined in detail to explore its scope and the impact of prevailing economic circumstances. A spiral of increasing business and stock purchases on one hand, and increasing debt on the other, had to be managed. Harriet Townsend’s remarriage coincided with a contraction of activity, but the business nonetheless continued although at a lower level, suggesting strong interest and commitment. The article shows that the settler women in the Townsend networks led busy economic and business lives, establishes the connections that supported this, provides detail of the business practices involved, and argues that the economic contribution of the Townsend business was at a financially important level. Harriet Townsend was a publicly visible businesswoman and the existence of her network of skilled outworkers indicates a more general pattern concerning settler women’s economic contributions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSouth African Historical Journal
Early online date27 Jul 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Jul 2020


  • 1820 Settlers
  • business history
  • Eastern Cape
  • frontier towns
  • Hockly family
  • networks
  • Pringle family
  • settler women
  • Harriet Townsend
  • women's history


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