Scholars have long debated whether ownership structure matters for firm performance. The standard view with respect to Victorian Britain is that family-controlled companies had a detrimental effect on operating profit and shareholder value. Here, we examine this view using a hand-collected corporate ownership dataset. Our main finding is that it was not necessarily the broad structure of corporate ownership that mattered for performance, but whether family blockholders had a governance role. Large active blockholders tended to increase operating performance, implying that they reduced managerial agency problems. In contrast, we find that directors who were independent of large family owners were more likely to increase shareholder value.