Monday, 28 January 2008

The Decline of the Family?

The impact of the industrial revolution and the employment of women caused considerable pessimism among many contemporaries like Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury. According to Peter Gaskell the transition from domestic to factory system was nothing less than catastrophic: ‘a violation of the sacred nature of the home’. Leaving aside the polemic, two points are clear. First, the pessimistic critique stems from a contrast of the impact of factories with the presumed conditions of family life under the domestic system. Secondly, critics rarely went outside the textile industry in making comparisons. The problem was that the textile industry was not typical of work in nineteenth century Britain. It was highly mechanised and firmly based on division of labour. This significantly weakens the pessimist’s case.

The domestic system was based on an integrated family unit of reproduction, production and consumption. Patriarchal control and moral guidance were exerted over both wives and children. In this context the advent of the factory affected the ‘independent’ economic status of the family. Engels argued that it destroyed the pride and status of the breadwinner, now dependent on the factory earnings of his wife and children. Women were no longer able to carry out their domestic functions effectively and the family’s dietary needs suffered. Daughters were not instructed in the family virtues and were exposed early to sexual activity. The contrast was drawn, by Marx and others, between the artisan as an independent seller of his own labour and the slave-trader selling his own and his wife’s and children’s labour in the factory. Neil Smelser in his Social Change in the Industrial Revolution [1959] challenged this view of the breakdown of the family. He argued, on the basis of the Lancashire cotton industry, first that the separation of working class children from their families did not really begin until after the 1820s with the introduction of powered weaving. Secondly, technological changes between 1820 and 1840, especially the introduction of the self-acting mule[1] led to a redefinition of the economic functions of the textile family and sharply differentiated the roles of its members. Finally, mule spinning was very much a family affair with operative spinners hiring their own relatives as scavengers and piercers. This was codified in many early spinners’ trade union rules that attempted to limit recruitment to the kinship unit. As a result traditional family values were perpetuated. Smelser has not been without his critics but he raised an alternative view of the question of the family to the contemporary pessimism.

Assembling the basic features of family structure for this period may appear to be a straightforward task. There is much information in published census reports, social surveys and in descriptive and literary sources. The problem is that these sources do not always allow historians to answer the questions they want to ask. For example, we know that marriage was far more central to the matrix of family life than it had been in the early nineteenth century but we do not know why. We know that the average number of children born to each marriage between 1870 and the 1900s fell from just under six to just over three but we do not know precisely how far contemporary views of ‘the family’ were limited to parents and children[2].

Census information often equated ‘family’ with ‘household’. The number of household rose from just over 5 million in 1871 to fewer than 8 million in 1911. Average household size was about 4.75 persons, rising slightly between 1871 and 1891 and falling to 4.4 persons by 1911. At each census nearly 70 per cent of the population lived in medium-sized households of between three and six people. One-person households were rare throughout the period, though their number arose in the 1900s reflecting partly the new phenomenon of metropolitan ‘bedsitterland’ and partly the flight of younger people from the countryside. By 1914 nearly half the population lived in households where there was one occupant per room or less giving rise to the notion of ‘a room of one’s own’ as one of the touchstones of ideal family life.

Legitimate fertility
Census year

Per thousand women 15-44

1871 289
1881 281
1891 283
1901 221
1911 182
1921 126


Average family size

Census year

Family Size




1921 2.63


Working class family size remained high throughout the period. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century working class wives have often been characterised as fatalistic in their attitudes towards childbirth. The few working class women who have left a record of their conscious decision to limit their families usually mention the plight of their mothers as the decisive factor. It is not, however, sufficient to interpret the failure to limit fertility entirely to fatalism. The letters published by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1915[3] make it very clear that women with large families bitterly regretted it, chiefly because of the hard work necessary to sustain a large family. What comes across in the letters is an overwhelming ignorance about female physiology and sexuality; the difficulties of gaining access to information about contraception and family planning; and, a lack of privacy in their homes that would have made the use of female methods of birth control extremely difficult. The social taboo place on discussion of birth control and sexuality meant that little information was likely to be obtained by women.

Abortion was probably the most important female initiative in family limitation in this period, particularly among the very poor. In the 1890s and early 1900s the British Medical Journal traced the diffusion of abortion involving the use of lead plaster from Leicester to Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and though some of the larger Yorkshire towns. By 1914 abortion was common in 26 out of the 104 registration districts north of the Humber. Among northern textile workers poverty and the need to work probably played the most important part in the decision to seek an abortion, but it is also important to recognise that working class women saw abortion as a natural and permissible strategy. Withdrawal was undoubtedly the main method by which the decline in working class fertility was achieved. One of the main reasons for this was the cost of sheaths: 2/- to 3/- for a dozen when the average weekly wage for labourers did not rise above 20/- a week. Withdrawal was a cheaper method. It also raises the issue of women’s sexual dependency and that some degree of male co-operation was necessary.

If there was a reduction in fertility caused by the introduction of successful methods of family limitation, was it the result of initiatives by men or women or through co-operation between them? J.A.Banks in Victorian Values. Secularism and the Size of Families [1981] rejected the argument that fertility controls resulted from economically rational behaviour. The introduction of compulsory elementary education following the 1870 and Education 1880 Acts may have led to a re-evaluation of the cost of children. This legislation seriously reduced the contribution children could make to the family budget. Generally, however, there is little evidence of a link between male wage levels and fertility. For example, the size of agricultural labourers’ families, one of the poorest paid occupational groups, remained high. Banks stresses the importance of the development of a meritocratic career pattern for men and a resulting future-time perspective on the part of all the mainly middle class occupational groups whose fertility rates fell fastest during the late nineteenth century. The fertility rate of railway workers declined rapidly following the expansion of promotion hierarchies after 1880.

Research suggests that it was the occupational status and attitudes of the husband that was the dominant factor. Sidney Webb observed in 1905 that the thrifty of all classes were limiting their families. However, in attributing prime importance to male decision-making on birth control, Banks is dismissive of the part women may have played. It is perfectly possible to accept that male co-operation was needed for fertility to fall, while also arguing that the opinions of wives may also have had an important effect on husbands. Precisely who made decisions within the family is difficult to investigate today, let alone in the past. Yet the process by which family size was negotiated by husband and wife is crucial, especially when evidence suggests that the couples who were most successful in controlling their fertility between the wars were those who discussed the issue and reached agreement. Diana Gittins concludes that couples, whose worlds increasingly centred on the home rather than on the culture of the workplace or on the spouses’ respective circles of friends, most frequently achieved their ideal family size. The critical factor in limiting fertility appears to have been role-relationships within marriage. Where role-relationships were segregated, fertility rates tended to be high. However, where role-relationships were more integrated and the husband spent a significant part of his non-working hours with his wife and children, fertility was negotiated and consequently lower.

Middle class women found themselves in a less favourable position. At least working class women engaged in paid employment and there was ambivalence on the part of politicians and policy makers as to their behaviour in this respect. The separation of spheres was much more rigid for middle class women. Lydia Becker, a leading Victorian feminist, compared the position of middle class women unfavourably with that of working class women: ‘What I most desire, is to see married women of the middle classes stand on the same terms of equality as prevail in the working classes and the highest aristocracy. A great ladies or factory women were independent persons, the women of the middle classes are nobodies, and if they act for themselves they lose caste.’ The comparison failed to take account of the burden borne by working class women but Becker was rebelling against the notion that middle class women should be ‘kept’ by their husbands or fathers, brothers or other male relatives.

The home was the centre of the middle class woman’s world and she bore sole responsibility for its management. The interests and concerns of middle class men and women were often profoundly different. Both lived in their own insulated worlds, segregated from the other: the breakfast- or morning-room served as the ladies’ sitting room and the drawing room was where ladies received calls and took tea; the library, the study and the billiard room were male territory. Nor only were their worlds separate they were also profoundly unequal for the majority of middle class women were financially dependent in their husbands. The domination of the Victorian husband was reflected in law, and in emotional and sexual relations.

The vast majority of middle class Victorian women led an isolated and limited existence within a tightly knit family circle. By the 1890s the isolation of suburban life was beginning to become a characteristic feature of middle class women. It is difficult to build an accurate picture of what middle class women did in their homes. The notion of the perfect Victorian lady certainly did not apply to most middle class women who needed to pay great attention to household budgeting and routine to survive on between £100 and £300 per year. Much was sacrificed, even in the less well off households, to provide the domestic help necessary to achieve a certain degree of gentility. Middle class couples began to limit their families in the 1860s but whether this was a decision by the husband or wife is a matter of some debate. Patricia Branca maintains that middle class women were asserting control over their lives both by seeking the assistance of doctors and by deciding to use birth control. J.A. Banks, by contrast, suggests that the lead in fertility control was taken by men in professional occupations who were concerned not about the burden of childbearing but about the cost of childrearing. It is unlikely that middle class women would have been able to procure birth control literature on their own initiative. Nor was the middle class woman’s ready access to doctors likely to be of use in the search for birth control information, as many doctors believed that it led to serious illness.

Clergymen, expressing public outrage during the trials of birth control propagandists in the 1880s, were nevertheless clearly limiting their own numbers of children. The motivation of middle class family planning was complicated. The age of marriage remained high as couples waited to amass resources to sustain the ‘paraphernalia of gentility’. It was the births in the later years of marriage, which seem to have been curtailed in particular. Concern with the health of wives was one factor. The growing cost of running a middle class household was another, making it difficult to afford large families. With the rise of corporate business there was less need for large numbers of sons and nephews who now required expensive schooling rather than informal apprenticeship in the family firm.

[1] The ‘mule’ is a spinning machine. Samuel Crompton invented it in 1779-1780. It was called the ‘mule’ because it combined elements of two previous machines – James Hargreaves’ ‘jenny’ and Richard Arkwright’s ‘water frame’. It was, however, not until the early 1820s that Richard Roberts improved the efficiency and reliability of the mule.

[2] Jane Lewis (ed.) Labour and Love: Women’s experience of home and family 1850-1940, Blackwell, 1986 is a good starting-point on the experience of home and family. Penny Lane Victorian Families in Fact and Fiction, London, 1997 provides a novel analysis of the issues. Rosemary O’Day The Family and Family Relationships 1500-1900, Macmillan, 1995 takes a longer perspective. P. Branca Silent Sisterhood: Middle-class women in the Victorian home, Croom Helm, 1977 is an excellent study of middle class attitudes. J.A. Banks Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England, Liverpool University Press, 1964 and Angus McLaren Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England, Croom Helm, 1978 are valuable studies on this contentious issue. J.A. Banks Victorian Value: Secularism and the Size of Families, Routledge, 1981 is concerned with the implications of changing gender-ratios in the late nineteenth century and continues the argument about birth control. J.R. Gillis For Better, For Worse; British marriages, 1600 to the present, OUP, 1985, Constance Rover Love, Morals and the Feminists, Routledge, 1970, and in Pat Jalland Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914, OUP, 1986. Carol Dyhouse Feminism and the Family in England 1880-1939, CUP, 1991 looks at the politics of the family.

[3] M. Llewelyn Davies Maternity Letters from Working Women, 1915, Virago, 1978 demonstrated the strain of repeated pregnancies on women’s health and lives.

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