Saturday, 16 October 2010


Fertility levels had already stabilised by the 1830s.[1] The lower marriage age that had contributed to the increased natural growth of the early industrial revolution gave way after the depressed 1820s and 1830s to later marriage, a slight increase in the proportion of women who never married and lower birth rates of 35-36 per thousand women in the 1840s compared with over 40 per thousand around 1800.[2]

Sex education was as contentious then as it is today and for young girls was usually assigned to their mothers. However, this was increasingly felt to be an unsatisfactory approach and by the 1890s, there was considerable support for girls being taught ‘some of the necessary physical facts’. The content of that education remained a difficult question. The Reverend Edward Lyttleton was quite clear in 1900 that more sex education was needed but that girls required less information than boys. He argued,

...for most girls it would be enough for the parent to advise that the seed of life is entrusted by God to the father in a very wonderful way, and that after marriage he is allowed to give it to his wife. [3]

The problem was that sex education was inextricably linked to different views about female sexual character and the religious emphasis on moral restraint. There were certain limitations on marriage. First, new appliance methods of birth control (the rubber condom, Dutch cap and douche) were invented, marketed and adopted during the last decades of the nineteenth century but they were rather expensive for general use until after 1914. Since marital fertility was reduced, it must be assumed that some combination of sexual abstinence, coitus interruptus, accurate use of the safe period and induced abortion were the most likely means by which family limitation was brought about. [4]

Nineteenth and early-twentieth century writings on birth control provide a revealing source for attitudes towards female sexuality and social roles. Advocates of birth control were seen as supporters of atheism, depravity and social unrest especially by organised religion and the medical profession. Effective birth control shattered the link between sexuality and reproduction and created the real possibility of greater sexual freedom and control for women as well as helping to reduce family size. Michael Ryan, an evangelical physician argued in 1837,

None can deny that, if young women in general were absolved from the fear of consequences, the great majority of them…would rarely preserve their chastity. [5]

Chastity according to Ryan was a consequence of fear of pregnancy. Birth control brought the possibility of unrestrained female sexuality and with it the breakdown of sexual control and social order. Medical opposition to birth control was expressed in a mixture of warnings about the injurious results for health and the associated moral decline. The Lancet, virulent in its condemnation of contraception commented in 1869

A woman on whom her husband practises what is euphemistically called ‘preventative copulation’, is, in the first place necessarily brought into the condition of mind of a prostitute… [6]

There was, however, an unresolved problem in medical thinking grounded in class. Self-denial was recommended as fertility control. However, the working-class could not be expected to show restraint such was ‘the natural predominance of the animal life in the illiterate.’ [7] Doctors were generally unwilling to recommend contraception but also assumed that there was little restraint in working-class sexuality. This reinforced the widespread anxiety in the assumed sexual depravity and unrestrained breeding of the poor. Medical conservatism was illustrated when H.A. Allbutt was struck off the medical register for publicising birth-control methods in his popular The Wife’s Handbook in 1887. There were, however, strong public advocates of birth control and of the right of women to choose whether and when to have children. Francis Place and Richard Carlisle popularised methods of contraception in the 1820s. The publicity surrounding the Bradlaugh-Besant trial in 1876 was a major boost to the birth-control cause and opponents in the middle and upper classes felt increasingly pressure from what they called ‘the evil in our midst’.

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, if less reliable, method. It also raises the issue of women’s sexual dependency and that some degree of male co-operation was necessary.

Secondly, despite religious and cultural beliefs that delayed the adoption of family limitation in some sectors of society, increasing secularisation caused barriers to be broken down. The argument that family limitation represented the diffusion of birth control from the professional and upper middle-classes (the maid learning from her mistress) to the lower classes does not stand up to close examination. Among the first to limit family size were ‘skilled’ non-manual and commercial workers such as shopkeepers, and clerks who were also prominent among cautious late-marriers. There were considerable differences in marital fertility between different types of area in 1891. Relatively low birth rates in textile districts and residential towns, with large numbers of single women in domestic service and middle-class households, contrasts with earlier and more universal marriages with larger families among iron and steel-making and coal-mining communities where the abundant use of high-paid boys and young men in the mines reduced incentives to limit families, while fewer opportunities for female employment and the stereotyping of women meant that girls married earlier.[8]

Thirdly, social factors such as the availability of marriage partners in areas of high emigration or persistent out-migration throughout rural England limited marriage levels and affected births.[9] Limitations on marriage in certain occupational groups, for example, living-in domestic servants and farm labourers, also affected local fertility patterns.[10] The general increase in the mean age of marriage to about 25.8 years for women and some two years higher for men by 1850, and further increased from the 1870s, also reflected changing economic circumstances and the desire for more spending power and independence. [11] There were considerable differences between industrial areas, where there were more and earlier marriages and rural areas where marriages tended to be later and between different social classes. Urban labourers and miners married young; prudent white-collar workers, shopkeepers and the middle-class postponed marriage until they felt able to afford it. Many single children who moved to the city, whether as a domestic servant or an industrial or office worker often lived for a time in lodgings before taking on family responsibilities. Hence the large number of households with lodgers reflected in census enumerators’ books.

Fourthly, economic incentives to limiting the number and spacing of births were strong where women were prominent in the workforce. In the mills of Lancashire or West Yorkshire or in the Potteries women might delay having children or have a smaller family and return to work as soon as possible. Increasing numbers of women involved in shop and, from the 1890s, office work might also have deferred marriage and limited their families. Among the middle-class, the increasing expense of raising children with rising costs for domestic servants and school fees, as well as a growing desire for greater freedom and more money to spend on luxuries and entertainment, were obvious incentives to having fewer children. Even within geographical areas there were often significant differences in rates of marriage. In London, there was a very close relationship between the proportion of women married and the percentage of women employed in domestic service. In Hampstead the proportion married was 0.274 while in Poplar, in the East End, it was 0.638 in 1861 and little had changed by 1891.

As child mortality gradually declined from the 1860s, there was less need for large families and more incentive to put space between births so as to avoid excessive pressure on mothers and households. The average family size fell from 6.2 children in the 1860s, to 4.1 for those marrying in the 1890s and to 2.8 for the 1911-marriage cohort. The rapid decline in the average age at which the mother’s last child was born, from age 41 to 34 over this period is a clear reflection of deliberate spacing and limitation of births within marriage. In the nineteenth century marriage set the bounds for sexual activity. This does not mean that illegitimacy, bridal pregnancy, prostitution and adultery were uncommon, especially in certain localities, but it does give marriage a direct demographic importance that is all but lost today. Illegitimacy or bastardy existed in the nineteenth century and in East Anglia and eastern England in general was sufficiently large for one to begin to doubt the importance of marriage as a social and legal event.[12] But elsewhere in England, and especially off the coalfields, non-marital fertility was low enough in 1851 at only 5% or 6% of births were illegitimate for the institution of marriage still to be accepted as having particular importance as a regulator of fertility rates. By 1911, only 4% of all births were illegitimate in England and Wales. It can be asked whether the forces that resulted in decline in marital fertility also led to the reduction of non-marital fertility. [13]

[1] Wrigley, E.A., ‘Explaining the rise in marital fertility in England in the “long” eighteenth century’, Economic History Review, Vol. 51, (1998), pp. 435-464.

[2] Soloway, R.A., Demography and Degeneration, (University of North Carolina Press), 1990 and Szreter, Simon, Fertility, class and gender in Britain 1860-1940, (Cambridge University Press), 1996 deal with the controversial question of declining fertility in contrasting ways. Woods, R. and Smith, C. W., ‘The decline of marital fertility in the late nineteenth century: the case of England and Wales’, Population Studies, Vol. 37, (1983), pp. 207-225 and Woods, R., ‘Social class variations in the decline of marital fertility in late 19th century London’, Geografiska Annaler, Vol. 66, (1984), pp. 29-38 are important papers. Gillis, J.R. et al., (eds.), The European Experience of Declining Fertility: A Quiet Revolution, 1850-1970, (Blackwell), 1992 and Lestheaghe, R. and Wilson, C., ‘Modes of Production, Secularization and the Pace of the Fertility Decline in Western Europe 1870-1930’, in Coale, A.J. and Watkins, S.C., (eds.), The Decline of Fertility in Europe, (Princeton University Press), 1986, pp. 262-291 provide a European perspective..

[3] Lyttleton, Edward, The Training of the Young in the Laws of Sex, (Longman, Green), 1900, p. 85.

[4] Banks, J.A., Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England, (Liverpool University Press), 1964, McLaren, A., Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England, (Croom Helm), 1977 and Soloway, R.A., Birth Control and the Population Question in England 1877-1930, (University of North Carolina Press), 1982 provide a useful introduction to a vexed subject.

[5] Ryan, Michael, The Philosophy of Marriage, in its social, moral and physical relations: With an Account of the Diseases of the Genito-urinary Organs, which Impair Or Destroy the Reproductive Function, and Induce a Variety of Complaints: with the Physiology of Generation in the Vegetable and Animal Kingdoms..., (John Churchill), 1837, p. 12.

[6] ‘Checks on Population’, The Lancet, 10 April 1869, p. 500.

[7] Ibid, ‘Checks on Population’, p. 500.

[8] Williams, N. and Galley, C., ‘Urban-rural Differentials in Infant Mortality in Victorian Britain’, Population Studies, Vol. 49, (1995), pp. 401-420 and Williams, N. and Mooney, G., ‘Infant mortality in an “age of great cities”: London and the English provincial cities compared, c.1840-1910’, Change and Continuity, Vol. 9, (1994), pp. 185-212.

[9] Anderson M. & D.J. Morse, ‘High Fertility, High Emigration, Low Nuptiality: Scotland’s Demographic Experience, 1861-1914’, Population Studies, Vol. 47, (1993), pp. 5-25, 319-343.

[10] Seccombe, W., ‘Starting to Stop: Working Class Fertility Decline in Britain’, Past and Present, Vol. 126, (1990), pp. 151-180 and debate with R. Woods, Past and Present, Vol. 134, (1992), pp. 200-211. See also Seccombe, W., Weathering the storm: working-class families from the industrial revolution to the fertility decline, (Verso), 1993.

[11] Lewis, Jane, (ed.), Labour and Love: Women’s experience of home and family 1850-1940, (Basil Blackwell), 1986 is a good starting-point on the experience of home and family. Lane, Penny, Victorian Families in Fact and Fiction, (Macmillan), 1997 provides a novel analysis of the issues. O’Day, Rosemary, The Family and Family Relationships 1500-1900, (Macmillan), 1995 takes a longer perspective. Banks, J.A., 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. Gillis, J.R., For Better, For Worse; British marriages, 1600 to the present, (Oxford University Press), 1985, takes a long perspective on marriage while Dyhouse, Carol, Feminism and the Family in England 1880-1939, (Cambridge University Press), 1991 looks at the politics of the family.

[12] Levene, Alysa, Williams, Samantha and Nutt, Thomas, (eds.), Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920, (Palgrave), 2005 contains several relevant papers; see also Crafts, N.F.R., ‘Illegitimacy in England and Wales in 1911’, Population Studies, Vol. 36, (1982), pp. 327-331.

[13] Anderson M. ‘Fertility Decline in Scotland, England and Wales and Ireland: Comparisons from the 1911 Census of Fertility, Population Studies, Vol. 52, (1998), pp. 1-20.

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