A sub-theme of my Revealed in Mist is illegitimacy, and the way that illegitimate children were regarded in Georgian and Regency England. I’m conscious that we see that period through the lens of the Victorian era, as I’ve comment in the article on rakehells I wrote for Dirty Sexy History. I figured I’d better do some research, and — of course — I got sucked in.
Births per women, the number of children born within eight months of the wedding, the percentage of women never married, and maternal mortality rates all turned out to be relevant. No, really.
Uncovering the secrets
Genealogists have done some useful research on the percentage of children born outside of wedlock or in the first few months after a wedding. The second is simply a matter of dates, and in the early 19th century, around a third of brides were already carrying when they made their vows.
The first is usually clear enough, too. From a level of two children out of every hundred, the rates rose over the long 18th century until, in the early Victorian, seven percent of all children were illegitimate.
(Of course, this doesn’t count those who had a legal father to whom they were not biologically related. Research in other fields gives figures for the number of offspring not related to the putative father, with figures ranging from one or two percent up to as many as forty percent, depending on things like the conditions of the research, socio-economic status, and social norms. One in ten across the Georgian population seems reasonable, with lower figures in the homes of the middle sort, for reasons we touch on below. EDITED)
The birth or baptismal records might state the name of the father and the status of the child. Or perhaps the mother wouldn’t name the father, though such stubbornness could see her jailed. The local parish authorities, who were required to pay for the care of a child whose mother was a resident, had a vested interest in making sure that the man took his responsibilities seriously.
I dare say a number of those pregnant brides went to the altar to meet a groom constrained to be present by the local Vestry committee. And if the man could not or would not marry the girl, he was expected to pay a weekly amount until the child was seven, and could be apprenticed.
Of course, then as now, there were men who successfully denied responsibility, or who absconded. And, with urbanisation, the old village system, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, became less significant for most of the population. The cities provided greater opportunities for anonymity and escape, and fewer opportunities for social sanctions, so the rise in illegitimacy rates is hardly surprising.
Septicaemia as birth control
In 1800, women could expect, on average, five live births in their childbearing years. Several sites suggested this implied some form of contraception, and I think I’ve figured out what it was. Women had a twenty percent chance of dying in childbirth, which correlates in a horribly fascinating way. The most common way of limiting the number of births per women was maternal mortality.
We can’t say that the average family size was five children. The odds were slightly skewed because it seems likely that a third of women never married (although presumably some of those had children anyway). And fathers could and did take new wives and have more children.
Calculating average family size
750 children would be born to 150 women. One hundred of those women would be married. Thirty-seven of those children would be born outside of marriage, so the remaining 713 children were born inside of marriage.
This gives us an average family size of around seven, and, in those hundred families, 71 children whose biological sire was not the father of record, and 34 who were conceived before the marriage but born within it.
Class differences in attitudes to illegitimacy
The idea that a woman with a bastard was damned forever and had no choice but to sell her body on the street is part of our Regency writer vocabulary, but it isn’t entirely accurate. The rural lower classes were more practical than that. A girl who was found to be pregnant, and without a lover willing to marry her, might be producing another mouth to feed, but in a few years that mouth would become a set of hands. Genealogy studies have found that unmarried mothers often married later on, their ‘mistake’ absorbed into the new family without a ripple.
For the urban poor, forced to work in factories and workshops, babies were more of a problem. Many were cared for in baby farms, where the death rates were horrific.
The middling sort always set greater store by moral behaviour that those below and above them on the social scale. They tended to expect morality of their men and their women, so perhaps the daughter of a shopkeeper or a lawyer or a wealthy tenant farmer might expect her suitor to marry her if he anticipated his marital rights.
The double standard
Not, though, if she were foolish enough or unfortunate enough to attract the attention of one of the upper sort. They had two sets of rules. If you’ve seen the movie Georgiana, you’ll remember the Duke of Devonshire, who had a series of mistresses he preferred to his wife, brought his bastard children to live in his house, and expected the duchess to be friends with the mistress who lived with them, and mother to the entire brood: hers and those of his lovers. Yet he was exceedingly miffed when she had an affair resulting in a child, and insisted that the child be given to its paternal grandparents.
In some ways, little Eliza Courtney, Georgiana’s daughter, was fortunate. She went to relatives who were well able to care for her, though it seems she was kept very much in the background. She made a good marriage, and her descendants include Sarah, Duchess of York. Other noble bastards were put into foster care with unwilling or careless carers, or they remained with their mothers, but only because the poor fallen ladies were turned from their homes.
Women were to be pure (or at least discreet). Men could do pretty much what they liked, as long as they were a little subtle about it.
In fact, reactions varied as much as families. Whatever you’ve read in a romance probably happened somewhere.
For a linked topic, see my post this week on Jessica Cale’s Dirty Sexy History: The Rakehell in Fact and Fiction