[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2010]
‘My grandfather was one of eight’ or ‘my great-grandmother brought up twelve children single-handedly:’ these are the common boasts of family history. Such tales of prodigious fertility abound, of course, because families were indeed considerably larger in the nineteenth century than they were later to become. Statistics derived from censuses bear this out. As one historian, Eilidh Garrett, puts it: ‘among those married women born between 1851 and 1855, over one third experienced at least seven live births and as many as 15 % had ten or more confinements during the course of their lives.’
The reasons for large families were numerous. In the religious climate of the early nineteenth century, it was widely believed that birth control was against the will of God. Some thought that if contraception were more readily available, it would encourage sexual immorality and even prostitution. On top of this, it was commonly believed that the use of contraceptives might adversely affect women’s health causing illnesses as varied as cancer, sterility and madness. In addition, with Britain’s increasing industrial prosperity came better nutrition and better health resulting in a sharp decrease in child mortality.
The result of all this, of course, was large – even massive – families. Some of the nineteenth centuries best-known public figures came from large families. Alfred Lord Tennyson (later Poet Laureate) (b. 1809) was the fourth of ten children; the later Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli (b.1804) and William Ewart Gladstone (b. 1809) were one of five and six children respectively. The naturalist, Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, who married in 1838, had ten children as did the writer Charles Dickens who married Catherine Hogarth in 1837.
And others went further. Lord Lyttleton, (1817-1876) British aristocrat and Conservative MP, had eight sons and four daughters by his first marriage and a further three daughters by his second marriage. Elizabeth Dorling, the mother of Mrs Beeton, had seventeen children, giving birth to her last at the age of 47 (she was also stepmother to four more!). Maria Edgeworth – the novelist and children’s writer – was one of 22 children (albeit by four different mothers).
But by the last three decades of the nineteenth century, all this had started to change. By comparing information from the ten yearly census returns, historians have proved that – in general terms – British families really did shrink after 1870.
Whilst there was great variation in the way family size changed in different parts of Britain at different times, some generalisations can be made. In the decades immediately following 1837 (the start of Civil Registration), the crude birth rate was roughly 32 to 37 babies per thousand people per year. However, in the 1870s, this figure started to fall dramatically. By 1911, there were just over 25 babies born per thousand people per year and by 1930, the number was just 15 per thousand.
Why did some families get smaller after 1870?
If you know something of your family’s circumstances in the late nineteenth century, you may be able to make an educated guess as to the particular reasons for the changing size of their families. Here are some possibilities:
- Social Class
On the whole, poorer families tended to be larger than middle- and upper-class families by the end of the nineteenth century. It would seem that those higher up the social scale were sometimes more willing to limit the size of their families in order to be able to afford a better lifestyle and to provide those children that they did have with a better private education
2. Community Ethos
The size of your family will probably have reflected the size of other families around them in their community. It will have depended on where exactly they lived in Britain and what they did for a living. Families from mining or heavy industry backgrounds (in Lancashire, for example) tended to be large in every generation right up to the end of the nineteenth century. For them, it was useful to have many children who could ultimately bring in a wage. But it would be wrong to assume that low paid jobs and large family size went hand-in-hand. In mill towns, such as Bolton, for example, where there were many women in the labour force, fertility rates among the working classes were generally low.
- Religious Belief
Your ancestor’s religion might well have had a bearing on the number of his or her children. Catholic families tended to be large because birth control of any kind was strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church. Methodism, on the other hand, preached self-restraint which was sometimes interpreted as sexual abstinence. Quakers were one group who married particularly late and consequently had noticeably lower fertility than other groups.
- Availability of Birth Control
By the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards birth control were changing. This is not to say that contraception was actively promoted, but there were certainly more books and pamphlets on the subject. Methods of birth control included:
- Natural - abstinence, prolonged lactation (breastfeeding) and coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method).
- Barrier - condoms made (after 1843) from vulcanised rubber, cervical caps, syringes and soluble pessaries. After 1930, latex condoms, caps and diaphragms were used.
- Abortion - herbal remedies containing abortificents such as rat poison, gin and gunpowder, were widely advertised in nineteenth-century newspapers as a means of procuring a miscarriage (‘removing obstinate obstructions’). From 1837, the law expressly forbade abortion at any stage during pregnancy (as opposed to after quickening – or when foetal movement could be felt). However, there is no doubt that many abortions took place.
5. Fear of Childbirth
In the late nineteenth century, there was an alarming increase in maternal mortality or death in childbirth. It is possible that the evident dangers of childbirth put some women off increasing the size of their families. Each instance of childbirth was dangerous because there was always the possibility of mothers catching puerperal fever and dying. This awful eventuality was almost certainly caused by poor hygiene on the part of doctors who passed on infections from diseased patients to expectant mothers. The problem particularly affected middle-class mothers since it was among this sector of society that doctors had taken over from midwives in the traditional matter of childbirth.
If you are able to look at the 1911 Census, you will be treated to further information about your family size. Sometimes known as ‘The Fertility Census,’ this asked householders to enumerate how many children had been born alive during a marriage and how many children had survived.
The number of children in a household was probably the most significant factor in your ancestors’ lives. Imagine how it affected the amount of living space they had, their levels of health, nutrition and hygiene, the constraints on their income, the relationships between older and younger family members and, in particular, how it dominated the life experiences of married women. It may never become clear whether having many or only a few children was a matter of economic imperative, community ethos, maternal health or personal choice in your family. But the changing shape of your family in the past is a fascinating subject and definitely one worthy of investigation.
Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960, OUP, 2006.
E Garrett, et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, 1891 –1911, CUP, 2006
J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood: A Study of Family Planning Among the Victorian Middle Classes, Gregg Revivals, 1993.
Angus McLaren, Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England, Croom Helm, 1978.
www.1911census.co.uk Access to the 1911 ‘Fertility’ census.
www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History-of-abortion History of abortion in Britain and around the world.
www.hubpages.com/hub/The-History-of-Contraception History of contraceptive methods and practices.
Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, England, family size, population, demographics