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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Pecking Order - Where Did Your Ancestor Appear in the Family Line Up?

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'Lonely only' or one of twelve? Eldest, youngest or stuck in the middle ? Did your ancestor's place in the family have any consequences for your family history?

You may have considered your ancestor’s place in his or her family in order to work out what, if anything, he or she stood to inherit at the death of his or her parents. But the repercussions arising from an ancestor’s position in the family were probably far more numerous and more interesting than this.

It’s worth asking yourself whether and how an ancestor’s position in the pecking order of his or her family might have mattered in sociological and psychological (as well as economic) terms. Factors to consider might be birth order, the age gaps between older and younger siblings, pairings or clusterings of girls and boys of roughly the same age, and whether or not a child was an adopted step-, or half- sibling of the other children in the household.

Author's Own Collection. Early Twentieth centurty postcard

Variations in the sizes and shapes of nineteenth and early twentieth-century families are, of course, innumerable; but here are a few suggestions to whet your appetite.

A child in a large family

Children from large families (especially those living in small houses) experienced a level of interaction and intimacy with their siblings that it is now difficult to imagine. 

Children of the same sex would most probably have slept together, and there would, no doubt, have been constant squabbles over toys, books and other possessions, with time outdoors playing in gardens or streets an absolute necessity. Ancestors who came from large families will have had to learn to deal with shifting allegiances within the family group and might well have had to strive hard to forge a sense of their own identity.
Some nineteenth-century families were so very large that a child at the end of the line would hardly have known his or her older siblings as children. Such was the case of (Dame Madge Kendal (the English actress) (1848-1935) :

I am the twenty-second child of my parents. Yes, the twenty-second. My brother Tom, the author, was my father’s eldest son. I am the youngest of the family. I never knew my brother Tom except as a man grown up – such a great many brothers and sisters came between us. Quotation from ‘Dramatic Opinions,’ Murray’s Magazine, in The Cheltenham Chronicle, 21st September 1889.

Author's own collection. Early Twentieth century

An Older Brother or Sister
Parents of all classes often had the highest expectations of their older children. If an elder son died, all their hopes and expectations might then have been transferred, for better or for worse, onto the next son in line. Older sisters in the lower classes would have been very much involved in the hands-on care of their younger siblings. Nineteenth-century newspapers are unfortunately full of reports of serious accidents resulting from very young children being left in the charge of little girls not much older than themselves.

A Younger Brother or Sister
Young children might have suffered the indignity of having unquestioningly to obey the authority of their elder siblings (especially their brothers). But, they also had the advantage of experiencing life (in terms of marriage and career choices) vicariously through their elder siblings. Some will have wanted to follow suit; others to make sure that they took a totally different path.

Some parents of large families encouraged a pairing off of siblings, with close associations often developing between the two eldest children, for example, and also frequently between the two youngest. Other siblings in large families may have fallen into groups or clusters depending on their age and their gender whilst the last child in a long line-up was often treated like an only child especially if (as was often the case) there was a large age gap between the penultimate and the last birth.

Multiple Births
Though twins and triplets were nowhere near as common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they are today (the sudden increase is largely due to assisted conception methods), yet it is believed that the general nutritional bounty of this period gave rise to an unprecedented number of multiple births. The number of twins in England and Wales appears to have nearly doubled between 1841 (when there are 9,272 mentions on the census) and 1901 (when there are 17,678 references). Twins were thus not uncommon but nevertheless special, and their twinship might have governed many aspects of their lives from where they chose to live and work to who they choose to marry.

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Larger multiple births were rare and remarkable, with few stories that could match that of the McQueen family of Muckeanston, Near Thornhill, Cumbria. According to the Westmorland Gazette of 22nd September 1860 Mrs Mcqueen was delivered in October 1857 of triplets, then in November 1858 of twins and then again in September 1860 of twins. Goodness knows how being one of seven children born within three years might have affected these children!

Boys and Girls in Smaller Families
In smaller families, it has been suggested that children in the past competed more for parental affection and the dynamics between siblings (stimulated often  by envy) tended to revolve around issues of gender and seniority. The governess Ellen Weeton (1776-1849), for example, was denied a proper schooling so that her brother Tom, younger by four years) could be privately educated and go on to law school. It was an injustice that rankled throughout their lives.

Only Children
Occasionally middle-class families chose to have just one child in order to concentrate time and resources on its education. Your ancestor might have struggled under the censure of public opinion which deemed that only children could be neither healthy nor happy. But, bear in mind that the economic downturn between the two World Wars convinced many more parents to limit their families and being an only child became no longer unusual.
Author's Own Collection, Late Nineteenth Century

Whether your ancestor was the youngest of ten, the middle one of three, a lonely girl amongst seven brothers or an only child, his or her position in the family is worth considering in some detail. Quite apart from what he or she stood to inherit, place in the pecking order might have had major social and psychological consequences in his or her life history.

Useful Books  
Davidoff, L., Thicker than Water, Siblings and Their Relations, 1780-1920, (OUP, 2013).
 Garrett E., et al, Changing Family Size in England and Wales, 1891 –1911, (CUP, 2006).
Keating, J., A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Lamb, M.E. and Smith, B. S., Sibling Relationships: Their Nature and Significance Across the Lifespan, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982).
Nelson, C.,  Family Ties in Victorian England, (Praeger, 2007).
Stewart E. A. : Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

Wilkes, S., Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood, (Pen and Sword Books, 2013). 
Symes, Ruth A. Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past (Pen and Sword, 2015)

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK in 2015 

Link to Family Tree Magazine UK

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