[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information. There are, for example, photographs and other images on her site that do not appear in the present document.]

Within Marriage

Marriage and childrearing where indivisible; indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century reproduction was considered a woman's only correct occupation. Birth control literature was illegal and the average working class wife was either pregnant or breast feeding from wedding day to menopause. She would typically have five living children from eight or more pregnancies, as so many children died before the age of five. Infant deaths were especially prevalent amongst the very poor. Far fewer children were born to the upper classes, indicating that some educated people knew how to avoid pregnancy.

Outside Marriage

Premarital pregnancy was rare among the upper classes, because girls were chaperoned and their activities controlled. In the middle classes it was fairly rare, and the girl was swiftly married to her seducer, or sent away to give birth secretly and the child adopted. Many working class women became pregnant outside of marriage; however, because of the social stigma, the fear of losing their paid work, and lack of money to raise the child, many concealed the pregnancy.

If, as was common, a domestic servant became pregnant as a result of seduction by her employer, sometimes the family expelled the girl from the house, but if the seducer was working class the couple was often pressured into marrying.

Throughout the nineteenth century many new-born babies were found abandoned, usually strangled or smothered. If the mother was traced she was charged with murder and tried by a male judge and all-male jury. In a large number of cases the woman had been persuaded or tricked into sexual activity. The Courts made no attempt to trace the father, causing occasional angry outbursts by women in courtrooms.

Many local working class women kept their baby and applied to Hastings magistrate's court for an affiliation order to force the putative father to pay towards the child's upkeep. In the mid-century this was about 1s 6d or 2 shillings per week. Men often denied paternity, but it seems the woman was generally believed, particularly if she could bring witnesses to show she had consorted with the man at the time of conception. Deaths of illegitimate infants in Hastings were much higher than the national average.

In 1851 William Eldridge of Tivoli Road house, aged 52, was a brewer and farmer employing some seven to nine persons. He described himself as married, but no wife appears on the Census. However, living at the same address was 39 year old Louisa Barnett, who named Eldridge as the father of her four children aged from 7 years to nine months. The Census enumerator listed her relationship to Eldridge as "servant."


Gender History

Last modified 2000