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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

Family Matters (1): “The Graves of a Household”

In my last year of primary school, our class teacher came up with an unusual – and memorable – lesson on Victorian England which involved taking us out of the classroom and across to the parish church to look at the gravestones. He explained that when our school was extended in the 1960s, permission was obtained from the diocese to lay a playground over the disused cemetery on condition that the grave markers were preserved: these were re-positioned around the church, forming a kind of pavement. He then invited us to look at the inscriptions and see what we noticed about the number of names per family on the stones and their ages at death, particularly for the children.

Needless to say the “playground-on-a-graveyard” story provoked squeals and shudders (not to mention some rather creative play for the next couple of weeks), but something about the gravestones appealed to my 11 year-old self and I spent a happy half hour discovering recurrent local surnames, hunting for the largest family and trying to find the youngest and oldest deaths. The lesson certainly added to my burgeoning interest in genealogy and to this day I remain mildly (?) obsessed by the number of births and premature deaths in each generation.

However, in some respects these Victorian gravestones were misleading, because the birth rate in England actually began to decline in the middle of the nineteenth century and this effect was particularly noticeable from about 1870 onwards. In the early 1800s the average couple produced eight live children, falling to about six in the middle of the century and less than four by the end of Victoria’s reign. Women had not suddenly become less fertile, so what brought about such a dramatic change?

Although a wide range of factors entered into the equation, the driving force behind the declining birth rate came from a fundamental shift in the way couples regarded their children and their own parental responsibilities. Historically, a large family had been considered (among other things) a desirable proof of fertility, a potential source of income and an insurance against the high rate of child mortality. This still held true for the most part in the early Victorian era, when childless couples were regarded either with pity for their implied infertility or with suspicion that they might be using “unnatural” contraception. However, this attitude now began to change.

The initial impetus for smaller families was seen among the upper classes from about 1850, when fathers started to worry about the expense of their sons’ increasingly lengthy school and university education combined with the obligation to establish them in a suitable profession. Their daughters too were becoming more expensive to raise: no longer content with a genteel education from a governess followed by helping in the home until they married, many now expected to attend a ladies’ seminary before following agreeable (and costly) leisure pursuits as long as they remained single. The upper middle classes soon followed the example of their social superiors for much the same reasons.

Among the lower middle classes, the birth rate fell more slowly. Although the sons of shopkeepers and clerks typically attended small private schools, they had normally completed their education and started work by their early teens and were therefore much less of a drain on the family finances. On the contrary, where sons (or daughters) entered the family business, they raised the living standards of the whole family. However, those who aspired to climb the social ladder quickly realised the limits imposed by a large family.

Paradoxically it was the lowest earners in society who were the last to limit the size of their families. For those on the breadline, unemployed or relying on casual labouring jobs, the price of extra mouths to feed was still outweighed by their wage-earning or child-minding potential. In addition, the higher rate of child mortality among the working classes encouraged more pregnancies. However, the advent of compulsory education up to the age of 10 in 1876 and the raising of the school leaving age to 12 in 1899 considerably reduced children’s financial contributions to the household and helped to tip the scales definitively in favour of smaller families.

In the final years of Victoria‘s reign and the early years of the new century, clergymen, philanthropists, local government and the press all contributed to promoting the ideal of the smaller family, but in the main refrained from suggesting how this might be achieved. In my next post, I look at the thorny issue of contraception and its gradual acceptance.


Select bibliography

Gillard, Derek. (2018) Education in England: a history.

Pooley, Sian. (2013) Parenthood, child-rearing and fertility in England, 1850–1914. The History of the Family, 18(1).

Steinbach, Susie L. (2012) Understanding the Victorians. London: Routledge.

Weeks, Geoffrey. (2018) Sex, Politics and Society. 4th ed. London: Routledge.

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