|Parenthood, Child-rearing, and Fertility in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-century England|
|Recent demographic studies have demonstrated that patterns of fertility were transformed in complex ways in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. These primarily quantitative analyses have shown that multiple fertility declines took place. These were not just nationally specific, but also locally or regionally varied, depending on occupational, religious and ethnic characteristics. However, few studies of the English experience have explored how such ‘communication communities’ were constructed or the processes by which they were made distinct from other locales. In particular, there is a need to consider how far ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were disseminated on a national basis and the degree to which ideas about, and experiences, of the rearing of children influenced patterns of fertility.
This paper aims to provide some answers to these questions through a comparative study of three large and contrasting provincial English localities (Auckland in County Durham, Burnley in Lancashire, and Bromley in Kent) between 1850 and 1914. Evidence is gathered from a wide range of largely qualitative primary source material: published literature especially the local press, national newspapers, and advice manuals; local manuscript records of schooling, justice, government and philanthropy; census enumerators’ books; and personal documents such as letters, diaries, autobiographies, photographs, and oral history testimonies.
It is suggested that three conditions were particularly significant in creating cultures in which English men and women began to understand married adulthood as an experience that was improved, rather than blighted, by the relative absence of children. Firstly, it depended on the discussion of family life and, particularly, of child-rearing in texts or spaces that were considered by most to be ‘moral’ and of ‘public’ importance. Second, it was influenced by new perceptions of the ageing of both the maternal body and of children. This meant that new points in the parental life-course were identified when it was considered particularly imperative to try to avoid bearing children. Both of these conditions emerged in different ways in contrasting geographical and class-specific contexts. Third, throughout England in the decade before the First World War a new popular and commercial representation of families came to prominence. This ideal was strikingly non-class- or -place-specific, and depicted family life as leisured, domesticated and dependent on the presence of two parents and two children. By exploring the dialogue between cultures of parenthood that were local, regional, denominational, ethnic, occupational or national in this way, it is thus possible to unpick what the ‘English’ family meant to contemporaries and to develop a more nuanced understanding of some of the reasons why fertility declined in these decades.|