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Motherhood for the nineteenth century poor

Against all odds

The parents found it hard in practice to do what they believed in theory they should do, which was to love all the children equally.  And a man and a woman with eight, or ten or twelve children spread their love differently from the way in which they might have concentrated on a singleton or two infants.  Love depended on the spaces between infants, on the health of the parents, on death, on the chances of which child survived an epidemic or an accident, and which not.  There were families in which the best-loved child had died, and remained the best-loved.  There were families in which, apparently, the dead had disappeared without trace and were not spoken of as realities.  There were families in which an unborn child was dreaded and shrunk from, only to become, on emerging alive from blood and danger, the best=beloved after all.


Most of the parents of these favoured children had not themselves been so fortunate.  If they had run wild, it was because they were neglected, or being hardened for life, and not because freedom was good for them.


Much of the freedom, both of parents and of children, depended on the careful work of servants and of dedicated aunts, who had been old-fashioned sisters, in stricter days.

 I suspect this might have been the toughest time of all to be a mother in England.


Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century were different from children before or after.  They were neither dolls nor miniature adults.  They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks.  And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children.  They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company that that of other children.  And there were many other children.  There were large families, in which relations shifted subtly as new people were born - or indeed, died - and in which a child also had a group identity, as ‘one of the older ones’ or ‘one of the younger ones’.  The younger ones were often enslaved or ignored by the older ones, and were perennially indignant.  The elder ones resented being told to take the younger ones along, when they were planning dangerous escapades.

poor london family.jpg
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