‘what was one Bitch more than another?’ – a ‘natural’ pregnancy ..

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 4: William starts to behave badly

William and Catherine Ettrick’s marriage got off to a dreadful start in 1752. Catherine was pregnant almost immediately and this created terrible strains between her and her husband. Catherine was very young and inexperienced about pregnancy and childbirth, as she later indicated in her case for separation from William.

Not surprisingly she sought support from her husband during this frightening time. This was, after all, a husband’s key role during pregnancy. A good husband protected his wife during pregnancy, he supplied all her material needs, and he organised what would be needed at childbirth, which was her female relatives around her and an expert to deliver the baby.[1] (for more on this: a clear account of childbirth and a link to a fascinating article on a 17th century woman’s experience by Sharon Howard)

William failed to do any of this.

He did not cosset Catherine at all, as a genteel woman would expect. For example, when she was struggling with the pregnancy and felt ill, he insisted she came out with him on dangerous rides in his chaise, which was pulled by an unruly horse. This was a quirk of William’s, in that he seems to have had a fondness for bad-tempered horses. When I imagine William, for no portrait survives, I often think of a Squire Western figure from Fielding’s Tom Jones!



Things did not improve. In the late stages of her pregnancy, at the end of October 1752, William took her to pay a visit to a local family, but when she started to feel severe pains he flatly refused to take her home. As she soon discovered, however, she was going into labour. The family they had called upon asked him to let her stay overnight. Instead, Catherine said, he waited until it was dark and proceeded to ride the chaise home on bad roads as fast as he could. It is already very clear by this point in the evidence that William was a man who did not like to be thwarted. More problematically for Catherine, he could become spiteful in retaliation.

When they reached home Catherine expected William to fetch the expert to help her deliver their baby and collect her mother whom she wanted close at hand. Catherine was informed enough about delivering children to have previously requested a man-midwife. William had acquiesced to this. (For the best online info ever on a real midwife do look here) This is a little surprising, for as this satirical print shows, men-midwives were not necessarily popular – particularly with husbands.

L0018481 Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure, left side female, right side male By: and Cruikshank, Isaac. From: Man-midwifery dissected ; or, the obstetric family-instructor

He might have agreed in principle, but when it came to it William made no effort to immediately send for either the man-midwife or her family. Indeed Catherine was already upset because he had refused to let her sister-in-law come and stay for the last month of her pregnancy, which was common practice in this social rank.

Catherine later complained that William simply left her in pain and uncertainty through the night. Ignoring her labour, he went to bed late and arose early. I detect a warped kind of motivation for his actions emerging here. For Catherine reported that when she cried out in pain he cursed her and said he’s send for someone the next morning for

many women were brought to Bed under a Hedge and went to work again and what was one Bitch more than another … Nature was Sufficient of itself

There are other moments in the litigation where he expressed a similar approval of people who were simple – no affectations, air or graces and who just got on as Nature intended. Several times, as I’ll show, William rejected what we now think of as politeness – not by replacing it with inner feelings and sensibility. William was as far from a man of feeling as one could get – but by seeking a more straightforward style. Cast in his inimitable tone here, decorated with the crude ‘bitch’, the view becomes a vicious verbal attack. But it is one of several statements consistent enough to indicate what is often missing in many cases of abuse – a glimpse into the abusers’ thought processes.

washerwoman34.LWilliam eventually, and at a rather leisurely pace, headed off on his horse to fetch the man-midwife, but Catherine Junior was born an hour before the man-midwife arrived. In the end, later that day, Catherine was delivered by a local washer-woman who happened to be working at the house.

[1] Judith Lewis, In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860


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