An 18th-century bad dad?

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 7: Bad fathering in the eighteenth century.

One of the more unusual features of the Ettricks’ separation case was that it included a lot about the couple’s two children. More often, the children were not discussed in detail. This was partly because fathers had automatic custody over their children and were financially responsible for them. Yet Catherine Ettrick called the Church Court’s attention to William’s behaviour as a parent. In the posts that follow I will take you in turn through Catherine’s main accusations.

William and Catherine had two children, also Catherine (1752-1823) and William (1757-1847).

William’s failures as a father started early, according to Catherine. She said he refused to see his daughter after her birth on 24 October 1752; in fact

if he chanced to pass or go where the Child was then the Nurse always covered the Child up to prevent his seeing it.

Now Catherine knew this would be considered strange by those considering her case. The image below of ‘parental fondness’ captures the expectations of affection for the newborn (Courtesy Wellcome Images). Although men were not present at their child’s birth, they were understood to be waiting nearby, eager to meet their offspring. Admittedly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential novel Emile was yet to be published and translated into English when William was a new father and sensibility was in its infancy, yet men were still expected to be tender and loving towards their babies.

L0019233 A young mother looks over her baby as it lies sleeping in it

Yet William wouldn’t even

suffer it to be brought to his house till it was three quarters of a year old, but sent it to nurse

with Isabel Young, at Newbottle, a few miles away. Wet-nursing was going out of fashion at this point. This was the century of the ‘cult of maternity’ with numerous loving evocations of maternal nursing, like the porcelain figure below (Credit: Wellcome Images). Still, at the mid-century wet-nursing was by no means unusual and William may simply have had traditional views. And it is not the wet-nursing that is being criticised, as much as William’s lack of interest in his child thereafter. He did not, Catherine said, even visit his daughter at the Nurse’s house.

L0036736 Porcelain figure of a woman breast feeding a baby

You might think that William was disappointed because his first child was a girl and not a boy. And there are examples of aristocratic families expressing disappointment when this happened. Certainly, William was interested in his family’s lineage, celebrating his links with his male forbears in his memorial stone. But I don’t think he acted with indifference because he was disappointed that Catherine had failed to produce a son and heir.

Actually, his wife did not make specific complaints about William’s treatment of their second child, his baby son. There was a good reason for this, however! When William discovered Catherine was pregnant a second time in 1757 he

Determined to leave her and go to the East Indies

as a Purser in the Royal Navy! Off he went and didn’t return for four years until 1761. Nor did dynasty seem to mean that much when he attempted to break the entail on the family estate and disinherit his son. Indeed Catherine attacked William’s lack of interest and affection for both his children.

So why did William have little interest in his children when they were infants? There is a rare hint in the court records that suggest that William was following his own family’s model of childrearing, which perhaps diverged from Catherine’s understandings. For William’s conduct seems to have reflected inherited beliefs. His mother, Isabella Ettrick, answered Catherine’s complaints that William did not see his baby daughter by asserting that he saw her while she was in the house before nursing

and took as much Notice of it as parents generally do of children that age.

This glimpse is revealing because the generational aspect of parenting is perhaps one of the least knowable features of parenthood before the twentieth century. Perhaps in this instance it is possible to understand William’s behaviour – this was how he was raised and therefore how he raised his own children, despite changing styles of parenting.

What happened when the children got older? I’ll explain his treatment and discipline in the next post and what his servants and neighbours thought of him as a father.

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