The importance of good parenting: past and present

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 9: What motivated William Ettrick as a father?

I have written about William Ettrick’s harsh treatment of his son and daughter in my last post. It would be easy to leave it there and just dismiss his severity as caused either because William was abusive, mad, and motiveless, or because children just got beaten in the past.

But instead, I want to think more about this. In the first place, there is no ‘Whig’ history of children where the further back you go, the worse they were treated. As I explained in the last post, eighteenth-century people from several social ranks objected to children being severely punished.

So was William simply mad and bad? Well, he may have had anger issues, but he was not without reason. After all, he acted very rationally otherwise. He was a successful Justice of the Peace, as well as business and land owner.

I think it is possible to examine the evidence – particularly William’s defence – to see what it tells us about his motivation for behaving this way towards his children. Once I did this, I realised that he seems to have had a formal structure of behaviour guiding him, although it was out of step with new ways of thinking about childrearing.

Where disciplining was concerned he accepted his wife, Catherine’s, allegations, but cast them in a somewhat different light. So, for example, he denied:

Chastizing his Daughter otherwise then is Incumbent upon a Parent to Chastize and Correct his Children.

Indeed, he declared that he did not correct his children as often as his wife requested him to, and that,

such Chastizement of his … Daughter was Generally by giving her a Slap on the face with his open Hand.

In cases where a ‘superior’s’ correction of an ‘inferior’ was questioned, it was not unusual for the superior to differentiate between an open and closed hand, or a slap and a punch, like this. William claimed that he only hurt Catherine junior accidentally because she had got into a habit of throwing herself on the floor to avoid the slap. On these occasions he’d give her,

a kick on the Backside and once unluckily hit her in such a manner that he believes two or three Drops of Blood did come from her, since which time he hath never once kicked her.

The other aspect of William’s behaviour as a father that was rather at odds with his wife’s and his household’s expectations, was his failure to protect his children. For instance, on several occasions, William responded to his daughter’s perceived insubordination by leaving her alone outside. On one occasion, in August 1764, when Catherine junior was eleven, the Ettricks were travelling from their home at High Barnes to Durham Assizes in their chaise (see the map below). In the midst of a sudden thunder storm, William began to swear at his daughter and beat her, and then, in his wife’s words:

taking the Stool which she satt upon from under her, Struck her with it, so that her Nose bled, and ordering the Chaise to Stopp Putt his Daughter out, tho’ it then Rained Hard and she was four Miles from Home and must be up to the Anckles in Dirt upon the High Road before she could Reach any House or shelter.

Deponents stressed that he ordered the chaise on and ignored what became of Catherine junior. You’ll be relieved to know that the girl was eventually taken in by a pub landlady who looked after her and got her accompanied back to her home.

Sunderland map

Map from:

A household servant, John Arrowsmith remembered a similar occasion when Catherine was riding behind her father on a horse, on a family visit to Westoe (to the north of Sunderland, near the River Tyne). Without warning, William suddenly ordered her off the horse and rode away, leaving the child alone. Catherine emphasised that she was not permitted to help her daughter and bemoaned the girl’s vulnerability, stating that she was left upon the road:

in a Place where she was an intire Stranger and must Cross the River Wear in a Ferry-Boat before she could get to Sunderland which is above two Miles from Barnes [their home].

William ignored his wife’s pleas not to leave their daughter. Luckily she came to no harm again, as she was taken care of by John Chapman, a passer-by, who found her wandering alone and carried her to his house.

Where Catherine saw neglect and abandonment, William’s defence indicates that he seems to have believed in the influence of ‘Nature;’ giving freedom to his daughter to walk alone. For example, in his interrogatories (questions addressed to the deponents answering the articles in Catherine’s libel) he asked whether or not Catherine junior regularly walked two miles anyway, with her mother’s approval, when she went to collect her brother from school. He also observed that the pub which gave his daughter shelter was close to where she was ordered out of the chaise and that the weather was not that bad.

Untangling William’s approach to fatherhood is difficult. Why did his view of parenting differ from Catherine’s and his servants’?

John LockePart of the answer to this question is that a range of child-rearing views could and can be held by the same family, even perhaps by the same individual. This is important since there was an evolution in attitudes towards childhood over the course of the eighteenth century. Three key ‘stages’ in thinking have been identified: the ‘Puritan’ conviction that the child was born in original sin, which permitted corporal punishment as a means to train the child; the Lockean Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)concept that the child entered the world as a clean slate in terms of ideas, which required that the child be moulded by reason and negotiation and only in extremity by physical correction (Top picture: John Locke, Wikimedia Commons) and the Rousseauian celebration of a distinct phase of childhood in which Nature knew best, which promoted a less interventionist form of parenting (Bottom picture, Jean-Jacques Roussea, Wikimedia Commons). None entirely replaced their predecessor, however, and traditional ideas remained in circulation alongside more novel ones.

Thus it seems that some of William’s ideas were traditional. In stressing that he had a right as a parent to chastise his children he adhered to the authoritarian image of the father who could deploy physical correction to improve his offspring. This was not the dominant discourse of the eighteenth century, however, following John Locke’s influential work that rejected physical punishment except in cases of obstinacy. So William’s attitudes were possibly ‘old fashioned’ by the mid-eighteenth century and certainly departed from his wife’s and servants’ views. Yet in his promotion of the physical freedom of his children, he had much in common with Locke’s and Rousseau’s recommendations that boys be exposed to the cold and wet, and introduced to physical exercise in order to harden them for adult life. By including his daughter in a regime intended for boys, of course, he was still out of step with current advice.

I would suggest, though, that we need not be surprised by the apparent contradictions in his practice. Modern childhood studies show that where there are several discourses available, parents will often hold internally competing and conflictual views.

The existence of different attitudes towards child rearing within a single household may have also been the result of differing experiences of being parented. The hypothesis that one’s exposure to parenting shapes one’s behaviour as a parent is hardly addressed at all in existing historical studies and needs to be more fully explored through research in family archives and more ‘self-reflexive’ sources such as autobiographies. One thing is clear from the lengthy narrative of the Ettricks’ marital separation, interestingly: William had not had enjoyed happy or fulfilling relationships with his own parents.

And, as I will go on to show, both Catherine and William junior had rather troubled familial lives themselves. No wonder parents in the eighteenth century, just as much as today were warned that their behaviour had an enormous impact upon their offspring for the rest of their lives!


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