Seeing and challenging your assumptions (isn’t easy)

About four years ago I was chastened by a student’s module evaluation. S/he was positive about my teaching, but noted that I had made a dismissive comment about men. As a historian of masculinity, I’m hardly anti-men, so I interrogated my memory and eventually realised s/he was referring to a session on marital desertion in the long eighteenth century. I had outlined the research (some of it my own) to the seminar group and in a throwaway comment said I despised these men who had abandoned their families in time of need.

Over time, I have come to think that my disparaging remark was not just something to avoid in the classroom, but represented a shortcoming of my research. I am happy with most of the conclusions I drew in my PhD research that became my first book Unquiet Lives, but there is one area that I now see as flawed. Interestingly, the problem is linked to my unquestioning preconceptions about marital desertion: that when the going got tough, men got going.

Okay, I wasn’t the only one to start from this viewpoint. For, example, it was thought that many of the husbands who deserted their wives and families used the army as an escape mechanism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This certainly fitted with the stereotype of the soldier of the Napoleonic wars as the ‘scum of the earth’. In 1813 the Duke of Wellington even commented: ‘I have often been induced to attribute the frequency and enormity of the crimes committed by the soldiers to our having so many who must have left their families to starve for the inducement of a few guineas to get drunk’.[1]

Yet, as Jennine Hurl-Eamon reveals in her recent fascinating article, ‘Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert Their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London’ this stereotype does not stand up to inspection. In fact, she demonstrates, poor men who left their families to join the army or militia often did so as a survival strategy and not to escape their obligations. In the army they at least had a stable income and wives could seek poor relief.

Jennine’s work makes me realise that it is not safe to assume that all the women who sought relief from the parish for themselves and their families due to their husbands’ absence had been abandoned. So I looked again at my chapter which deals with husbands who deserted their wives. It struck me that I had evidence which did not necessarily fit exactly into the story I was telling.

In my conventional story, men left families because the strain of supporting them became too much. Deserted families had similar characteristics, after all; spouses were in their early thirties and had several young children, typically aged five years and under. This point in the family’s life-course was when the full burden of provisioning fell upon the husband because his wife was unable to work, due to the demands of caring for small children, and the children were too young to contribute to the household’s income.

This correlates with the fact that ‘desertion’ was more widespread during periods of economic difficulties. My examples from counties in the north-east and south-east of England certainly peaked in the decades of the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s; a time of harvest failures, rises in food prices which outstripped wage rates, and disruption to trades caused by warfare and demobilisation.

I did note that the deserted families shared characteristics of pauper families who used deliberate strategies to improve their chances of survival, citing  Jeremy Boulton’s findings that poor families would split up with children boarded out and husbands leaving to take paid labour.[2] But I didn’t take it much further than that. Jennine’s article helps me re-see the material I collected and used – and that my preconceptions may have directed me down a narrow path. It is time to revisit the question of husbands leaving their wives and families.

Following Jennine’s lead, I can see that treating the examples of absent husbands as a whole obscures diversity and complexity. One example of this complexity is that some of the husbands did not run far. In fact they lived near their families but would not provide for them. This is not really desertion, although I grouped it as such. For example Benbrook Watson, a butcher of Iver, Buckinghamshire, was bound over by the quarter sessions in July 1737 for violence against his wife. He later left her, since in 1746 he was sent to Aylesbury Gaol for three months for turning out his wife and infant child and leaving them chargeable to the parish. He was then committed again two years later in September 1748 for having run away from his family. He was put in the House of Correction, until at least summer 1749, for failing to pay back the £2 16s his parish spent on maintaining his family.

Parish attempts to recover the sums they paid to support wives and families led them to hunt the absent husband. One parish, for example, advertised in  Jackson’s Oxford Journal, in 1759, that Samuel Johnson, a 35 year old day labourer from Bampton had eloped from his wife and children one and a half years ago leaving them chargeable. The advert offered a reward of one guinea for info about his whereabouts. Another overseer of the poor in 1765 advertised that if Daniel Harris, a 40 year old slater and plasterer of Holywell, Oxford, returned to his family within a week he would not be prosecuted. Had these men callously left their families?

Perhaps. But they might also have left home to find work. Nathanial Cole, for instance, was prosecuted as a vagrant by the quarter sessions at Northallerton in 1788.[3] His examination shows that he was a shipwright who had come from South Carolina, got married in Cumbria, worked at Lancaster, and then Hull. He got ill with dropsy and since he was unable to work at his regular job, he left Hull and travelled through Yorkshire to get work. His wife and three children lived with her widowed mother in Perth, Cumberland. At what point did such men shift from unlucky husbands trying to support families, to failing husbands, to deserting husbands?

There were also other reasons listed for men leaving their families. Some ran away because they feared being arrested for debt. Was that irresponsible and cruel, or a rational act? Did they think they helped their wives by leaving, given that it was men who were responsible for family debt? In 1772, William Saunders’ wife advertised in Jackson’s Oxford Journal to find her husband who had absconded from her and his large family. However, she added that this was because he was ‘deprived of his senses’. So was he insane rather than irresponsible?

When analysing my data I clumped it together to form tables and graphs, although the evidence about wives and children without men was collected from many different types of sources, including poor law records, where the women applied for relief, from quarter sessions records where parishes prosecuted men for leaving their families chargeable to the parish, and newspaper advertisements where parishes requested information about absent husbands. Now I notice that there were lots of different terms used in these records to describe the husbands, such as: deserted, absconded, runaway, leaving families chargeable, abandoned, absented themselves, and eloped. If I was researching this now, I would use NVivo to code these terms and think about their context and meaning to see if they offer clues about different types of poor families with an absent husband who was still alive. Were the all the descriptions synonymous or did they have slightly different meanings?

So this is a request for someone to do a little more research on the vocabulary of desertion as a way to know more about the motives behind these family splits. Were the husbands hard-hearted and irresponsible? Some wives specified this. Mary Craske wrote to Reverend Wise in Rochford asking for his assistance in getting her settlement parish to pay her poor relief, in 1803. She stated that her children were ‘discarded’ by her husband. But were others victims themselves of circumstances, poverty, and historians’ expectations?

Thanks to that perceptive student and to Jennine Hurl-Eamon’s questioning of assumptions, I see that it is time to find out more about desertion and challenge my own preconceptions.


[1] Cited in Jennine Hurl-Eamon (2014). Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert Their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London. Journal of British Studies, 53, p. 357.

[2] Jeremy Boulton, ‘It is extreme necessity that makes me do this’: some survival strategies of pauper households in London’s West End during the early eighteenth century’ in L. Fontaine and J. Schlumbohm, Household Strategies for Survival 1600-2000

[3] The men were punishable under the Vagrancy Acts and would be subject to being publicly whipped, committed to hard labour in the house of correction, and then forced to return to supporting their families.

Image: Soldier’s Wife Begging, sketched from life by Daniel Nklaus Chodowiecki 1726-1801 via Guerney Journey


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