Favouritism in Georgian England

Today we see favouring one child over another as a risk to happy family life and psychologically damaging for those who are least favoured. This is by no means new. Moral commentators and writers on parenting have long warned parents against favouritism, while simultaneously expecting it to take place. The author of Moral essays, published in 1796, pointed out the results of favouritism: a thousand ill consequences, ‘strife, division, and animosity, [which] usurp the seats of harmony and peace. They warned that

where jealousy and hatred are thus early sown, they generally shoot up in a rank and fruitful harvest of guilt and misery. For, when children find it impossible to please, they will naturally lose all desire of pleasing; where they are contemned [sic], they will contemn [sic]; and where they are injured, they will resent.[1]

Even so, the author also declared that ‘there is scarce a large and numerous family to be met with, where this evil is not in some measure seen, felt, and lamented.’[2] Understanding why societies have seen favouritism as both inevitable and abhorrent can give us insights into family life in the past and how it was shaped by broader social and political practices.

We are already familiar with the way ideas about the early modern state shaped those about the family and vice versa. The patriarchal household was envisioned as a micro-state, justifying the male head of household’s rule over his dependents and shaping the gender politics of family life and society. However, other social and political institutions also had their familial counterparts. In the long eighteenth century, the most dominant was patronage, a configuration of connections and networks through which men gained preferment and posts in politics and the professions, such as the armed forces, the church, the law, and medicine. Deemed morally legitimate, patronage was a sanctioned and formalised process that shaped social, political, and professional life.[3] It functioned through kinship, with preferment granted to sons, grandsons, sons-in-law, cousins, and nephews.[4] It was by no means a male-only process, as Margot Finn shows, since it was rooted in the family institution and women were central to its functioning, acting as mediators between individuals and institutions, facilitating the exchange of gifts, entertainment, and knowledge that was central to the visibility and selection of men. Notions of authority, dependence, and reciprocity underpinned both patron and familial relationships. Those seeking preferment were deferential and stressed the patron’s obligations to them as dependents. In return for preferment, and not unlike children’s filial duties to parents, clients offered duty, affection, political, economic, social, and professional allegiances and support.

So, the question is, when much public life was based on preferring one family member to another, why was family favouritism so condemned and feared? The answer is twofold, rooted in eighteenth-century understandings of personal merit and of differential treatment, in which treating offspring differently could still be fair. Equity, in these cases, was not the same as equality, with equal access to opportunities regardless of gender, race, wealth, and class. It was about identifying an individual’s inner merit and offering them opportunities determined by their gender, race, wealth, and class. Thus, favouritism occurred when parents ignored inner merit and it encompassed behaviours deemed unfair because they elevated someone beyond the natural order. Favour was, after all, a vexed and complex phenomenon that had problematic associations with ideas about merit. There were longstanding suspicions about the role of royal favourites who exercised enormous influence and power due to this favour, yet were selected primarily because of their physical appeal and allure. As Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor observe, the rise of a favourite risked the wellbeing of the polity, since they might sway the monarch to ignore their other subjects’ needs. In many ways, this paralleled the rhetoric used about family favouritism. Favour continued to have a political dimension in the eighteenth century, since the concept of the royal favourite retained power during the era of parliamentary monarchy, especially as a way to attack the relations between a monarch and chief minister.[5]

Favoured or favourite?

Being favoured could be unproblematic. Life-writers sometimes uncritically mentioned that a child was favoured, simply outlining the qualities or actions that made them so favoured. In a bundle of letters from Lucy Gray, daughter of a prominent York lawyer, to her nephew William Gray, a report about William and his sister, dated January 1809, notes that:

William is very quick, an amazing talker & a very great favourite with us all. He spent the day with us yesterday. He makes the home quite cheerful when we have him and is a very good child. We have him at table with us, when he does not speak a word except that when Grace is said he adds Amen – & yesterday after eating at a good rate he laid his hands on his stomach & called out “Williams cavity very full”. After Dinner he is always in high spirits & expects to have a riot with his Aunts. He was two years old on the 12th of Dec.[6]

Moreover, certain family members were associated with partiality for specific children, especially uncles, aunts, and grandparents. It was, however a very different situation when parents had favourite offspring. While Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnson happily described her grandson as a pet,[7] for example, she was worried that her granddaughter Mary was ‘too much an idol with both parents’.[8] Notably, parents themselves rarely admitted to a marked preference for one child. The one exception was following the death of a child when they might confess that he or she was a favourite. Hannah Robertson’s memoir, written in 1791, painfully recounted her suffering at the deaths of all her children, though about her youngest son she confessed, ‘he was my dearest child! – this favourite son was in the silent grave!’[9] More troublingly, evangelical parents might believe themselves divinely punished for favouring a child. Lucy Gray’s mother, Faith, explained that she worried that the death of her four-year-old son from scarlet fever in 1795, a favourite with his parents, was a stroke of punishment for the great grief she had experienced for the loss her infant daughter fifteen months earlier.[10] Here we glimpse the complexities of favouritism emerging.

Tom & Christine with baby (w/c on paper) ABT1762856 © Abbot Hall Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Merit in a differential society

So, what type of partiality towards children did society identify as problematic? Essentially, it was when circumstances drove it rather than internal merit, such as superficial beauty or talents, personality, or the child’s similarity to parents. James Nelson commented in his advice for parents, published in 1753, ‘It is true indeed that it may, and sometimes does happen, that one Child in a Family is superior in Parts to the rest, or is particularly engaging, and may be said to merit that partial Distinction Parents make’.[11] Still, to favour them for this was reprehensible. In 1792, the clergyman William Braidwood advocated that children not be ‘overlooked, despised, and maltreated, perhaps merely for the want of personal accomplishments, or a deficiency in bright and shining talents, which the great Author of nature hath conferred on some, and denied to others.’ It was ‘absurd or unnatural’ that favourites were ‘caressed, and respected, and allowed to trample on one who ought to be accounted their equal’, only ‘because they are more beautiful, or sprightly’.[12] Even in 1830, William Cobbett was still warning fathers: ‘partiality sometimes arises from mere caprice; sometimes from the circumstances of the favourite being more favoured by nature than the rest; sometimes from the nearer resemblance to himself, that the father sees in the favourite’.[13] None of these indicated merit, the authors insisted. As Nelson remarked, does it ‘not often happen, that the greatest Favourite is the greatest Booby?’ In any case, differences between children were often not the result of ‘malice’, but perhaps of ‘giddy youth’.[14] He admonished, ‘Parents should by all Means consider, that every Child is equally the Object of their Love and Care; and, by the Right of Nature, equally demands their Protection.[15]

Nature was key. Natural law meant parents should love their children, but in a hierarchical society, children were different from each other as was their access to benefits and privileges. Indeed, authors noted that birth order and gender might cause favouritism. A ‘Letter to the editor’ in the 1804 Lady’s Magazine, saw ‘Priscilla Firstly’ compile a list of things generally considered ‘first’, one of which was the first child who ‘is often spoiled by the indiscreet fondness of the parents’.[16] This had to be handled carefully, however; after all, it was undisputed that a first-born son was going to have greater opportunities than younger sons and daughters. Yet, parents were warned that favouring first-born children or sons was wrong. James Nelson, in his essay on the government of children (1753), observed ‘Sometimes the Father has his Darling, and the Mother her’s [sic]; sometimes they both doat [sic] on the same Child’; for the most part, though, ‘Mothers are extravagantly fond of the Boys, and either treat the Girls with a visible Indifference, or grossly neglect them, they know not why.’[17]

A structurally sexist society may well offer the explanation, since not only were women often complicit with the advancement of patriarchy, they were also deemed as less rational than men and censured for favouritism’s worst ills. The real problem, as glimpsed in the blame apportioned to women, was that over-indulging children was unfair because it would damage them, undermining their personal morals and merit. Despite being a prudent wife, tender mother, and real Christian, Amelia Stanhope in ‘The Female Reformer by Bob Short’ ‘A Mother’s Failings’ (1784), was too partial towards her eldest daughter. Named after her, the girl ‘is daily dressed out so fine, or as some would say, so tawdry, that she is more like a Bartholomew doll than anything else.’[18] Superficial trappings took precedence at the cost of the child’s character; the comparison to a cheap, brightly painted doll sold at a disorderly fair implied that the partiality would compromise the daughter’s virtue.

In ‘The Unnatural Mother from Marmontelle’, published in the Lady’s Magazine, 1782, the author linked the mother’s usurpation of marital authority to her partiality for one child and the ensuing familial collapse. The daughter of a French Intendant, she had agreed to marriage only on the condition that she had ‘absolute authority’ in her husband’s house. Quickly widowed and possessing too much power, this ‘unnatural mother’ favoured her eldest son, Mr De L’Etang. Her preference ruined him and he became headstrong, capricious, and bad tempered. She neglected James Coree, her younger son, who despite his mother’s enmity remained honourable, intelligent, and morally sound. Thanks to lack of maternal support, James left for Antilles to make his fortune. Damaged by her favouritism, the eldest son wasted the family fortune, leaving his mother in debt and ill. As with many such stories, the neglected child returned home. Tending his mother’s sick bed, James’ moral decency persuaded her that heaven was punishing her for her acts of favouritism; this revelation and her penance restored her to good health, a decent living, and appropriate patriarchal oversight since she went to live under James’s care in the Caribbean.[19] Overall, such cautionary tales warned that both parental inability to identify inner merit in some offspring and the over-indulgence of others would lead to disaster for individuals, families, and society.

The rhetoric condemning favouritism sought to clarify and align ideas around merit with a notion of equity that was rooted in differential needs and societal and cultural constraints. Several writers acknowledged that reconciling equitable treatment, suitability, and merit was difficult. William Cobbett warned fathers that the division of property could lead to terrible hostilities in families.[20] Fathers should, therefore, be impartial where property was concerned. Nonetheless, he reflected, this did not equate with equitable distribution in all cases, because offspring’s’ ‘different wants, their different pecuniary circumstances, and different prospects in life’ necessitated diversity.[21] This might play out unexpectedly in discussions around parental partiality. In the Lady’s Magazine, 1783, the ‘Matron’, Mrs Gray, an agony-aunt, responded to Eliza Willis, a young woman who perceived her two younger brothers to be favoured over her. As a result, she says, the siblings insulted her, and her parents sent her to be apprenticed. Now nearing the end of her term, she asked should she return home to a ‘miserable’ life, or set up in business independently.[22] The Matron acknowledges that many parents were too partial in the distribution of their favours to their children, making no efforts to conceal their partiality, leading to uneasiness and unhappy consequences. Nonetheless, she offered reasons why Eliza might be mistaken about her situation. Firstly, the two sexes require different modes of education since their views in life are distinct. Secondly, Eliza’s brother was, perhaps, less healthy and capable of making his way in the world than her; and, therefore watched with more care.[23]

The factors shaping the treatment of children had several similarities to the structures shaping the patron-client relationship. Studies of eighteenth-century patronage argue that it was envisaged to be compatible with merit, defined as a set of qualities that deserved reward, since it often operated through knowledge of the candidate. [24] Indeed, in the clerical nepotism that William Gibson investigated, patrons actively sought to select meritorious kinsmen to place.[25] In the section on naval and military officers in his Enquiry into the Duties of Men (1794), Thomas Gisborne similarly identified merit as central to preferment when he commented that patronage and promotion in the navy ‘ought to be considered as a public trust, and exercised with a strict regard to desert’.[26] Those who promoted ‘a favourite, a friend, or a relation, to a post of which he is unworthy’, betrayed ‘sordid principles or an unskilful judgement; [which] discourages meritorious exertion throughout the service’ and thus laid the nation open to danger.[27] For Gisborne, bestowing indulgences on men was fine as long as the practice aligned with the public good, just as bestowing charity should attend to the merit of the recipient. He recommended, therefore, that an officer should ‘allow to virtuous conduct every degree of reasonable weight in the granting of favours, and the distribution of preferment’.[28] Favour was acceptable if bestowed on clients who deserved it through their good conduct. It is perhaps no coincidence that the advice he offered on the bestowing of preferment had its echoes in that given to parents; after all, the power structures on board ship mirrored domestic patriarchy, with the naval officer acting as a surrogate father over his men, inculcating in them morals and piety to protect against vice. In effect, both family and patronage operated through power relations structured by obligations between those who bestowed favour and its recipients. Both shared similar concerns about the elevation of those who did not possess sufficient merit or capacities over those who did.

Favouritism, conflict and disorder

In granting preferment, a patron sought to preserve family interests and, in some cases, professional and national ones, as well as status, and security.[29] Yet patronage was seen as potentially destabilising, since those seeking preferment competed with each other within a process that frequently manifested itself as a jostling for restricted resources. Rivalry for resources was also one of the frequently mentioned outcomes of favouritism. Often derived from biblical injunctions against favouring one child, print culture fulsomely warned that favouritism’s outcome was wrathful offspring, hatred, rivalry, and conflict. [30] Loving one child above the rest of their children, the author of ‘A Mother’s Failings’ cautioned, led to the ‘ruin and destruction of the beloved object, and planting of a thorn in their [the parents’] dying pillows’.[31] Most writers agreed that children were ruined by indulgence becoming, ‘haughty, overbearing, and petulant’, while the ‘neglected children’ ended up broken hearted or resentful’.[32] As a result, offspring ‘conceive a Hatred to one another, and often to the Parents themselves, which perhaps lasts as long as their Lives’.[33] William Braidwood’s sermons delineating parental duties, published in 1792, counselled that ‘an unwarrantable partiality’ would unfailingly provoke children ‘to wrath, and discourage them.’[34] Cobbett’s ‘Advice to Fathers’ explained that ‘By nature they are rivals for the affection and applause of the parents; in personal and mental endowments they become rivals’.[35] In effect, favouritism resulted in internecine family conflict with implications for social cohesion. Nelson spelt these out as everything from lawsuits, to poverty, and rash marriages.[36]

There is evidence that preferential treatment within families caused dispute. This could be especially complicated in blended families. When John South’s mother, for example, wrote to him when he was away at boarding school in the early 1810s she voiced her resentment about his father’s relationship with the daughter of his first marriage. One Saturday morning, she noted: ‘Sally is gone to Lincoln, I suppose for her Summers [sic] residence, as pleasure for her, seems the chief pursuit, and your Fathers greatest delight, as his particular attachment to her, wants little penetration to see’.[37] If this close father-daughter caused relationship caused marital disharmony, she used it to demand that the love she felt her son owed her. Reflecting on this, she told John: ‘I hope to have comfort in my own Children as they grow up, as mine is a Mind much distressed from various disappointments: which I hope you will always make it your study to alleviate ‘. In 1812 she wrote to him:

You have but too great a share in my affection, which makes me often think I have a very small return in your Infant Years, with great care I watch’d over you, and seem’d to promise myself much from you, I thought I should always have in you a Companion, and as you grew up in Life a most sincere friend – I always endeavoured to instruct you in your duty to God; and your Parents

Life-writers also positioned themselves within a narrative of favouritism. For instance, some memoirists identified favouritism as one of the factors shaping their life trajectories. The educator Catherine Cappe, writing her memoir in 1822, presented parental favouritism as predictable, and deployed print culture’s conventions concerning its consequences. Her younger brother was, from infancy, she remarked, ‘my mother’s delight’. Like his fictional counterparts, he was indolent and self-indulgent. This made his father dissatisfied with him, a breakdown in father-son relations that distressed their mother. Although Cappe was, she said, her father’s favourite, this brought no advantage because of his failure to recognise merit, which stemmed from gender prejudice:

As my father was himself literary, and as I was his supreme favourite, it may seem extraordinary that he did not take the business of my instruction into his own hands. But the fact was, that although in other respects extremely liberal, he had imbibed some of the prejudices of that day, in respect to the cultivation of the female mind. And if he saw in his daughter an early desire of mental improvement, and some capacity for making progress in it, it is probable that he might think it the more necessary not to encourage, but rather to restrain the growing propensity. However this might be, I not only lost many of the superior advantages which I should otherwise have obtained, but what is more to be lamented, my affection for him was not cultivated and improved as it would have been.’[38]

Her father’s preconceptions about educating women left Cappe’s abilities undeveloped and her merit unrecognised; in turn, she was unable to give him the filial love she felt she owed him and that society commended as the reward for good parenting.

The writer Lady Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1750-1828), alleged her mother’s neglect of her from birth and preference for her older beautiful sister. Craven was married at 16, and after a year of marriage, her husband told her that her mother had intimated her worries that if his manners were rough he would break Craven’s heart, since was such ‘a meek-tempered child’.[39] This shocked her:

for I had never discovered that my mother thought me amiable. To the gracious gifts which Providence had bestowed upon me, to my application to do good, and to excel in what I was taught, I was obliged to acknowledge to my governess and relations my great obligations. My mother’s thoughts appeared to be fixed on the handsome face of my sister; and this mortification rendered me more humble and more happy, while, at the same time, this partiality prevented my sister from thinking any improvement to be necessary.[40]

Craven’s adult life would be one of sexual scandal and separation from her family and most of her own children. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that she chose to position herself as the victim of favouritism; the child whose merit went unrecognised and unrewarded, whose advancement and improvement depended upon those outside the kin networks.

Changing views?

Patronage increasingly came under attack from radicals and reformers in the nineteenth century, who viewed it as nepotism and a source of corruption, undermining political and professional institutions. In its place they sought to articulate and advance a new vision of personal merit, based upon more utilitarian conceptions of social and professional worth. Was family favouritism condemned along similar lines? Did the personal and political remain thus entwined and, if so, how did it shape family dynamics? These are the questions I hope to explore further as my research into this topic develops.


[1] Moral essays, chiefly collected from different authors. By A. M. Vol. 2, Liverpool, 1796 2 vols, pp. 81-2

[2] ibid

[3] William Gibson, ‘Importunate cries of misery’: the correspondence of Lucius Henry Hibbins and the Duke of Newcastle, 1741-58’ The British Library Journal 17/1, 1991

[4] William Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship in the Eighteenth-century Church, Journal of Religious History 14/4, 1987, p. 383; William Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit: The Church of England in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Family History 18/2, 1993, 179-90.

[5] Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor, ‘Hephaestion and Alexander: Lord Hervey,Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the Royal Favourite in England in the 1730s’ English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507, 2009, 285, 291, 294-5]

[6] 1809 March Lucy Gray at Ockbrook to her nephew William Gray at Olgeforth, York. Acc 24/M3, Folded ‘parcel’ with note on front saying: Master Gray Ogleforth York by favour of Miss Dikes. In another hand: Letters to my father from his aunt Lucy Gray and others.

[7] Rev. Arthur Wentworth Eaton (ed) Recollections of a Georgia Loyalist by Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, written in 1836. New York and London, 1901 [1764- (122, 125-6)

[8] Ibid, p. 149.

[9] Hannah Robertson, The Life of Mrs Robertson,  p. 44 

[10] Faith Hopwood Diary 1764-1810 Acc 5,6,4,235/D1a

[11] James Nelson. An essay on the government of children, under three general heads: viz. health, manners and education. By James Nelson, apothecary. London, 1753.  

[12] William Braidwood, Parental duties illustrated from the word of God, and enforced by a particular account of the salutary influence therein ascribed to the proper government of children; in three sermons, preached to a church of Christ in Richmond Court, Edinburgh (Edinburgh,1792) p. 14

[13] William Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and higher ranks of life. (First edition 1830, published as an Oxford University Press paperback 1980) p. 310

[14] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, pp.  205-6 210

[15] Ibid, p. 209

[16] The Lady’s Magazine XXXV 1804, p. 5

[17] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p. 205

[18] The Lady’s Magazine, p. 85

[19] The Lady’s Magazine, 1782, p. 15

[20] Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, p. 310

[21] ibid

[22] The Lady’s Magazine 1783 pp. 131-2

[23] Ibid, pp. 204-5

[24] Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship’, p. 385

[25] Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit’, 186.

[26] Thomas Gisborne, Enquiry into the Duties of Man, p. 303-4.

[27] Ibid p. 304

[28] Ibid, p. 312

[29] Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship ‘, 382, 388; Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit’, 180.

[30] Braidwood, Parental duties, pp. 13-14

[31] The Lady’s Magazine, 1784, 86

[32] Braidwood, Parental duties, p. 15

[33] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p.208

[34] Braidwood, Parental duties, pp. 13-14

[35] Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, p. 309

[36] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p. 208

[37] Notes on MS0232/8

[38] M. Cappe, (ed.), Memoirs of the life of the late Mrs Catharine Cappe. Written by herself

(London, 1822), pp. 18-19.

[39] Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach. Written by Herself. London 1826, 2 vols. 1750-1828 p. 51

[40] Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, 52

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