Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 8: How harsh was parental discipline in the eighteenth century?
Catherine Ettrick’s separation suit against her husband William, on the grounds of cruelty, also attacked his fathering skills.
One of her criticisms was his lack of demonstrative affection towards his two children. By the mid eighteenth century it was expected that a father should show his love for his children through kisses, hugs, and play, like the father below playing peek-a-boo with his infant.
Catherine therefore knew the court would be shocked by her claim that William would:
frequently Threaten to Spitt in their [the children’s] Mouths forcing them open, and he frequently Spitt upon their faces and Necks but more frequently upon his Daughter.
A witness, George Applegarth, recalled that when the children had followed William’s instructions in front of guests,
some of the Company did say Mr Ettrick shou’d kiss them upon which he said if the Children wou’d come to him he wou’d Spitt in their Mouths and that was the way to kiss them.
Catherine also attacked William’s capricious and unpredictable exercise of physical punishment against his son and daughter. When William was in a ‘good humour,’ she reported, he would often lay his daughter across his knee and tickle her about the waist. However, when he was in an ‘ill humour’, whether she was guilty of any fault or not, he would:
suddenly Curse her, Beat her, throw her upon the Ground and Kick her about the Floor, Telling her he knew she would be a Whore and that she wou’d be Hang’d and once he Kick’d her with so much Violence upon the Belly that some Blood came from her and she complained of being in Great Pain.
It was evident that Catherine and the servants thought the physical correction William applied to his children was far too severe. Sarah Beadnell, a servant, explained that Catherine Junior insulted Sarah’s mother, Mary Beadnell, by telling her she was an ‘ugly Bitch and that her Father had said so’. She was shocked, nonetheless, that William took
a Hazel Rod and Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her Sides, Back and Arms to thickness of one’s Little finger
as punishment. In describing the wounds he left on his child, she showed that the correction was too severe. Another maid emphasised the disproportionate nature of William’s correction when she recalled that when his daughter’s reading did not please him, William ‘with his hand Struck the Child and knock’t her down to the Ground.’
Actually, the servants emerge as something of heroes in the Ettricks’ awful family life. They regularly intervened to try and prevent William’s ill treatment of his wife and children and monitored it amongst themselves. Mary Reevely disapprovingly explained that she once saw Mr Ettrick give his fifteen month old daughter
a Blow upon the Buttocks with the flat of his Hand with such force that it left the Marck [sic] of his hand upon the Buttocks of the Child and saith that the Mark was not gone of[f] in a Day or two afterwards when she show’d the same to Jacob Trotter … [her] Brother and Robert Calvert, an acquaintance…
It is clear from this that she checked on the child’s injuries and was obviously quite ready to report her master’s behaviour in front of people outside the family.
The servants also directly tried to mediate ill-treatment. George Applegarth set William Junior off to school on Mondays. He recalled taking the boy’s breakfast for him when his father had ordered him out of the house in such haste that he missed it at home. Similarly, Isabel King took boiled milk to the boy when he walked to school ‘down the park on the back side of the house where Mr Ettrick could not see him’. She and another servant brought in Catherine when William locked her outside in the dark and put the frightened child to bed ‘in the nursery unknown to the said William Ettrick’. Thus all these servants supervised the standards of parenting in the household, even while outwardly conforming to patriarchal forms of discipline.
These glimpses of genteel household life might reveal the unpleasantness of one man’s family behaviour, but they also illuminate the individuality and agency of domestic servants who, like women, are still too often cast in the role of victims by some scholars.
In the next post I shall reveal another aspect of William’s odd ideas about fatherhood, and offer some reasons for them.