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

Homesickness: emotions, families, and nations

In a brief visit to Manchester Art Gallery – snatched during a gap in the conference my husband was attending – I was stopped in my tracks by Benoit Aubard’s Homesick (2018). Aubard’s spray-painted graffiti style duvet cover is one of the critically-engaged works by young artists intended to respond to historical masterpieces in the gallery. So Homesick is situated near William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). While Etty’s painting focuses upon the abundant flesh of the sirens and the nude muscularity of Ulysses and his sailors, Aubard responds instead to the more abstract theme of Homer’s Odyssey – Ulysses longing for home over the ten years it took him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan War.

Benoit Aubard, Homesick (2018) My photograph taken in the gallery………………….

As the accompanying exhibition sign says:

Preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aubard has used a bedsheet, referencing the domestic, and added graffiti-like text, reminiscent of a protest banner. The text is not a question, asking whether we feel homesick, but a statement of fact. The artist often uses slogans on ready-made objects to explore the theme of home and refuge at a time when there is significant migration in the world. Homesick doesn’t necessarily refer to home as a building. It stems from an instinctive need for love, protection and security which are intrinsic to the human condition. These feelings and qualities are usually associated with home and are common to all of us.

As readers of my blog know, I’m very interested in people’s memories of home and its meaning for them and their sense of self. Aubard’s artwork captures the way in which homesickness is about place, security, and love in a changing world. Susan Matt put the emotion of homesickness at the centre of the making of the American nation in her brilliant book Homesickness: An American History (2011). She argues that it was a medical condition before the twentieth century, recognised as a trauma caused by migration, which could lead to death. In the twentieth century, however, homesickness was downgraded to an inconvenience and sign of failure as migration came to be associated with modern individualism. As she observes, people had to learn to repress the emotion in order to appear modern, mature, and successful.[1] Longing for home is a phenomenon that shapes national as well as personal and familial identities.

In Britain in the long eighteenth century, homesickness had two co-existing forms. One was a medicalised condition, nostalgia, which was experienced by people who were prevented from getting home – like soldiers sent to serve in a different country. It was thus primarily about space. The other was driven by notions of time, where the yearning was for their home when they were children, now lost in the past. After all, the memoirists I studied, who were writing in the later Georgian period, could, in fact, revisit their natal homes when they wished, for they not separated by long distances. This was especially challenging for writers born in the mid eighteenth century, since, in the post-revolutionary period, as Peter Fritzsche argues, people came to apprehend time ‘as non-repeatable’ and ‘irretrievable’.[2] I’m interested in the ways in which this more intangible, temporal form of homesickness was also influenced by broader social and cultural contexts, and I’ve written about this in more detail in an article, ‘Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain’ (2019).

This ‘backward looking aesthetic’[3] and emotion was also a response to instability and change. The Georgian life-writers I’ve talked about in previous posts recalled their childhood homes during a period of profound social, economic, cultural, and political change. They were formulating their deep attachment to the natal home just as the centrifugal forces of modernity were beginning to spin people out into the world in the imagined form of what Matt describes as ‘cosmopolitan, unfettered, happy individuals.’[4] In these new conditions, the home was reinvented as a ‘sanctuary of nostalgia.’ This development, which Fritzsche has traced in America and Jason Tebbe in Germany in the later nineteenth century, had a restorative, compensatory function at a time of change.[5]

Yet, the life-writers’ memories of parental homes were not simply consolatory and benign, a desire to return to an idyllic, safer, past home. Their homesickness was more a reflective than restorative act.[6]  For Thomas Bewick, Catherine Cappe, Mary Robinson and the like, the ‘longing, lingering look behind’ (an oft-used phrase from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751) at the childhood home, recalled through sounds and smells, was a personalised meditative act frequently associated with hard-edged negative emotions as well as pleasant consoling ones. The same homes could conjure resentment, sadness, grief, and despair, as well as love and affection, when recalled in relation to different family members and other points in their life-course. Here again, we see the importance of emotions to the forming of a personal identity bounded by historical circumstances: the domestic caught up with broader forces. The life-writers analysed were thus articulating national and personal identities in the face of modernity’s profound temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. Yet, as Fritzsche suggests, these broader historical forces were not simply disruptive, they also offered ‘imaginative possibilities for building subjecthood.’ [7]

This temporal homesickness also helped locate people in their specific regional and national culture. John Brewer shows how the generations born at the mid-eighteenth-century shaped a national culture from their aestheticized attachment to the local.[8] He traces the ways in which eighteenth-century sensibility had a provincial perspective, which celebrated the locality, particularly the sensual pleasures of its landscape, in contrast with the worldly metropolitan environment.  Nonetheless, this contributed to nation building since Britain was perceived to be formed from such provincial cities and defined by the landscape of the British Isles.[9] Indeed scholars have shown how a type of collective nostalgia is often seen in pastoral fiction, evident from antiquity to modern times, where the countryside is the imagined location of a better past; a feeling most resurgent in times of political, social, and economic change.[10]

We can see how this affected people’s practices. Susan Stabile shows how literary women in America between around 1760 and 1840 deployed genealogies of family and home in their national memory building. Their material and textual acts of preservation focused on the local, particular, and domestic.[11]  English life-writers’ nostalgia for the places and spaces of childhood homes likewise forged overlapping personal, familial, local, and national identities. With extensive emigration, the self-conscious rituals of curating familial and homely objects, heirlooms, and family souvenirs into ‘memory-palaces’ and ‘mini-museums’ were increasingly harnessed to new narratives of public, explicitly nationalist, memory in the later nineteenth century.[12]  Today, nostalgia is commercialised and politicised, less an act of personal memory or benign form of self-soothing than a collective desire to make-over the present into a mythologised national past. Its toxic potential when harnessed to notions of racial and gender superiority are all too clear.

These acts of memory through memories, objects, spaces, genealogies, and stories associated with families and their interaction with national cultures are something I will get a chance to explore further. With Katie Barclay, I have been awarded funding from the AHRC for an international, multi-disciplinary Research Network titled Inheriting the Family: Emotions, History, and Heritage.[13] Katie and I will work with Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Laura King, all innovative leaders in these areas of research. Using emotions and material culture methodologies, we’ll explore the ways in which objects and ideas are transmitted across generations to help explain how, when, and why they become significant to familial, collective, and national heritages. I will be fascinated to see how much these family inheritances are bound up with the emotions of nostalgia, homesickness, and the imperatives of migration, alienation, and nation building, which often has exclusion rather than inclusivity at the centre of its hard-heart.  

[1] Susan Matt, Homesickness: An American History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), introduction.

[2] Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.

[3] Jennifer Green Lewis, Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory: Already the Past (London: Bloomsbury,2017). xix.

[4] Matt, Homesickness, 28.

[5] Fritzsche, Stranded, chap. 5; and Tebbe, Landscapes Of Remembrance: Home And Memory In The Nineteenth-Century Bürgertum,’Journal of Family History 33, no. 2 (April 2008).

[6] [3] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its discontents,’ The Hedgehog Review 9 no. 2 (2007): 14-15.

[7] Fritzsche, Stranded, 7.

[8] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997), p. 493, 618-660.

[9] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination, 493-8; 618, 659.

[10] Raymond Williams,  , The Country and the City (London: Vintage Classics, Penguin, 2016), chap. 2 and 3.

[11] Stabile, Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Icatha & London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 3-4.

[12] Fritzsche, Stranded, 164, 188, 192-5, 200. Tebbe, ‘Landscapes of Remembrance,’ passim.

[13] A 24-month project, starting 1 October 2019. We have a Twitter account @InheritingFam and will be working on a series of workshops and ‘History Harvests’. More on our website, which we are developing as soon as the project begins.

Homes, pets, and places: how Georgian family members stayed in touch through ‘things’

In the past, just as now, family relationships sometimes needed to be maintained across distances. Today Facebook does the job well, with family members staying in touch by posting short comments, and very often sharing photographs of the activities and the loved ones’ material world. These statuses root people in their familiar (sometimes unfamiliar) surroundings, acting as both reminder and reassurance for family members and sustaining and sometimes forging familial contact.

In the past, for those lucky enough to be literate, leisured, and wealthy enough, correspondence served a similar purpose. Historians have done some imaginative work on the bonds sustained across often vast distances, such as Sarah Pearsall’s book Atlantic Families in which she describes the ‘familial’ work of letter writers who adopted ‘familiarity’: ‘a mode of interaction that stemmed from the family setting and that implied degrees of knowledge and easy affability. It was both a tone, and a space for relations’ (pp. 56-7).

Given the changing technologies of creating the ‘familiar’ links, I wonder if the medium is less the key to the ‘familiarity’ – not so much Facebook or letters – but the materialising of connections that does the work.

In the Georgian family letters I read for my book people bridged the gaps between home and family members in order to keep children, parents, and relations integrated. This was not only through abstract statements of affection, or factual reports of family and local news. Frequently, familiarity was shaped between parents, children, siblings, and grandparents through the evocation of material things. For parents writing to children at school, pets, home, garden, and locality were vital in drawing the offspring back into the family circle.

For instance, Joseph Munby senior wrote to his son at school in Scarborough:

Your Rabbits and Pigeons are all vastly well, and your Brothers and Sisters each sent you a kiss with their best love to you, Johnny says you will bring him a new whip from Scarbro. (no date, early 19th century)

People also used place and memory to fix the family member in the emotional nexus of home. Ruth Courtauld did just this in 1813 when she told George junior, away at school:

I sat a long time in your Summer house today and thought of you—not uncomfortably tho’ it will be a long time until I see you, but with pleasure, for I hope you are improving more than if you were here, and I know not any gratification I would not give up for your good—Anna Taylor, Catherine and Eliza often sit there and work and read, they have got a nice bench there, they all desire their Love [meaning they all sent their love to him].

Of course, things seen and experienced on holidays and visits also served well to solidify relationships (as well as interest recipients of letters). On 17 July 1809 William Gray, a York lawyer, wrote from Bath to his daughter-in-law, Mary, describing his holiday perambulations in the West Country (which included a fascinating visit to Hannah More and her sisters at Barley Wood). He ended:

Tell your W[ilia]m [William senior’s grandson, at that point 18 months old], that at Wells Minster I saw two fine grand clocks. On one of them was the face of a man. It was not a man, but with a great hammer it struck against a bell “one, two, three, four, five – just as a man would if alive”. The other clock had a top upon it like a table, & upon that table there were figures like little men & horses, but they were not really men & horses: yet they galloped round ye table one after another as fast as ever they would go. Grandmother & I said – oh that little William was here to see.

Wells Cathedral Clockhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wells_Cathedral_clock

This self-made wealthy lawyer, now late in life, and rather ‘serious’ in the most pious Evangelical sense, used this delightful description of the famous Wells Minster clock to sustain his close relationship with his small grandson while away from his home in Gray’s Court in York.

William’s tone had developed eight years later to suit the age of his grandson, when he wrote directly to him on 14 October 1817, on another visit to the south-west. The earnest Methodist was far more to the fore in this letter, imparting news of visits to a Bible Society and Church Mission, and advising William junior to study and pray. Yet, the familiar (in both senses) structure of the letter persists. William gave his namesake news of his parents, grandmother, and various uncles and aunts. He described visits to Oxford colleges, the Roman baths and fine new buildings of Bath, and his celebration of his fortieth wedding anniversary.

Once again William senior used place to connect him with his grandson and their native city of York:

In our journey home, we saw the Cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester, & Litchfield, & a fine old Church at Tewksbury, equal to many Cathedrals. Each of these had its beauties, and all of them except Litchfield, ousted York in elegant antient tombs & shrines of Princes & eminent persons: but in magnificence, size, and sublimity, York, when we arrived at it, eclipsed them all, & appeared to us more interesting than ever. So much for your native City!

This was no doubt more meaningful because William junior was away at school, so this pride in York Minster would serve to remind him of home and family –  after all the beautiful family home nestled under the Minster and its inhabitants would have seen it every day they resided there.

Grandfather William then moved into instructive mode, guiding his grandson on how to live piously and decently, before ending by locating himself in place and time (almost a selfie!), as he concluded his side of the conversation:

You will think this a long letter & so it is: but you must consider it a favour; as I am debarring myself of a walk on this beautiful Terrace by staying within doors to write it.

Thus this affectionate Grandfather (as he signed himself) bid goodbye to his grandson reminding him of his continuing important place in his family nexus:

How I shall be glad of a letter from you at any time, & not grudge the postage; but do not harass yourself about writing me, nor neglect the epistolary claims of your own family which are the first to be preferred. If you have not time this half year, you may probably in the next, to remember in that way.

This web of familiarity was successful, for the Gray family network was a powerful and long-lasting one. Indeed William senior’s son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Mary (William junior’s parents), moved in to Gray’s Court to live with him sometime around 1830, when William junior married his first wife Lucy. Sadly Lucy died of consumption at 26 in 1838 and Gray’s Court then became the home of William junior’s three small children who were cared for by their grandmother Mary. As William senior himself said, these great-grandchildren added to the blessings of their great-grandfather who died in 1845 aged 94.

It may be my romantic approach to history (when I’m free from academic conventions), but I would suggest that material things, places and spaces continued to forge the Gray family’s links and connections across generations and centuries into the twentieth century, when a descendant by marriage lovingly evoked ‘the voice of the house’ as the heart of the family’s life and history.

Emotional Historians? A review of Andrew Popp’s Entrepreneurial Families

What happens when historians fall in love with their subjects? Love is supposed to make us blind, isn’t it? Does this mean we can’t write ‘objectively’ about the object of our fascination and affection? I am regularly besotted by some of the people I study, from the good (the adorable Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick) to the bad (William Ettrick, the wife-beating justice of the peace), to the lovely (Mary Robinson, who seduced theatre audiences, princes, and her readers).

It is not just individuals. I fell for a whole family while researching my last book Parenting in England; the Shaws: John and Elizabeth who grew a family and a successful business in Staffordshire in the first half of the 19th century. Reading their correspondence through their courtship and marriage (1811-1839) created a powerful picture for me of the couple’s admirable characters, their loving relationship with each other and their children and parents, and – in fact – the appeal of the minutiae of their daily lives.

Thus I was excited to discover Andrew Popp’s book on the Shaws: Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage, and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century (Studies in Business History, Pickering and Chatto, London, 2012). Although I was familiar with Professor Popp’s research into John Shaw’s activities as a commercial traveller, I had missed the monograph which was published in the same year as my book. Having now read this fine study of family and business life, two things strike me. First it is a book that ought to be read by family as well as business historians, for it fulfils Popp’s aim to achieve ‘a much fuller reintegration of’ the spheres of family, religion, and business, as well as the role of emotions in these domains (p. 5). Second, I guess that Popp also fell in love with the Shaws. So as well as a review, this post suggests that historians can become emotionally involved with their subjects without losing analytical rigour or skewing the resulting account.

Entrepreneurial Families is rather deceptive: an easy read, a case study of a likeable family and their entrepreneurship in the industrial revolution. Yet, in fact, it un-assumedly challenges many of the clichés about the meshed worlds of family and business. Popp demonstrates that middle-class entrepreneurs were not simply pulled along by the wave of new economic opportunities, using family instrumentally as an engine to extend business. In this book, the protagonists were agents in their own lives, making decisions based on far more complex reasons, which did not fall into either passive or strategic. I particularly like his description of John and Elizabeth’s relationship as an ‘unlimited partnership’ (p. 4). As he says: their entrepreneurship:

‘existed to service, sustain and nourish’ their marriage, ‘and in turn it was love and marriage that made entrepreneurship – and worldly success and comfort – meaningful’.

This sensitive integration of family, faith, and business is sustained throughout. Popp reminds us that religion was a powerful component of marriage-making for many people in the 19th century. John and Elizabeth negotiated each other’s faith and fears: Methodist Elizabeth and her family suspected that John, a Presbyterian, had Calvinistic beliefs and it was not until these doctrinal matters were settled that the couple proceeded to their union. Much of the ‘sense’ was on Elizabeth’s side in this phase of their relationship; ‘sensibility’ was John’s forte. Like many men he had a profound desire to be married; declaring in only his fourth letter to Elizabeth:

‘however happy I am in seeing or hearing from you, it bears little proportion to that pleasure I anticipate in of ere long I hope being permitted to call you mine’ (p. 50).

The reader of the couple’s correspondence over the several decades of their marriage cannot help but be besotted by their enduring love for each other. For the Shaws correspondence built intimacy and bridged separation. As Elizabeth wrote, when John was away on his commercial travelling, ‘I feel as if part of self was torn from me’ (p. 21). When his letters arrived, not only were they a means by which they could converse, she seems to have felt that her self-identity was completed. So intimate are these letters that at times I wonder how this respectable couple would feel that 21st century voyeurs were reading Elizabeth’s longing. From the marital bed she wrote of her husband’s return home: ‘

‘I feel as if I never should be satisfied with kissing and embracing you so you must prepare yourself for it. Nay I even talk of eating you …’ (p. 57).

Popp’s especial strength in analysing the Shaws’ union lies not in demonstrating the emotional and physical companionship of their marriage and its far from stereotyped division into separate spheres, but in assessing its place within the family business. John business was as a ‘market-maker’ from the inception of the business around 1805 through his partnership with Henry Crane in 1815, to expansion overseas by the mid-century. Rooted in a warehouse in Wolverhampton, John nonetheless worked tirelessly as a factor selling hardware goods across his commercial region of Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Derbyshire and West and South Yorkshire, often visiting the industrial centres of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Liverpool and Manchester. Here family and business pulled in opposite directions for John disliked commercial travelling. His letters to his mother and to Elizabeth recount its hardships as he travelled bad roads in vile weather, stayed in awful accommodation, and fought his numerous competitors. His emotions were just as battered during his peripatetic decades, as he spent weeks and months away from his much loved wife, children and home.

John was not alone, however, sharing his entrepreneurship with his employee and later partner, and his family. This is where Popp’s background as a business historian is so essential for he emphasises how undirected business development could be, a factor perhaps exacerbated by the family dynamic of many businesses. Popp thus defines the business partners’ actions as ‘active, creative, imaginative’ rather than as discovering and exploiting autonomous opportunities (p. 61). The best example is the firm’s expansion into Calcutta in 1834. As Popp explains, this was not a planned business trajectory but an unexpected response to individuals and circumstances. Family and emotions still played a part. Though the Indian trade was successful if demanding to run it had personal costs. Shaw and Crane’s long–term employee/friend went out to head the firm and died there after 12 years. Even more distressingly for John and Elizabeth, their 24 year old eldest son visited the business in 1839 and died rapidly from tropical disease.

The more mundane practicalities of managing work and family were not easy either. Flexibility in gendered roles was one way to proceed.  Although Elizabeth acknowledged her role to obey her husband because God commanded it, she nonetheless selected a spouse who would not master her. She explained to John that she

‘would not consent to marry a man I did not consider reasonable. I considered this over before I promis’d to become your wife’ (p. 53).

While she did lead a more ‘domestic’ life than John , during his business trips, Elizabeth discussed trade with him, kept him up to date with local trade and banking failures, added notes to the business letters written by his partner, and kept an eye on the warehouse and its staff. Equally, when John returned home from his commercial travelling, he would husband home and family, relishing his hands-on fathering in play, at mealtimes, and caring for the children when they were ill, while Elizabeth visited her family in Colne and Rochdale – not just for pleasure, but to take care of her parents or siblings, and to work in the family shop (run by her mother rather than her father who spent long periods away from home due to mental health problems). Similarly, where material comforts were concerned, both Shaws wanted to form and furnish a home that offered a snug refuge for the family circle.

And this focus is revealed in their family/kinship, friendship and trade networks for Dr Popp shows that the first two were the strongest most integrated categories and that their trade network was fairly impersonal and relatively long-distance. In fact the Shaws

‘prized self-reliance above all else, received little familial financing for their enterprise, tended to keep affect and business as separate as possible, and forged relationships that were emotionally and spiritually sustaining rather than promising of worldly advancement. (p. 96)’

Clearly, Popp became a fan of the Shaws just as I did. And though both of us invested our emotions in the family it did not affect the way we interpreted them and their actions and activities, for John and Elizabeth remain the same people in both of our publications. When I read their correspondence the Shaws emerged as fully-formed people: articulate, considerate, supportive, loving, and kind. Here is Popp’s conclusion: John and Elizaeth

‘were always more than the sum of their historical correlates; entrepreneur, capitalists, paterfamilias and mater, man and woman. They each had a strong individuality that was never more alive than in their relationship with one another’ (pp. 130-1).

What is reassuring is ‘my’ Shaws are exactly the same as Popp’s Shaws in his wonderful account. This surely goes some way to challenging the problematic concept of objectivity and the scholar’s emotional distance?

History, Facebook and Call The Midwife

1: A surprise
I didn’t expect to be exploring the BBC series Call The Midwife as a catalyst for historical investigation when I started teaching a new second-year module called ‘Culture, Community and the Family in Britain c 1660-1918’ this semester. As part of its design I created a Facebook Group for the module, which most of the 27 students have joined. I hoped this social-media forum would stimulate discussion and it has done just that, in ways that surprised (and entertained) me.

CallThe MidwifeI’ve organised the module around themes that encourage the students to think about change over time. Our final topic of the semester is ‘secrets’, based around reading Deborah Cohen’s chapter ‘Children who Disappeared’ in her inspiring book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day which charts families’ attitudes towards children with mental and physical problems. After reading this one student posted that she’d just seen episode 5 of Call The Midwife, whose story focused on the pregnancy of a young woman with Down’s Syndrome. She explained that she was struck by the way the story resonated with the chapter since both conveyed changing attitudes towards ‘backward’ children. And, brilliantly, this started a great conversation between several students who agreed that the series had not only inspired their interest in the history of the family, but also made them think more deeply about changing attitudes and approaches to some important issues relating to the family.

2: A confession
I hadn’t seen the first two series of Call The Midwife. I’d assumed it is a cosy weekend drama that offers a comforting picture of the past and had only kept an eye on it because its retro look is so appealing. Also I have found that being a historian spoils my enjoyment of series set in the past because I’m on the lookout for inaccuracies and anachronisms; so I tend not to bother. Yes, I know that historical drama is not the same as a factual history programme, but I often can’t seem to suspend disbelief. So, the students’ conversation that unfolded on Facebook was a real eye-opener for me.

Two students said that the series’ topics emotionally moved them and that these feelings then connected them to the issues and thus encouraged them to read more about them. Clearly a real strength of Call The Midwife is that it evokes emotional responses to human situations of sex, birth, and death – but not in a manipulative, purely sentimentalised way. What I mean is that the emotions are attached to important issues and done tastefully and seriously.

Another student had a very personal link in that her grandfather’s sister had Down’s Syndrome and the programme and our conversation prompted her to talk to her family about her relative’s life and treatment. The fact that her great-aunt was not institutionalised led us back to Cohen’s chapter which reveals that while numerous medical and cultural circumstances shaped the treatment of people with Downs’ Syndrome, social classes responded differently, so working-class families might be more inclined to keep such children at home, rather than send them to institutions.

Moreover, the series has helped my students think about the family as both a set of relationships, but also an institution that is deeply embedded in a community, open to scrutiny from experts, the state, and of course – in a pretty benign way here – the Church.

The students retain their sceptical eye when watching, however. I am pleased with this since we’re encouraging students to have a critical approach to their sources! For example, they questioned how far episode 5 might have created a ‘rosy’ picture of long-stay institutions, and some noted that they wanted to check this out by doing further reading. Several aim to read Jennifer Worth’s original memoir. Bit embarrassingly, I didn’t realise that the series was based on a midwife’s publications, so that was another thing I learned. BTW I’ve now got a copy and find the memoir is great too! I do think the series’ value so far is its roots in Jennifer Worth’s memoirs. In many ways, it is a dramatized version of the sort of primary sources that history students work on.

3: A revelation and a resolution
The students encouraged me to watch Call The Midwife episodes on BBC iPlayer, kindly sending me the links on Facebook. I watched the episodes and – yes, I cried too – and what is more I realised that my students had made me re-think my preconceptions about historical drama. After all, here is a TV series that makes no claim to be social history (though the series’ website has some interesting observations on the history of the NHS), but is nonetheless capturing the historical imagination of many people. It is satisfying viewers’ desire for history as narrative, but not shying away from controversial issues like the institutionalization of people with learning difficulties, mixed-race babies, illegitimacy, and adoption; all topics that we are considering in our module.

Admittedly, I’m belatedly noticing something that other teachers in Higher Education have known for a while. If somewhat late to the table, I’ve learnt a valuable lesson: being a bit pompous and precious about historical drama is doing me no favours. Clearly I am missing a very valuable vehicle for teaching history and an excellent way to help students think about changing attitudes over time. I need to do more than add a clip from YouTube to my lecture. Other academics are thinking actively and creatively about the popular culture of history, like this paper which – again – one of my students found for me. Hence I’m going to learn from my students and use resources that offer pathways into the past and history. I aim to think about how to use historical television (drama as well as history documentary) to promote and direct student learning. Any tips would be welcome!

(Thanks to the students on Culture, Community & Family for their permission to write about this!)


A Bottle, a Witch and several Banshees

The readers of my blog will know that I have recounted the unhappy marriage of William and Catherine Ettrick which ended in separation in the 1760s. The Ettricks had two children who were old enough to be aware of their parents’ troubled union, and their father’s aggressive, sometimes violent actions towards their mother. Nowadays we want to know how children are coping when their parents are fighting and we know that domestic violence is a psychologically damaging environment in which to grow up. It is very difficult to ask how children in the past felt in this sort of family life. The records simply don’t offer the kind of evidence we need to discover how children viewed their situation, though it is very clear that family members and servants always acted promptly both to save and remove children from violent scenes.

I did manage, however, to find out something about the Ettricks’ two children when they grew up. There is far more information about the youngest child, William Ettrick junior, born in 1757, because he left a diary. Although I am unable to say that he and his sister were damaged by their childhood, they were certainly as eccentric as their father.

Even the means by which we know about William junior’s life is strange. His diary was sealed into a glass bottle and bobbed through the waves of time, hidden somewhere in the Ettrick family’s possession, until it was rediscovered in 1912. It came into their solicitor’s possession when their line ran out and he dealt with their estate in the early 20th century.  His papers and correspondence are in Dorset and Tyne & Wear record offices now and would make fantastic sources for anyone interested in the period.

After his parents separated, William junior was sent off to school in York and Newcastle. In 1778, as soon as he turned 21, he left home for University College, Oxford. As he described it, he ‘decamped from Barnes, the cave of despair, penniless – friendless’. Essentially, he was running away from his father. He was ordained and elected a fellow and tutor in 1785. He took up the rectorship of Affpuddle and Tonerspuddle near Dorchester. William refused to talk to his father in this time, and sent his mother a substantial proportion of his stipend every year. She died in 1794 and William Senior contacted his son, spending the next few years trying to persuade him that he should marry and produce heirs. William was now 38 years old after all! William Senior seems to have been senile in his last years, and when his son visited to show him his grandchildren, he recorded with dismay that ‘the tyger revived as if it had never slumbered;’ indeed, he noted, their grandfather ‘cast them out like live toads’.

William junior now exerted his independence from his father even more. He married a local woman, Elizabeth Bishop, on 17 April 1800. Their daughter was baptised on Christmas day 1800, and a boy (yet another William) was born the following summer. In marriage, he and his sister Catherine acted very similarly. Catherine offended her father by marrying William Budle, a ‘common brewer’ in Sunderland, in 1788, leading her father to disinherit her so that her brother gave her a life annuity of £300 from his inheritance. William also went against his father’s wishes by marrying his servant. It is likely that Elizabeth was pregnant when he married her and he also got himself into great difficulties because he was trying to retain that year’s stipend from his Oxford Fellowship, which depended upon him being a bachelor. He needed both to convince locals they were married, while not marrying until after he got his stipend paid. It didn’t help that William then performed his own wedding ceremony! After several more children, the couple had to get married again in 1806 to ensure they were properly wed and their children legitimate.

When William Senior died in 1808, his son returned to his natal home, family in tow. The family grew to ten children (born in William’s middle-age) and lived in some happiness at High Barnes, although William and Elizabeth retired to Bath in their late years, only occasionally visiting Sunderland. William seems to have been happy with Elizabeth until her death in 1837 – a 37-year marriage in all. He had problems with his own children. The eldest son died in 1806, and a younger son was bankrupt twice before he was 21. Still, he seems to have remained in contact with all his offspring, though he disapproved of various husbands, and in 1827 deplored his daughter Kitty naming his granddaughter Rominetta. As he told her, that was alright while she was a baby, but she’d be ridiculed as an old woman called Rominetta! William’s favourite daughter, Mary, died in 1836. Like his father, William lived an astoundingly long life, dying at 90 in 1847. His heir was his son Anthony, who never married.

He diverted himself in his years in the North-East by writing theological tracts, often on the apocalypse, and pursuing a number of quarrels and grudges with his neighbours, and his boys’ schoolmasters. His vendettas included his sister. He recorded being offended that their conversations were largely about when her money would be paid. In 1817 he referred to her ironically as a ‘kind & grateful Creature!’ At the end of that year she wrote to him announcing that her husband had died. William disliked her tone and complained that she was a ‘woman of … draconic spirit, who has no heart or affections or religion at all, is beyond all things disgusting’. In May 1823 he recorded a dream where he was walking in the garden when scorpion-like creatures rose out of the ground. He interpreted them as the ‘root of evil’ and wondered if they foretold anything. Perhaps they heralded the death of his sister, since he was discussing administering her will in September that year.


Image courtesty of Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, William was a surprisingly superstitious man for a clergyman. While living in Dorset, William and Elizabeth employed Sarah Woodrow who worked on their garden and later as a nurse to one of the baby girls. In 1804 William recorded in his diary that the family was suffering calamities. Their horse died, their potato crop failed and their infant daughter was taken very ill, crying for several nights. William decided that Sarah was the problem: she was a witch; she made the other children cry if she passed them, she caused William nightmares, and she’d made his infant ill. He took charge and fought his child’s ‘demonical possession’ by writing sacred words on a ‘phylactery’ and tying it round her body, after which she suddenly improved. In January 1805 he dismissed Sarah since her ‘crimes’ were ‘all works of darkness’.

William grew even more concerned with the supernatural as he aged. When Mary died in 1836 he recorded in his diary: ‘the wailing of the Banshees have visited us for some months past and more strongly as the evil grows near’. In fact more was to follow as his wife Elizabeth died 6 months after her daughter. The Ettricks seem to have had a mobile banshee, for when Anthony inherited he did not live at High Barnes, but in a small farm near Sunderland. Nonetheless, when he died in 1883, the village populace apparently heard the Banshee wailing round his house, and after he died a spectral chaise and horses were heard driving to his farmhouse door! A grandson of William Junior died in 1902 and the family recorded that a noisy poltergeist attended his death, almost driving the doctor and nurses out of the house; a great grandson declared the banshee scared him more than the tomb. A writer who wrote up their history in the 20th century declared that the whole family record consisted of ‘dreams, spooks, bordering on insanity’!

Some of this biography is based on Mrs Sherwood’s Account of William Ettrick’s Life (1980) D1854/3, Dorset Record Office. The rest is from the collection of Ettrick papers held in Tyne & Wear Record Office.

Feeling like a Dad

Fatherhood is one of the most universal and collective experiences, but at the same time is intensely personal, individual and unique. This is what Tom Chivers, is encountering and thinking about in his article ‘What does it feel like to be a Father’ in The Telegraph. He concludes:

In about four and a half months, it seems, I am going to change, profoundly and almost instantly. It’s a frightening thought. I can’t wait.

Men have always wondered about becoming fathers. Perhaps one of the things that is always associated with fatherhood, despite changing styles in expression, is that it brings with it a deluge of emotions that are rarely felt anywhere else in life. As the clergyman John Angell James rhetorically asked in 1822:

who, that has felt them, can ever forget the emotions awakened by the first gaze upon the face of his child, by the first embrace of his babe?

AMERLING_Friedrich_von_Rudolf_Von_Arthaber_With_His_Children 1837Indeed one of the aspects I enjoyed most when writing about parenting in Georgian England was the sheer, unabated love for their children that men often expressed; much like that which Tom Chivers anticipates.

A number of examples can be found in William Hutton’s autobiography which he assembled in extreme old age from the diaries he had kept. William was born in 1723 and died in 1815. In between he climbed the social ladder to rise from a child worker in a Derby silk mill, to a bookshop owner in Birmingham, and ended owning a successful paper warehouse. He wrote the first history of Birmingham, and was a travel writer, powered by his phenomenal ability to walk long distances. Oh, and he was really quite delightful!

Of 1756 he recorded:

My dear wife brought me a little daughter, who has been the pleasure of my life to this day.

For 1758 he described a fine year when:

I procured all the intelligence I could relative to the fabrication of paper; engaged an artist to make me a model of a mill; attended to business; and nursed my children; while the year ran round. On the 2nd of July, Mrs. Hutton brought me another son, so that I had now three to nurse; all of whom I frequently carried together in my arms. This I could not do without a smile; while he who had none, would view the act with envy.

And then, just as now, everyone’s child was the best. In 1770 he recalled:

I went to Nottingham races, and took my son upon a pony. When I. surveyed the little man, and the little horse, the strong affection of a father taught me to think him the prettiest figure upon the race-ground.

At the end of his life, he confessed

my children are my treasure, my happiness. I have ardently wished I might not be separated from them. I have hitherto had my wish. The world would only exhibit a barren desert without them.

William died a happy man, his surviving daughter and son close by him.

I’m delighted that there are more historians writing about fatherhood in the last couple of years and that men’s emotions figure prominently in the analysis. Here I’ve talked about positive feelings, but of course fatherhood stirs others too, like anxiety, sorrow, anger, and fear. All need far more attention for the changing ways in which men are meant to handle these feelings as fathers.

For more recent fathers’ thoughts and feelings, do have a look at the modern historian Laura King’s wonderful website ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord’ and the sociologist Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood.

Carried to his grave in his own dung cart

Savagery and Sadness part 10: Afterwards

What happened to the Ettrick family after their troubled family life came into the public eye?

This post is devoted to the ill-matched spouses Catherine and William. Read on to discover that William’s obituary was published in the local newspaper 20 years before he died!

Catherine Ettrick:

William and Catherine remained separated. Catherine returned to live in her father’s home in Durham City. I haven’t traced the final decision of the courts following the various appeals, but there are clues that Catherine did not have a particularly happy life after she left High Barnes manor. At this time custody of children automatically went to a father, regardless of his behaviour. So her two children remained under William’s care and he made sure she only saw them irregularly. Indeed she told the court that he continued in his cruelty by refusing to let her see her children. It is perhaps not surprising to read that the act of leaving them with William made her dangerously ill. Her son’s journal and writings as an adult offer another glimpse of Catherine’s heartache in his account of her heart-rending parting from her daughter and son; walking down the avenue with them, and kissing them goodbye at the gate. It seems William did not financially support Catherine, as was his responsibility, and William junior was proud to state that he contributed to his mother’s maintenance from his stipend when he became a rector in Dorset. In 1794 Catherine died at her family home at the age of 64. She was buried in St Mary-le-Bow in Durham City, a church nestled under the shadow of the cathedral.


William Ettrick:

William appears to have carried on in his inimitable eccentric and antagonistic ways. It doesn’t seem that the public attention harmed him; indeed he was known as a good magistrate, admired for his uprightness in carrying out his professional duties. But his reputation was nonetheless ambivalent.

There is a remarkable piece of evidence for this. In 1782, many years after the separation and twenty six years before he died, the Newcastle Courant published an announcement of his death:

Died last week at High Barnes near Sunderland, William Ettrick Esq deeply regretted by all who had the singular happiness of his friendship. In the paternal and conjugal character he was eminently remarkable; his pretensions to hospitality and all the social virtues are too well known to require any eulogium.

For the reader who didn’t know William, this ‘obituary’ was conventional (apart from the fact that he wasn’t dead!). But it takes on a much more subversive tone when we know William. Clearly his peculiarities were part of local lore. So this fantastic lampoon mocks his lack of sociability and ridicules his poor qualities as husband and father: all done in such a way that the author avoided libel. It is really interesting that in the 1780s a man’s inadequacies as a father and a husband were considered crucial in judging his public character and reputation.

William survived this ‘obituary’ by many decades. He finally succumbed to death in 1808 at the advanced age of 82. Determined to be as bizarre after death as in life, William’s will demanded that his body be buried in a plain coffin at midnight, and carried to the grave in his own dung cart! Then it was to be put into the grave by four paupers – with no mourning of any kind. No doubt to revenge his mother’s and his own suffering, William junior ensured that his father’s last wishes were not met and buried him in the normal way at Bishopwearmouth Church. He was carried to his grave during the day in a mourning coach.

Bishopwearmouth church

William had also included in his will a bequest of the huge sum of £1000 to construct and erect an Ettrick family monument. Here, the son did his father’s bidding. He commissioned a grand structure in Piccadilly, London. Unfortunately, at 16 feet high, it seems to have been too large for its intended place in Bishopwearmouth Church and despite several fights with the clergyman, William junior had to submit and set up the monument in the hall at the family manor. He won in one way, however, as he managed to hammer the price down to just over £500!

In the next post I will introduce the younger generation as adults. You’ll meet William junior who was as peculiar as his father: a clergyman whose marriage was probably illegitimate, who recorded in his journals that one of his housekeepers was a witch, and who heard the ‘wailing of the Banshees’ at the death of his favourite of ten children in 1836!

He ‘Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her’

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.

V0038681 A tight-knit family group with the father playing a game of

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.

Unfeelingness - Advice to a man on venting his temper on the least guilty, from the series 'The Necessary Qualifications of a Man of Fashion', 1823 (hand-coloured aquatint)

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.