The past is an unlit country

At the height of the recent storms, early one evening, our electricity went off, leaving us in the dark and cold for three hours. This was enough time to panic about finding suitable torches, candles, and (thanks to my mother’s foresight and her memories of a post-war childhood and a 1970s winter of discontent) a hurricane lamp. Enough time to light them all (where do lighters, matches, and batteries hide in the dark?) and to realise that landlines don’t work in power-cuts and mobile phones choose that precisely that moment to run out of charge or credit. What then? Can’t work, play, or read. My son struck lucky with a charged iPad on which he played games. Well, what would any self-respecting historian do but attempt a micro-historical re-enactment of the dark and its insights into life in the past?[1]





First off, yes, there is no doubt that candlelight is beautiful and mesmerising. You only have to see Amanda Vickery’s reconstruction of a Regency ball, or the Tudor Farm at Christmas, or Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre to see its charm. Yet candles were costly and unlikely to be used in large quantities for ordinary people on ordinary days. So surely many people’s experience of darkness was much more intense than these gorgeous evocations; didn’t many of them travel the night-time with only small flickers of light to accompany them? People do seem to have pottered about in the night time. Most obviously, perhaps, children slept in rooms with their carers –no doubt to facilitate feeding them, comforting them, or talking to them in the dark hours without having to wander far.

What about that much longer ‘night’ itself? My encounter with the ‘early’ advent of darkness reminded me of Roger Ekirch’s ground-breaking findings in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a marvellous history of night-time activities and patterns of behaviour. His findings on changing patterns of sleep were so startling they even made the press. Essentially he proposes that in the pre-industrial world sleep was broken up into two blocks of about four hours. So when you don’t get your full eight hours sleep, don’t be surprised or worried – you are probably following your ‘natural’ sleeping pattern. Ekirch argues that industrialisation, efficiency and clock-watching eradicated this segmented form of sleep (leaving many of us as ‘insomniacs’). For more on sleep see the project Sleep Cultures.

Those of us lucky enough to read accounts of everyday lives in the past find much illumination in Ekirch’s findings about the dark. I begin to wonder how far the dark was shaped by class and gender. Men were perhaps least hampered by darkness when travelling abroad, although it remained a dangerous time for everyone in the night as fears of robbery and banditry reveal. Certainly servants and women seem to have patrolled darkened rooms and corridors more frequently at home. I recall the accounts in matrimonial litigation of times when household members saw and heard what they weren’t intended to see or hear. Indeed being kept in the dark was no distant metaphor where secrets were concerned in the pre-electric age. Servants on their duties or in precious ‘spare’ time often discovered the adulterous affairs of their employers.

It wasn’t only servants who took advantage of the dark evenings. In January 1788 the vicar of Alnham in Northumberland left home for a couple of days. The young husbandman and plasterer who were doing building work on his house were suspicious about his wife Eleanor. They went to the highest part of the Smiths’ garden and looked in through the kitchen chamber which held the press-bed in which the couple slept. They saw Eleanor reading by the firelight and chatting with the person in the bed. She undressed to her shift and go into bed. The dark and the distance stopped the men’s spying, so unable to find a ladder they got a hand barrow and stood it up at the window. Each climbed in turn onto the barrow (a health and safety nightmare there, surely) and peeped in to see Eleanor lying in bed with a fellow husbandman.

In fact, servants and lower classes have been snootily written-off by historians for their propensity to pop-up with incriminating evidence about their masters and mistresses. Yet when I look again at their testimony and accounts, in the context of their darkened environments, I notice with fresh eyes their use of all their senses as they made their rounds. Hearing sighs and shuffles, encountering by touch surprisingly closed doors, and discern odd goings on in the dimmest of dim lights. Rather than household members in the contempt in which some historians have held them, I admire their quiet use of a darkened house to assert their own control over its occupants.

Mary Collier certainly saw the dark and its labours as profoundly gendered, in her 1739 poem defending women’s employment against the slurs of Stephen Duck in his The Thresher’s Labours. Resentful descriptions of the dark litter her poem.  After women’s long labours in the field for example, she tells her reader:

We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;

She emphasises the never-ending nature of women’s labours by the repeated references to the dark. On days of washing and charring for others, Mary continues, women’s paid labours also necessitated them working through the night. After an interminable day washing for a mistress:

NOW Night comes on, from whence you have Relief,
But that, alas ! does but increase our Grief ;
With heavy Hearts we often view the Sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our Work is done ;
For either in the Morning, or at Night,
We piece the Summer’s Day with Candle-light.
Tho’ we all Day with Care our Work attend,
Such is our Fate, we know not when ‘twill end :

Look at all those allusions to time passing and night as burdening women still further. Again, after cleaning pewter, or making ale for the employer:

Once more our Mistress sends to let us know
She wants our Help, because the Beer runs low :
Then in much haste for Brewing we prepare,
The Vessels clean, and scald with greatest Care ;
Often at Midnight, from our Bed we rise
At other Times, ev’n that will not suffice ;
Our Work at Ev’ning oft we do begin,
And ‘ere we’ve done, the Night comes on again.
Water we pump, the Copper we must fill,
Or tend the Fire ; for if we e’er stand ſtill,
Like you, when threshing, we a Watch must keep,
Our Wort Boils over if we dare to sleep

It is SO striking that the natural rhythms of day and night, light and dark, shape Mary’s view of women’s work.

Finally, my unlit hours reminded me of people’s encounters in the dark which unsettled and frightened them, and made them think of ghosts, banshees and devils. Catherine Ettrick junior, for example, told the clerk of Durham Consistory Court in the 1760s that when her mother left the marital bedchamber (to escape her husband’s violence), the servants thought they’d seen a ghost. Her brother had his very own banshee when he grew up. Thomas Bewick, for instance, recounts in his memoir how he was scared of the dark when he was growing up in the 1760s.[2]

Among the worst [of his ‘prejudices], was that of a belief in ghosts, boggles, apparitions, &c. These wrought powerfully upon the fears of the great bulk of the people at that time, and, with many, these fears are not rooted out even at this day. The stories so circumstantially told respecting these phantoms and supernatural things, I listened to with the dread they inspired, and it took many an effort, and I suffered much, before it could be removed. What helped me greatly to conquer fears of that kind was my … father … would not allow me to plead fear as any excuse, when he had to send me an errand at night ; and, perhaps, my being frequently alone in the dark might have the effect of enabling me greatly to rise superior to such weakness.

Nevertheless Thomas went on to recall his horrors when as a teenager he set off home in the dark across the fell, after playing cards with his friends. Suddenly:

to my utter amazement, I saw the devil ! It was a clear moonlight night ; I could not be mistaken his horns his great white, goggle eyes, and teeth, and tail his whole person stood fairly before me ! As I gazed, I thought the hair lifted the hat on my head. He stood, and I stood, for some time ; and, I believe, if he had then come up to me, I must have dropped down. … I slipped off my clogs, made a start in a bending direction, and at full speed ran home. He pursued me nearly to the door, but I beat him in the race. I had always understood that any person who had seen a ghost, or evil spirit, would faint on coming into a house with a fire in it. I feared this, but I fainted none ! and when my father asked me what was the matter, I told him I had seen the devil. He, perhaps without thinking, gave me a slap on the head.

That slap on the head amuses me – a father lashing out instinctively at the fright his son got. Don’t worry, his father then went on to find out who it was that had impersonated the devil, tracked him down in Corbridge and gave him a sound beating for terrifying his son!

No wonder, as Sasha Handley, that excellent historian of ghosts, darkness and sleep, reminds us, people sought bedfellows to make the dark less isolating and frightening, to make it more amenable and companionable by sharing the ill-perceived shadows, the too quiet moments which no doubt they filled with chat, as well as snores.

This sociability began to appeal to me as I sat on the bed surrounded by candles and torches and a radio with batteries that I rediscovered, and listened to my son tell me about his day at school once he decided to chat rather than play Modern Combat. Then the lights came back on and my re-enactment was complete. By God I was pleased! Respect to our forbearers.



[1] Seriously, for an eye-opening account of historical reconstruction and its value, have a look at Pamela Smith’s ‘Making Things. Techniques and books in early modern Europe’ in Paula Findlen (ed), Early Modern Things. Objects and their Histories 1500-1800 (2013)

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.

Can quality of fathering really be measured by the size of a man’s testes?

Better fathers have smaller testicles; Testicle size linked to father role. These are the kinds of headline accompanying the reports of a study in the US that concludes that men who nurture their children have smaller testes. Seventy men with children between the ages of one and two were examined and the results were correlated with the volume of their testes. There were two parts to the study. In one the men’s brains were scanned while they were shown images of their children, and those whose brains were most activity in the reward areas had smaller testes than the others. The men were also interviewed with their partners about their involvement with their children and those who stated that they spent most time caring for their offspring similarly had smaller testicles.

Thus as The Telegraph comment: the study reveals,

that men with larger-than-average testes are also less likely than other men to show an interest in the skills and effort of child rearing, such as changing nappies or bathing a child, suggesting that some men are biologically predisposed to being poor fathers.[i]

Interestingly, the coverage acknowledges that the researchers did not draw any firm conclusions. They  noted that other social and cultural factors have some part to play in the degree to which men are nurturing and state that it is not clear whether men’s testosterone levels decrease because they care more for their children, or whether they care more for their children because their testosterone levels are lower.

AS0000033FB14 Baby care, dressing baby

I’m no expert in ‘Life History Theory’, the evolutionary thesis which the scientists are testing in their research, so I can’t comment on its theory that there is a trade-off between mating and parenting effort. In other words, presumably, the thesis and the findings which confirm it are that men are biologically motivated to either be reproducers, spreading their seed and fathering lots of offspring, or nurturers, having fewer but better cared-for children.

Expert or not, this biological determinism makes me pause. In fact I think there are a couple of flaws with the research.

What seems to have escaped notice is that assumptions about fatherhood and manhood shape the study as well as the reporting of its findings. Underlying the research’s evolutionary premise is biology as destiny: that feminine equates with nurturing, masculinity with the act of reproduction, even promiscuity. So though the coverage doesn’t explicitly state it, what we infer is that men who are good fathers – in modern society’s terms – are feminine.

This is problematic. As a historian of fatherhood I know that ideas about what forms good fatherhood vary.  In other words, although the components of fatherhood are fairly similar over time: affection, provision, discipline, and instruction, their relative importance changes, influenced by social, cultural, economic and political factors.

So, for example, when the capacity of men to show their emotions is considered part of being a man, as in the Georgian period and today, then affection for children is what is often most prioritised in descriptions of fathers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this was what was called the ‘tender’ father and today is what sociologists call the ‘involved’ father. When expressive emotions are less favoured, then the breadwinning element of fatherhood can come to the fore, as with the Victorian paterfamilias or the hard-working Dad of the mid twentieth century.

Secondly, ideas about fatherhood are also usually closely correlated with ideals of manhood. In other words, there are times when being a nurturing father is not coded feminine. To be affectionate and caring can be seen as part of an ideal masculinity.  The ‘nursing’ father is a good example of this.

The Old Testament Book of Numbers 11:12: describes Moses complaining about the burden of leading his people through the desert:

Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries the term nursing father was used as a paternal metaphor in England in two main ways. First it was used to discuss the authority of a ruler, so monarchs were described this way. Though this paternal metaphor is rooted in the concept of the father’s love, with the monarch-father displaying love and generosity towards his subjects, it forefronts benign authority. The second main use of the metaphor ‘nursing father’ was to define the relationship between the church and the state.

Very often the bodily aspect of ‘nursing’ was stressed. In 1736 Benjamin Atkinson explained that the ‘nursing father’ ‘is a metaphorical Expression, and signifieth the most tender Care, and parental Affection, which Parents commonly have for their Offspring, especially during their Infancy and Childhood’. He went on: ‘A Nursing Father and Mother will take Care of their Child, that dear Part of themselves, and Pledge of their mutual Love; they will take what Care they can, providing for it, and protecting it, especially in its helpless Age’, before applying the metaphor to explain that the king was thus a nursing father to the Church.  Although the phrase evoked in detail the physicality and tenderness of the father it was not feminine. These uses of nursing father emphasised the procreative, protective, governing and educational responsibilities of a patriarch/father.

What worries me is that ignoring the historical and social construction of fatherhood means that prevailing gendered ideas about men and women can pre-determine research questions and surely skew the findings. So since modern fathering is about affection and being involved, this structures the ‘tests’ of men in this study. Affection is being ‘measured’ in the brain scan and the interview with the father and his partner is constructed to find out how the couple perceive the father in terms of his involvement with his infant.

But would the research questions of a study in fathering ‘types’ differ in a periods of time when fathering was predominantly understood to be about providing economically for one’s offspring? Even though this generally entails a man being physically separate from his children because he is working to earn money, he would be defined as an excellent father in many eras, even arguably for some men today. Would scientists measure the breadwinning man’s testicles? Or would they measure his bank balance?

In the end it seems to me that this biologically deterministic approach is somewhat insulting to men. I certainly know that I would not like my capacity to mother to be correlated with the size of my breasts!

The importance of good parenting: past and present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunderland map

Map from:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

An 18th-century bad dad?

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 7: Bad fathering in the eighteenth century.

One of the more unusual features of the Ettricks’ separation case was that it included a lot about the couple’s two children. More often, the children were not discussed in detail. This was partly because fathers had automatic custody over their children and were financially responsible for them. Yet Catherine Ettrick called the Church Court’s attention to William’s behaviour as a parent. In the posts that follow I will take you in turn through Catherine’s main accusations.

William and Catherine had two children, also Catherine (1752-1823) and William (1757-1847).

William’s failures as a father started early, according to Catherine. She said he refused to see his daughter after her birth on 24 October 1752; in fact

if he chanced to pass or go where the Child was then the Nurse always covered the Child up to prevent his seeing it.

Now Catherine knew this would be considered strange by those considering her case. The image below of ‘parental fondness’ captures the expectations of affection for the newborn (Courtesy Wellcome Images). Although men were not present at their child’s birth, they were understood to be waiting nearby, eager to meet their offspring. Admittedly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential novel Emile was yet to be published and translated into English when William was a new father and sensibility was in its infancy, yet men were still expected to be tender and loving towards their babies.

L0019233 A young mother looks over her baby as it lies sleeping in it

Yet William wouldn’t even

suffer it to be brought to his house till it was three quarters of a year old, but sent it to nurse

with Isabel Young, at Newbottle, a few miles away. Wet-nursing was going out of fashion at this point. This was the century of the ‘cult of maternity’ with numerous loving evocations of maternal nursing, like the porcelain figure below (Credit: Wellcome Images). Still, at the mid-century wet-nursing was by no means unusual and William may simply have had traditional views. And it is not the wet-nursing that is being criticised, as much as William’s lack of interest in his child thereafter. He did not, Catherine said, even visit his daughter at the Nurse’s house.

L0036736 Porcelain figure of a woman breast feeding a baby

You might think that William was disappointed because his first child was a girl and not a boy. And there are examples of aristocratic families expressing disappointment when this happened. Certainly, William was interested in his family’s lineage, celebrating his links with his male forbears in his memorial stone. But I don’t think he acted with indifference because he was disappointed that Catherine had failed to produce a son and heir.

Actually, his wife did not make specific complaints about William’s treatment of their second child, his baby son. There was a good reason for this, however! When William discovered Catherine was pregnant a second time in 1757 he

Determined to leave her and go to the East Indies

as a Purser in the Royal Navy! Off he went and didn’t return for four years until 1761. Nor did dynasty seem to mean that much when he attempted to break the entail on the family estate and disinherit his son. Indeed Catherine attacked William’s lack of interest and affection for both his children.

So why did William have little interest in his children when they were infants? There is a rare hint in the court records that suggest that William was following his own family’s model of childrearing, which perhaps diverged from Catherine’s understandings. For William’s conduct seems to have reflected inherited beliefs. His mother, Isabella Ettrick, answered Catherine’s complaints that William did not see his baby daughter by asserting that he saw her while she was in the house before nursing

and took as much Notice of it as parents generally do of children that age.

This glimpse is revealing because the generational aspect of parenting is perhaps one of the least knowable features of parenthood before the twentieth century. Perhaps in this instance it is possible to understand William’s behaviour – this was how he was raised and therefore how he raised his own children, despite changing styles of parenting.

What happened when the children got older? I’ll explain his treatment and discipline in the next post and what his servants and neighbours thought of him as a father.

History, Emotions and Memories

In this post I want to talk about the power of literature in helping people express their emotions. Scholars working on memory show that people usually remember events that were linked with very strong emotions. It is as if the emotion – whatever it might be – love, grief, joy, fear – pins the event into the brain. You can read about this here.

This really struck me when I was reading autobiographies written by people in the middle to gentry social ranks, from the 1750s to 1840s, seeking out how writers discussed their parents.

When people were talking about their fathers in their autobiographies, or talking about themselves as fathers, I noticed that quite a few used the image of a rural labouring father.

burns, cotter's returnhome

Verse 2 of The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Image deposited on Future Museum

This was a fairly common pastoral motif in poetry, paintings, engravings, and fiction in the eighteenth century.[1] Central to this image was small children’s joy at their father’s return, running to kiss him and sitting on his knee. It was a scene in several cottage genre paintings, like William Redmore Bigg’s Saturday Evening: Return from Labour, which is the cover of my book Parenting in England, and on the Home page of my blog. Etienne Aubry’s l’Amour Paternel (1775) is another lovely example, demonstrating the father’s eagerness to meet his child on his return, not only through their embrace but his abandoned work bag.

Perhaps the most well-known examples are in the popular Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) by Thomas Gray:

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.


and Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, 1784-5:

At length his lonely cot appears in view,

Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;

Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through

To meet their dad, wi flichterin noise and glee.

His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie’s smile,

The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

Does a’ his weary kiaugh and care beguile,

An makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.[3]

This cultural motif had long Classical roots, but it filtered through to a plebeian readership by the end of the eighteenth century. For example, D Eaton portrayed an idyll [soon to be lost thanks to the effects of the war] in 1795 where the poor labourer returned home a welcoming wife and ‘little prattlers’ who sat on his knee.[4] The rural labouring man embodied the ideal of the father in a period of sensibility: tender and emotionally bound to his infants, as well as a hard-working provider. It conveyed the sense that to have a family to support was somehow ennobling for a man – it gave the labourer a reason to labour – thereby making labour have a value rather than being an end in itself.

What amazed me was how this rather sweet, moving image was used by writers to evoke their personal emotional experience. Dorothea Herbert quoted the stanza from Gray at the start of the chapter in which she described the ‘black chaos’ following her father’s death in 1803.[5] Actually, several parts of Gray’s poem were mentioned by memoirists, as if its intensely melancholic tone helped them talk through their feelings.

Thomas Wright (1736-1797), a relatively humble West Yorkshire man, used the verse from Gray to talk about his sense of loss as a father, when discussing the death of his favourite son John in July 1783. Eight and a half years old, the boy became ill very quickly and died in his father’s arms a day or so later . Thomas referred to the ‘killing image’ of his ‘darling child’s passing’, which was seared in his mind. It seems as if this dreadful memory was verbalised through Gray’s words. For, writing a decade or more later, Thomas moved into the first person when describing the traumatic event, suddenly and literally talking to his son to tell him how much he missed him:

I shall no more hear thy sweet voice eagerly blessing me, and when returning home, thou “No more shalt run to lisp thy sires return,/Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share”’ [5]

Thomas subtly became the rural labouring father in writing through his grief. Clearly, this binding together of provision and emotion seems to have powerfully impacted on some fathers and children.

For more on this, do have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[1] For popularity of such prints see B. E. Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790-1870, Manchester, 1996 and Christiana Payne, Rustic simplicity: scenes of cottage life in nineteenth-century British Art (1998), passim.

[2] Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, in Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, Kilmarnock, 1786 , pp. 124-137.  This was accompanied by illustrations of the moment of return. For example, Thomas Bewick’s wood engraving, copied in Maidment, Popular Prints, p. 114.

[3] John Barrell, Spirit of Despotism, chapter 5.

[4] Dorothea Herbert, Retrospections of Dorothea Herbert, 1770-1789, London, 1929, p. 406.

[5] Wright, Thomas (ed.), Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw in the county of York, 1736-1797 (London, 1864).

Embedding and embodying gender in history

This post is based on a paper I gave in 2010 when I was asked to think about gender history. I’d been thinking hard about gender while writing my book and at the centre of this musing is the question: why did I change my book’s title over the three years I was working on it from: Parents in England c. 1760-1830: gender, identities, and generations to Parents in England c. 1760-1830: emotions, identities, and generations?

I began by collecting all my accounts of parenting from 1760 to 1830. I soon found that where parental identities are concerned the historian faces two assumptions; that parenting is a natural instinct and that motherhood and fatherhood are profoundly gendered, distinct, identities. The first assumption presupposes stasis, the second allows for change in parental identities. If becoming a mother or a father is engendering – that is, a process that is understood to produce a woman or a man, then it provides a specific female or male identity. Outside influences that shape the way femininity and masculinity are seen will therefore influence the way maternal and paternal identities are constructed. Scholarship offers varied accounts of both continuity and change. Social histories identify considerable continuities in the elements of parenthood for both sexes. More culturally attuned studies [histories of art and literature], on the other hand, posit transformations in motherhood – with a cult of maternity, for example, notable in the eighteenth century. A cursory look at recent work in the social sciences suggests that maternal and paternal identities are seen to have undergone rapid shifts and concomitant tensions in the second half of the twentieth century.


The Husbandman’s Return from Labour: Saturday Evening (1795) (colour engraving) after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

I decided that one way forward was to take an embodied approach to investigating gender identities. How was parenting imagined and experienced in terms of bodies and materiality? How did emotions shape gender identities? I found that thinking about bodies and emotions complicated my assumptions about gender difference and opened up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Parental embodiment in the eighteenth century, for example, need not be restricted to the well-researched concerns about maternal breastfeeding. An embodied approach opens up distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, for the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government becomes far more multi-layered and complex.

Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal. The culture of sensibility and Christian ideals of manhood celebrated sensitivity, physical care, and tenderness in men – all encompassed within the role of father and these were expressed through the body as tears, hugs, and kisses. Of course, the relationship between bodies and social conventions about gender remain open to investigation. For example, historians find it fruitful to scrutinise how paternity, grounded in biology, could be different to fatherhood, a social, male gendered identity – though both defined a man as a father.

Emotions history also lets me consider the ways in which the emotions associated with gendered identities were reconfigured in different ways at different times. Emotions are, after all, human and let us explore gender identities within a different framework. My research on parents in England therefore also encompasses anger, anxiety and sympathy and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence – and in some cases uncovers how these were not always mapped onto sexed bodies.

So why did I omit the word ‘gender’ from my book title? I think that my replacing ‘gender’ with ‘emotion’ signifies how much more embedded my understanding of gender has become. If it is any indication of wider developments, then it is that gender is being integrated more fully into a variety of topics, that we are more willing to think about the construction of feminine and masculine identities through different perspectives and lenses, and that new research agendas are being applied to the study of gender identities.