The many faces of mothers in Georgian England

One of the things I’ve found interesting on joining social media is how many people’s profiles include ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as part of their personal identity, alongside their occupation, their political stance, and their hobbies. Being a parent has long been part of people’s sense of self, but perhaps what struck me most in my research on parenting in the later Georgian period was how parents could draw on lots of different types of parental identity to construct their own. Probably it was the variety open to mothers that is most striking, for I think there is an assumption that maternity was a very fixed ideal and identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for elite women. Having talked a lot about fathers on my blog so far, here are some of my findings about the mothers I researched.[1]


Mary Robinson, by Gainsborough, 1781. Wikimedia Commons.

One way in which women defined themselves through mothering was to use the language of ‘sensibility,’ that fashionable mode of being that influenced the period. For example, in her memoir, written at the end of her too short life, the marvellous Mary Robinson [1758-1800] described herself as a ‘parent whose heart is ennobled by sensibility’. She used the language of feeling to describe her new sense of self at the birth of her daughter. It awoke:

‘a new and tender interest in my bosom, which presented to my fondly beating heart my child, – my Maria. I cannot describe the sensations of my soul at the moment when I pressed the little darling to my bosom, my maternal bosom.’

Mary was not alone in this and like others was using a familiar cultural ideal of the ‘tender mother’. Tender was the adjective most often applied to mothers (and fathers) in the period. It conveyed depth of love, compassion, and care and other characteristics of ideal motherhood which were more abstract than material. These were feelings that were part of the culture of sensibility, including the shedding of tears, shuddering, extreme sensitivity, and movement of hearts. Crucially, Mary was able to use maternity in her memoirs as part of her construction of a more palatable public self-image at the end of her life as a female author formed by the culture of sensibility. This was obviously intended to offer a different public identity to her earlier one as high-class courtesan which centred on her scandalous relationships with a series of high-profile men. [2]

Using the language of the culture of sensibility was not restricted to the educated elite. For example women from a range of social groups used a related style of motherhood regularly depicted in fiction and genre art: the ‘distressed mother’. It emerged out of the emphasis in the culture of sensibility upon the importance of a benevolent society that acted charitably to others. Many of these women may have had no choice in using this form of identity for it was often those who were trying to secure aid, or to justify their position. For example, when her husband, a former merchant, was unable to contribute to his family’s support, one woman placed an advert in The Times, 1795, describing herself as:

‘an almost broken-hearted Mother. God knows this is not any fiction; and not any thing on earth but the dreadful misery that must attend my children, could ever have so far conquered the delicate feelings of sensibility as to lead me to make this appeal to the Public.’

It was an expression that was instrumentally deployed in pauper correspondence in the first three decades of the 19th century. The pauper Frances Soundy said she was ‘a poor disstreesed mother’ in one letter requesting relief written February 1829. Interestingly, though, it was not only women in financial need who described themselves thus. So did women who experienced what they considered setbacks in their lives as mothers.[3]

It would be a mistake to think that this fashionable and dominating image of maternity was the only one that women deployed. Mothering could be experienced as part of women’s personal identity in more pragmatic, material ways that were related to married women’s sense of self as provisioners of their families and households. For all that men are usually described as the breadwinners of the family in the past, women were just as essential in this role, and they knew it and gained a sense of pride and identity from it. The women who used this style of presentation were usually those who in their writings emphasised their labours in order to feed, clothe, and educate their children. When Hannah Robertson [1724-1800] wrote her life in 1791 she set out the main components of her personal identity: daughter of the illegitimate son of Charles II, mother, melancholic (in many ways, what we would today call depressed), and family saviour through her ability to earn a living in a range of activities, from tavern-keeping to teaching and making the visual ‘arts’. The role of motherhood in Hannah’s sense of self was multi-faceted and as much informed by hard labour and provision, and obligation to her family, as by cultural idealisations.[4]

While this was a social and economic role, there was a cultural category which also informed these women’s sense of selves. This was the ‘prudent’ mother. She was good at running the household and domestic economy and bringing up her daughters in the same way. One striking aspect of this form of maternity, both in fiction and in life-writing, is how the provisioning mother was often contrasted with the ineffectual father/husband; men who were in prison for debt, or were bankrupt, or had deserted their families. Women may therefore have called upon prudent, provisioning motherhood when presenting themselves because it was an image of agency, conveying independence, courage, and fortitude.

There was even a category of maternal self-identity which many women have today: the working mother. For some women, ideals of motherhood brought tensions as they sought to reconcile their maternal, domestic roles with other roles in their lives. This is clearly expressed by the Quaker minister Mary Dudley [1750-1823]. In her correspondence and journals, collected by her daughter to construct her life narrative, she presented herself as spiritually compelled to travel as a preacher. However, as the mother of eight children, this compulsion conflicted with mothering. Her journal entries from her travels frequently record her anxieties about her absences from her children and the comfort she received from communications that they were well. She recorded on Sunday 14 April 1786 that she,

‘felt a stop in my mind to proceeding this day to Knockballymaher … some uneasiness respecting home had been hovering about me for several days’.

She ignored her anxiety and went about her business, but on returning to her lodgings she got a message that the woman who cared for her children had taken measles and was removed from the house. She said:

‘I sensibly felt this intelligence, and the struggle was not small to endeavour after, and attain, a degree of quietude, sufficient to discover the right path. I went distressed to bed, I think honestly resigned, either to go forward or return home, as truth opened’.

Since her thoughts kept turning to Knockballymaher, however, she took that as a divine message and went there the following day. She and returned home on the 16th to find her husband and children in health. Problematically she interpreted her anxieties about leaving her children as undermining her call and demonstrating her failure to place her trust in God and submit to Him. This internal conflict attacked her sense of self. In June 1792, hearing the call to visit Quaker Friends in France, Guernsey, and the north of Britain, she confessed,

‘how much has it cost my nature, yea, almost its destruction, to be in the degree I am, loosened from my precious domestic ties’.[5]

Motherhood has never been an easy role!

[1] For more on the mothers discussed here and parental self-identity in general have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[2] Robinson, Mary Elizabeth (ed.), Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, Written by herself, 4 vols. (London 1801). Mellor, A., ‘Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary “Perdita” Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22 (2000), 271-304

[4] She became melancholic after she lost her ‘darling child,’ in infancy. Her melancholic nature resurfaced and the bereavement caused her to lose her reason for two years. In this time her husband left ‘his other concerns, devoted his time, his fortune, and all his cares to me alone’. Thus his business was given over to his incompetent partner and bankruptcy ensued. Robertson, Hannah, The life of Mrs Robertson, grand-daughter of Charles II. Written by Herself (Derby 1791).

[5] Dudley E., (ed.), The Life of Mary Dudley, including an account of her religious engagements and extracts from her letters, with an appendix containing some account of the illness and death of her daughter Hannah Dudley (London, 1825).

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!