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.

Savagery and Sadness in Eighteenth Century Sunderland Part 2: The eccentric Justice Ettrick

William Ettrick (1726-1808), a justice of the peace, inherited his estate at High Barnes, Bishop Wearmouth, in 1752 at around 26 years old. The Ettrick family rented the rights to run the Sunderland ferry from the Bishop of Durham. This made a very decent profit as it was the only way to cross the River Wear.[1]

sunderland ferry

It was this wealth that allowed William to defend himself against his wife’s cruelty separation case and which therefore produced such voluminous records. After immersing myself in the rich evidence about William, his life and his outlook on his world, I could not help but be slightly besotted by him. As I’ve tweeted recently, I can’t help but be fascinated by him, despite his many unpleasant deeds towards his family. This kind of attachment may not be bad thing for a historian, perhaps inevitable when we spend so long spying into past people’s lives, but it feels weird when we are drawn to the nasty subjects of our studies.

Anyway, I don’t think I am alone where William was concerned. Today’s post gives you a sense of how those outside his household-family saw him: eccentric to say the least, with a sneaking sense of joy in his peculiarities. He was known to be bad tempered and irascible. The History and Antiquities of Sunderland reported the stories that still circulated about him into the nineteenth century:

He was a man of independent spirit, somewhat of a humourist, but both feared and respected, and notwithstanding his eccentricities, he was possessed of great talents, and one of the best and most upright magistrates that the town of Sunderland or the county of Durham ever produced.

(For more on Justices of the Peace, see London Lives here)

The writer went on to repeat a couple of the most well-known anecdotes about Mr. Ettrick, which had lingered in local history for decades:

One day, coming to town upon magisterial duty, he observed a crowd of people surrounding one man, and gazing at him very intensely. He enquired who he was; upon being informed he was a great boxer come to town, he thought proper to send him a challenge to meet him. The boxer knew not from whom the challenge came; upon enquiring, he was told he was our most active magistrate; this alarmed him greatly, and he thought proper to leave the town. Mr. Ettrick, on his way home, seeing a crowd of people assembled, enquired the cause, and was told the boxer was leaving the town. Oh! oh! said he, tell him from me he is a great coward. I sent him a challenge, but he durst not accept it!

Boxing for Ettrick post

I love this report. It seemed to occur after prize-fighting was formalised somewhat by Jack Broughton’s Boxing Rules in 1743. The ‘sport’ was still illegal, yet here was William – the magistrate – offering to go a round with a famous boxer!

The story seems to convey much about William: a gentleman who cultivated a tough manliness. Not for him the polite rules of conduct, or the emotional expressiveness of sensibility that was gripping genteel society from the 1760s. As I’ll discuss in future posts, William’s personae quite consciously rejected the polished side of life. If anything, he was a man who liked and spent time with men of noticeably lower social rank.

Here’s another local story of the Justice’s single-mindedness:

Upon another occasion, whilst sitting upon the bench, a cart-man was brought before him for not having his name upon his cart according to law: as a matter of course he was fined, but in a mitigated penalty. The man thinking he had been rather harshly dealt with determined to be revenged the first opportunity:– he had scarcely got his fine paid, and was leisurely driving up the High Street, when he met Mr. Ettrick’s cart-man driving his dung cart in an opposite direction. Here was a chance not to be neglected, so, getting off his own vehicle, he inspected that of the justice, when lo and behold his name was found wanting! Off he went to the magistrates’ room, George Inn, High Street, [and] laid an information, Mr. Ettrick who was still on the bench, tried his own case and fined himself! This proceeding afforded him infinite amusement.


I bet it did! This dung-cart will appear again as it featured in William’s thwarted instructions for his own funeral!

Next time, you’ll meet the highly opinionated William’s wife Catherine.

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland in the 18th Century

My PhD and first book explored married life from 1660 to 1800 through records of marital conflict that included quarter sessions records, church court cases, and newspaper advertisements. All of it was written up and has gone off to live its life out there in the academic netherworld.

Yet, there are some marriages which have never quite left my mind. Sometimes it is just because they were pretty astounding people or events, or because they seemed to offer rich insights into the conventions of married life. The problem with academic writing is that you can’t write at length about these kinds of favourite stories. Or they turn your scholarship into narrative: A VERY bad thing!

So I’ve decided that rather than let these marriages simply rumble at the back of my mind, I will use my blog to tell the stories – but with some commentary included which may assist anyone interested in the period or marriage more generally.


I’ll start with the Ettrick spouses whose unhappy marriage is recounted in a 1765 court case appealed to York. At the heart of this is the rather infamous William Ettrick for whom I have nurtured an unsavoury fascination ever since I read the extremely rich cause papers at the wonderful Borthwick Institute of Historical Research. If you want to see the documents yourself, take a look at the Consistory Court Cause Paper Database here. All in all, it is a richly detailed, very evocative case-study of relationships between a husband and a wife and a father and his children. Indeed, the story of the Ettricks is so detailed, that to do it justice I will tell it over several episodes. These, I hope, can be read independently, or as a series.

Episode One:  a bit of an overview to get you interested …

The Ettricks were one of the leading gentry families in Sunderland. They lived in High Barnes in Sunderland and – somewhat ironically – William Ettrick was the local Justice of the Peace.


We know a lot about William and Catherine’s marriage because William’s ill treatment of his wife forced her to seek a separation on the grounds of cruelty in 1765. Though most people were unable to divorce and remarry until the mid-nineteenth century matrimonial law changed – they could go to the ecclesiastical courts and obtain permission to live apart from their spouse on the grounds of either cruelty or adultery.

Catherine had suffered taunts, humiliation in front of servants and neighbours, economic neglect, occasional blows and kicks, all ministered by a husband who claimed that she was his ‘slave.’ William had the financial means to mount a vigorous defence, and the case was appealed before the archdiocesan court of York and then on to the Court of Delegates (national appeal court for ecclesiastical courts in London). The case dragged on for 3 years. This resulted in an amazing 2000 or so pages of court papers.

In this long, bitter struggle the rich details of a marriage between two entirely unsuited people was laid bare. I’ll show you how the separation tells us how people thought about family relationships in the eighteenth century and what male behaviour Georgians understood to be cruel. I’ll also reveal how local authorities, servants, and family offered support to abused wives and worked hard to counter a husband’s worst excesses of power in the household.

Watch this space!