HAPPY FAMILIES?: Realities of family life in twentieth century Britain

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27 Mar 2014

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Never in English history have so many marriages lasted so long as between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. Marriages lasted longer than ever before or since because they started at earlier ages, were less likely to be broken by death in young adulthood or middle age, as life expectancy grew and divorce was hard to obtain.

These are some of the findings of a wide-ranging study of family life in twentieth century Britain by Professor Pat Thane, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2014 annual conference.

She notes that there is a well-known narrative in Britain about the history of the family – that ‘traditionally’ people lived in stable two-parent families, with married parents who stayed together life-long, boys had fathers at home for role-models, who kept them disciplined, and everyone looked after the older generation. Then came the 1960s and permissiveness and people started divorcing, living together and having babies outside marriage, unprecedented numbers of complex families of step-relatives formed, and British society was ‘broken’ as some would put it.

‘I want suggest that the real story is a bit more complicated’, Professor Thane says. ‘Of course there have been major changes since the early 1970s. In particular, divorce, open cohabitation and childbirth outside marriage became more widespread and socially accepted and the reasons for this need to be explored. But the longer-term story is more complex and less well understood.’

More …

So far I’ve referred to Britain. In fact there are big differences historically for example, in divorce, cohabitation and illegitimacy rates across E&W, Scotland and Ireland due to differences in family law and cultural diversity. Today I’ll just talk about England and Wales.

Until WW2, for as far back as we have data, significant numbers of people in E&W never married. In 1930s still 15% of women and 9% of men never married. This was partly because women were a majority of the population, not just because of deaths in WW1 but because women had longer life expectancy, at all ages, than men. Similar majority in 19th c. This doesn’t explain why 9% men didn’t marry…. From the end of World War 2 until the early 1970s, marriage, at least once, became almost universal. This is a period which, in present day discourse is often presented as an historical norm of long-lasting, stable marriages. It was actually historically very unusual in the numbers of long-lasting marriages. Unusual also in that average age at first marriage fell from a norm over the previous 300 years of around 27 for men and 25 for women, to a mean in 1971 of 22 for women and 24 for men.

Marriages lasted longer than ever before or since because they started at earlier ages, were less likely to be broken by death in young adulthood or middle age, as life expectancy grew, and divorce was hard to obtain. Never in English history have so many marriages lasted so long as between the late 1940s and the early 1970s; whether they were contented is another question.

The reasons for the earlier marriage ages and higher marriages rates at this time are uncertain. The sex ratio became more even, and improved living standards may have enabled more people to marry and at earlier ages. From the early 1970s, the mean age of marriage rose again, reaching older historical norms in the mid/late twenties by the mid 1980s, and by 2007 the exceptionally high level of 32 years for men and 30 for women. Marriage rates also fell to historically low levels. This rising marriage age may be easier to explain. From the 1970s more women were getting a good education and access to better jobs. More of them delayed motherhood and long-term partnership until they were established in an occupation.

Falling marriage rates from the 1970s did not mean that couples no longer lived, raised children and formed families together. As marriage rates fell, the numbers of people openly cohabiting rose, from 3% of all adult women in 1979 to 13% in 1998.In 2006 in 14% of all families (parents plus at least one child) the parents were unmarried but were officially registered as parents of their joint children. This is generally seen as historically new and, in its sheer extent, it probably was, at least in England. There were similar figures for cohabitation in early twentieth century Scotland where cohabitation was officially registered as it was not in England and Wales.

The longer history of cohabitation, in England and Wales, like much else about sexual relationships, is shrouded in secrecy and until the 1970s there are no reliable statistics. But it was not a late twentieth century innovation. We have surveys and other sources which suggest quite extensive cohabitation in working class areas on 19th c London for example, Charles Booth’s survey of London in 1890s. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries there was much less research on the middle classes, whose activities remain much more secret, though there were certainly respectable middle class couples who lived together unmarried.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century legislators knew that cohabitation was a reality, not necessarily welcome or widespread, but common enough for the law to take notice. The Prevention of Cruelty Act, 1894 provided that rules designed to protect children from parental abuse should apply also to, as the law put it, ‘ any person cohabiting with the parent of the child’. The Workman’s Compensation Act, 1906, recognized unmarried couples and their families as units for the purpose of compensation. The distinguished legal historian, Stephen Cretney, has commented: ‘At the beginning of the twentieth century there were certainly unmarried couples-no doubt a significant number-who lived together in a factual relationship impossible to distinguish from matrimony’. But the actual number is impossible to assess.

During World War I, official recognition of irregular partnerships continued. Separation allowances and pensions were paid to all ‘dependents’ of servicemen, including ‘unmarried wives’, ‘where there was evidence that a real home had been maintained’, as it was officially put. There is continuing evidence of cohabitation, not just among working class people, through the 1920s and 30s.

The couples involved were not necessarily opposed to marriage and might willingly have married had it been legally possible. Often they presented themselves to the world as married people and were accepted as such, even when friends and neighbours knew or suspected otherwise. Many people were not censorious if the couple behaved respectably, did not flaunt their transgression and there was a good reason for it, such as the difficulty of obtaining a divorce. The most frequent reason seems to have been the restrictive divorce laws and the costs of obtaining a divorce.

No divorce in E&W until 1857 except by the expensive process of gaining a private Act of Parliament. When it was introduced a man could divorce a woman for adultery alone. Women had the additional task of proving not just adultery but an additional offence such as cruelty, bestiality… sexual double standard. Scotland had had equal divorce between the sexes since 1643. There was no divorce in Ireland.

From at least the late nineteenth century, critics argued that the English divorce system discriminated against the poor, because proceedings were costly, and against women. Another disincentive for a woman to end a marriage was that until 1925 custody of children over age 7 was vested in the father. Even when he died he could will the guardianship of his children to someone other than the mother. In 1925, under pressure from women’s groups, the law was changed to increase the rights of the mother, but these were not equalized until 1973.

From 1878 women could obtain separation orders from magistrates’ courts, with maintenance, with a possibility of custody of the children, on grounds of cruelty by their husbands, and thousands did, but this did not amount to divorce and they could not re-marry. Not all who separated then cohabited, but many did. A repeated argument for reform of the divorce laws was to enable cohabitees to regularize their partnerships, and to uphold the institution of marriage. This was put repeatedly to the Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, 1909-12, who accepted it and recommended reform, but it didn’t come until legislation in 1937 extended the grounds for divorce and equalized them between the sexes. The new law explicitly aimed at ‘the true support of marriage, the protection of children, the removal of hardship, the reduction of illicit unions and unseemly litigation… and the restoration of due respect for the law.’

But divorce continued to be expensive, until legal aid became available in 1949, and even after that was still stigmatized, especially for women, and the procedures were often complex. Similar arguments continued until the 1969 Divorce Reform Act which simplified procedures and led to a great increase in divorces. Right up to 1969, supporters of reform argued that it would strengthen rather than undermine the stability of marriage, by enabling refugees from unhappy marriages to remarry- and many did soon after the law was passed. But in the longer run, contrary to these hopes, reform was followed by a mass flight from marriage and increased cohabitation. I will return later to the possible reasons for this.

There were a lot of reasons why marriages broke up at all times, including domestic violence- something else the full extent of which we can only hint at until it was brought into the open by the post 1968 women’s movement. Feminists campaigned against domestic violence in the late 19th c. They believed it was widespread but there were no good statistics because it was not a specific offence and the police were reluctant to intervene in what they defined as domestic matters. This remained so until the 1970s. This feminist campaign of the 19th c did lead to the introduction of legal separation in 1878 which enabled some women to escape violent marriages. Feminists in the 1920s and 30s campaigned for the appointment of women to police forces so that victims of domestic abuse, and also victims of child abuse, could look to them for protection. They believed that both were still prevalent. But the law against domestic violence was not strengthened until 1976, though of course it has not eliminated the problem.

Child abuse was also exposed in the late 19th c. It was the reason for the founding of the NSPCC in 1883. They demonstrated that abuse was extensive. This led to legislation rather more speedily than domestic violence, in 1889. Cruelty to cattle had been outlawed in 1822.

But we need to remember that throughout history, until quite recently, the main reason why marriages ended in early and middle adulthood was death. Widowhood, most often for women, since women have long tended to live longer than men, often leaving them with young children, through the centuries left many children without fathers and led to the formation of complex families of step-parents and step-siblings due to re-marriage- again, such complex families are less novel in the present and recent past than is often thought. Widowers were more likely to remarry. Widows, until the 1920s at least, had an incentive not to, since widows had custody of their children and their property as married women did not, though they were often left in poverty. They might, like other single women, move in with their parents or sisters or friends, forming complex households.

Life expectancy rose in the 20th c, so that by the 1930s only 5% of marriages were ended by death within 10 years. ‘’Thereafter’ divorce rather than death became the great disrupter of marriages, producing in the 1980s disruption rates very similar…to those by death alone in 1820s’. Impoverished single motherhood and boys without male role models at home, has a long history, though the reasons have changed over time.

Another important change in families from the later 19th c was the fall in the BR and in family size to an average of around 2 by the 1930s. Increasingly births were concentrated early in marriage. Sometimes very early. In 1939, for the first time, the Registrar –General investigated the number of first births conceived before marriage. He estimated, to widespread surprise, that almost 30 per cent of all first children born in 1938-9 had been conceived out of wedlock. This was based on the number of babies born within eight-and-a half months of the parents’ marriage, plus the smaller number of ‘illegitimate’ births, as recorded on the birth certificates. Of course some babies will have been born prematurely, but the Registrar –General estimated that these were balanced by the numbers of parents who disguised their date of marriage to hide the premarital conception.

These relatively high levels of pre-marital conceptions continued through the 1950s and 1960s. The number fell to 10% in 1992, largely because rates of marriage fell and cohabitation increased. Sex before marriage was not an invention of the 1960s. It has a long history.

Illegitimacy rates in the early 20th c seem to have been low in E&W compared with previous periods, except during the two world wars. The increases in both wars was attributed by moralizers at the time to outrageous behaviour by young people liberated by wartime conditions. It was more probably largely due to marriages being prevented or delayed due to the absence or death of men at war and there is clear evidence of this for WW2 from the Registrar- General’s statistics.  These showed that during the war illegitimacy rose by about the same rate as premarital pregnancy fell. He concluded that was happening was delayed marriage due to the wartime separation of couples who would otherwise have married and perhaps so did later.

Illegitimacy remained until the end of the supposedly very respectable 1950s at levels not seen since the fairly high levels of the 1860s. Then it rose rapidly through the 60s, 70s, and faster of all 1980s. By 1993 more than one-third of all births in E&W occurred outside marriage. From the 1970s, a growing proportion of births were jointly registered by unmarried parents, suggesting that they were in a stable relationship and that the father acknowledged parenthood: 49% in 1975; 78% in 1996.

The main reasons for unmarried motherhood over centuries before the 1960s were : i) unmarried cohabitation; ii) mistakes, often by young women deceived by married men; and ii) geographical mobility, when the man had moved on- for reasons of war or work, before the pregnancy was identified. Some unmarried mothers gave up their children for adoption. Others lived in a variety of circumstances. Either stably cohabiting with the father (about one-third according to surveys in 1950s). About another third lived with their own parents, the child sometimes growing up thinking that grandparents were his/her parents. Others lived alone in various, sometimes in unhappy circumstances, but many later married and kept their child.

Want to say something now about the history of attitudes to parenting. We’ve seen that children have always grown up in a variety of family situations. I pointed out in my talk to the first of these seminars how rare it was before second world war for mothers to give a lot of time to childcare: the better off delegated it to servants; poorer women to family members and neighbours because they had to work. After WW 2 to 1960s pressure on women to care full-time for their children was strong and unprecedented. Concern was repeatedly expressed that if young children were not cared for primarily, indeed exclusively, by their mothers, there was a danger that they would grow up ‘delinquent’- the contemporary term for youth crime. There was a succession of moral panics about ‘juvenile delinquency’ from 1930s-1960s, though no clear signs that there was more youth crime than before.

This emphasis on maternal care began before the war and was strengthened after the war. It owed much to the growth and the growing influence of psychology and the growth of social research into social conditions and crime. There was a parallel, new, concern with the importance of fatherhood for the emotional development of children. Fathers were not expected to take the same caring role as mothers, but to be sources of stability and discipline within the home and particularly to provide their sons with good role models of hard work and good behaviour. Even earlier in the century there had been concern that ‘delinquency’ among boys was caused because fathers did not provide good role models, either because they were wholly absent or because they were too busy at work and not around enough. And often over-crowded homes were no comfortable environments for family life. The absence of good male role models was held to explain why boys were more prone to crime than girls. Fathers in the 1950s often said that they were determined to give their children love support and guidance because they felt that they had suffered from the lack of it when young from fathers too exhausted by work to care for them.

What changed by the 1950s was that more families were better off, had better homes and living conditions and fathers and mothers had time and space to think about their children and give them more support than their own parents could have done. And families were smaller and there was optimism about the future- an assumption that children had better future prospects than their parents in an apparently expanding economy. Parents were encouraged by an atmosphere, fostered by the media, which saw the stable 2-parent family as the solution to social problems such as’ juvenile delinquency’ and teenage pregnancy. This was another cause of moral panics at the time though it wasn’t rising faster than the number of teenage girls in the population. Mothers’ responsibility didn’t end when their children went to school. Mothers of school age children were castigated if they were not at home after school and in the holidays. ‘Latch-key kids’ were another source of the many moral panics of the 1950s – kids who got into trouble because their mothers weren’t at home for them so they had their own door-keys. This partly explains the large numbers of women in part-time work at this time.

At this time, and before, it wasn’t specifically lone mothers who got the blame for social problems, as they have more recently, although there were plenty of them around, including widows from the war, but two parent families, where the mother did not devote herself to the care of her children in the early years and fathers did not shoulder their responsibilities.

From the 1970s, and even more the 80s, there were increasing numbers of lone mothers, because of increased divorce and separation and increasingly, especially in the early 90s they and absent fathers became objects of blame for youth crime, poor educational performance etc. An interesting shift. The social problems identified hadn’t changed since the late 19th c but the diagnosis of the causes had changed, though they were still located in the family.

It remains to speculate about what changed and why from the late 1960s. It can only be speculation because what happened was a major, and international, cultural change which happened very rapidly and which no-one seems fully able to explain, though it appears to be a product of societies which were better off, better educated, less deferential to supposedly traditional values than before, assisted by the emergence of the birth control pill increasing the opportunities for sex without the danger of pregnancy.

What followed in terms of families was that the divorce rate grew rapidly after the change in the law, from an average of 57,089 petitions per year in 1966-70 165,000 in 1993 before declining as fewer people married. Wives were markedly more likely to petition for divorce than husbands, though women were more likely to suffer financially from divorce. Divorce like cohabitation largely lost its stigma. Another change was the end of much of the secrecy and shame that had long surrounded aspects of personal behaviour in England: the many families where illegitimacy, divorce, rape, violence and abuse, also death and mental illness were not referred to, as they were not in public discourse. Since the ‘sixties’ almost everything is public, for good or ill. Whatever the reasons, it’s a major cultural change.

Critics have seen these changes as destroying the ‘traditional’ stable family. I have argued that the historical universality of this family form is largely mythological, though it was closer to reality from the late 1940s to the early 1970s than ever before. Yet the divorce rates that followed the 1969 reform and the caution about entering long-term partnerships at early ages among the generation that grew up in post-war families, their unwillingness to emulate their parents, suggest that this may not altogether have been a rare period of harmonious family life. Family life in Britain- and no doubt everywhere- has always been complex and changing.

A final concluding point. Throughout history people have been aware of social problems- of crime, violence, abuse. Perhaps what was new in 20th c, beginning in the 19th was the belief that they really could be solved, with the help of emerging expertise in psychology and the social sciences, apparently increasing understanding of the problems and with the growth of government action, reaching into areas previously thought private and beyond its remit. These hopes may have been over-optimistic.


Happy Families? Varieties of Family Life in Twentieth Century Britain

Pat Thane


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