It's my pleasure to welcome the marvellous Kate Lister to the salon with an investigation into abortion in 18th century England.
‘Bringing down the Flowers’: Abortion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
‘But, th’aged Neurse calling her to her bower
had gathered Rew and Savine and the flower
of Camphora, and Callamint, and Dill’.
William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1769) was a hugely popular work; it sold over 80,000 copies, was translated into several European languages and was republished to receptive audiences until the nineteenth century. In it, Buchan endeavours to ‘assist the well-meant endeavours in reliving distress; to eradicate dangerous and hurtful prejudices; to guard the credulous and ignorance against frauds and the impositions and quacks and imposters’. In his chapters on pregnancy, Buchan outlines the causes and dangers of abortion. In the eighteenth century ‘abortion’ was used interchangeably with ‘miscarriage’, and did not necessarily mean the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. However, in a footnote to his opening paragraph on miscarriage, Buchan makes a short, pointed acknowledgement that some women did seek a termination to their pregnancy.
Every mother who procures an abortion does it at the hazard of her life; yet there are not a few who run this risk merely to prevent the trouble of bearing and bringing up children. It is surely a most unnatural crime, and cannot, even in the most abandoned, be viewed without horror; but in the decent matron, it is still more unpardonable. Those wretches who daily advertise their assistance to women, in this business, deserve in any opinion, the most severe of all human punishments.
Abortion was not made illegal in Britain until 1803, when the passing of the Lord Ellenborough's Act made abortion after ‘the quickening’ (first movement of the of the foetus) punishable by death or transportation. Abortion before the quickening was not regarding as a criminal act as most theologians and physicians agreed this was when ensoulment of the child occurred. Until this occurred, the woman was not regarded as carrying child. But abortion post-quickening was regarded as deeply immoral. John Astruc called ‘miserable women’ seeking an abortion an ‘utter shame to human nature and religion’; Martin Madan called the women who died through botched abortions ‘doubly guilty of suicide and child murder, and a spouse procuring pills to induce an abortion is cited as suitable grounds for divorce in a number of eighteenth-century divorce trials.
By the eighteen hundreds, rudimentary contraceptives were available, ranging from folklore and quackery to methods that would have offered limited protection. The withdrawal method is a time honoured (if completely unreliable) option. Animal-gut condoms, that were rinsed out and reused, had been available from the sixteenth century. In his memoirs Casanova records using a linen condom and a lemon slice as a cervical cap. Post-coital vaginal douching has been used as a method to wash away semen in the hopes of preventing pregnancy since the middle ages. Owing to widespread disease, malnutrition and poor health, fertility rates would have been reduced, but unwanted pregnancies were still widespread. When a girl found herself with a ‘bellyful’, pressures of shame, circumstance, poverty and myriad other reasons could lead her to seek a termination.
It may not have been illegal, but abortion (post quickening) was certainly considered a deeply shameful act; consequently, the practice is shrouded in obscurity. Owing to the paucity of primary evidence, researching the history of abortion is notoriously difficult; the bulk of evidence left comes to us in court records when a woman has died from a botched abortion, and passing references in medical texts that acknowledge and swiftly condemn the practice. There are no texts that categorically state how to perform an abortion, or what herbs and tonics should be taken to induce one. However, euphemistic language is employed in herbal texts to allude to a plant’s abortive properties. A text may list plants that will induce miscarriage, but embed them within a warning of ‘not to be taken by pregnant women’. In much the same way as modern day ‘legal highs’ would advertise themselves as ‘research chemicals’ and ‘not for human consumption’ to get around the law. Advertisements for ‘women’s monthly pills’ and ‘cures’ for ‘menstrual blockage’ can be read as coded contraceptives and abortifacients. In English Sexualities (1990) Tim Hitchcock argued that
Throughout the early-modern period recipes for medicines to ‘bring down the flowers’, or to regulate menstruation, were a common component of any herbal or recipe book, and could certainly be obtained from the local apothecary.
Women seeking to ‘bring down the flowers’ would naturally progress from the least to the most dangerous methods of abortion. Certain known herbs were ingested; the most commonly known being savin, pennyroyal, rue and ergot. Savin, a species of juniper used to flavour gin (‘mother’s ruin’), is referenced in numerous court records regarding abortion once the practice was made illegal in 1803. In 1829, for example, Martha Barrett was accused of taking a ‘quantity of savin for the purpose of causing abortion’. In 1834, William Childs were charged with illegal abortion, having given Mary Jane Woolf ‘a large quantity of a certain drug, call savin…with intent thereby to cause and procure her miscarriage’. In 1855, William Longman was charged with ‘feloniously administering to Elizabeth Eldred Astins, 10 grains of a noxious thing called savin, with intent to pro cure miscarriage’. The list goes on. Abortifacient such as savin and pennyroyal are indeed toxic, and consumed at a high enough quantity could induce miscarriage; at too high a dose, they could, and did, kill the mother as well.
If these methods proved ineffective (as would usually be the case), the mother was left with increasingly desperate and dangerous methods of abortion. Sitting in scalding hot baths, drinking vast quantities of gin, falling down stairs or being forcefully struck in the stomach have all been recorded as efforts to induce an abortion; but, if all these failed, surgical intervention could be sought. Accounts of surgical abortion are extraordinarily rare in the eighteenth century. One of the only detailed accounts of eighteenth-century surgical abortion is the record of the trial of Eleanor Beare of Derby in 1732. Eleanor was indicted on three accounts; one account of encouraging a man to murder his wife and two accounts of ‘destroying the foetus in the womb’, by ‘putting an iron instrument’ into the body; one of these women was ‘unknown to the jury’ and the other was Grace Belfort. Grace Belfort worked briefly for Eleanor, during which time she was raped by a visitor to the house. Grace confessed to Eleanor that she feared she was with child and for 30 shillings (paid by the rapist) Eleanor say she could ‘clear’ her of the child. The account given of what happened next is so rare, it is worth sharing in full;
Evidence: Some company gave me Cyder and Brandy, my Mistress and I were both full of liquor, and when the company was gone, we could scarse get upstairs, but we did get up; then I laid me on the bed, and my mistress brought a kind of instrument, I took it to be like an iron skewer, and she put it up into my body a great way, and hurt me.
Court: What followed upon that?
Evidence: Some blood came from me.
Court: Did you miscarry after that?
Evidence: The next day… I had a miscarriage.
Court: What did the prisoner do after this?
Evidence: She told me the job was done.
In 1760, poet Thomas Brown wrote ‘Satire Upon a Quack’, where he attacks an abortionist who ‘murdered’ his friend’s child. The poem is a bitter and sustained attack upon the ‘graveyard pimp’ who ‘unborn infants murder’d in the womb’. Brown curses the abortionist to hear ‘the screams of infants’ and their dying mothers for all eternity; to be the ‘jest of midwives’ and ‘strumpets without noses, and to be stalked by ‘the most solemn horrors of the night’. Brown makes reference to the abortionist’s tools throughout the poem; he does not mention an ‘iron skewer’ but he does allude to ‘baleful potions’, ‘stabbing verse’, ‘pointed darts’ and a ‘murdering quill’. Any thin, sharpened tool, even the sharpened point of a quill pen, would serve as a suitable ‘instrument’ to pierce the cervix and ‘bring down the flowers’. Of course, this procedure could be self-induced, or well-meaning friends or family members could attempt to penetrate the womb. How many women suffered irreparable damage, mutilation, infection and death as a result of this practice is not known; but many were willing to risk the dangers. If this method failed, or if the poor girl simply could not afford the abortionist fee; there were three options left; keep and raise the child, abandon the child, or murder the child and hide the body.
In Francis Grose’s Lexicon Balatronicum: a Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence (1785), there is a truly disturbing entry; ‘To stifle a squeaker: to murder a bastard, or throw it into the necessary house (privy)’. This phrase also appears over hundred years earlier in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1698), and appears in various collections of slang through the nineteenth century. That infanticide had its own slang suggests that the practice was alarmingly common; that the slang is specifically referring to the disposal of illegitimate infants by burying them in the outhouse is the only remaining legacy of countless infants who shared this sad fate. Christian Russel, of the Parish of St. Pauls Covent Garden, was found guilty of murdering her illegitimate child in 1702 by ‘throwing the same into a House of Office’. In 1703, Mary Tudor was put on trial for her murdering her ‘female bastard child, on the 18th of January last, by throwing the same into a House of Office, whereby it was choked and strangled’. In 1708, Ann Gardner was found guilty of murdering her ‘female bastard…by throwing of it into a House of office, where 'twas suffocated with Filth’. Anne Wheeler was indicted for suffocating her ‘male bastard’ by ‘suffocating it in a house of easement’ in 1711. Elizabeth Arthur ‘drowned’ her ‘male bastard’ in a ‘house of office’ in 1717. Elizabeth Harrard was found guilty of drowning her ‘male bastard’ in 1739, and was one of four women to be hanged for murdering their illegitimate children that year. The list goes on and on. In the court records for the Old Bailey alone, between 1700 and 1800, there are no less than 134 trials for infanticide; the overwhelming majority of which are the killings of illegitimate children. We must remember that this is only one court, in one area and these trials are the ones that were caught. The actual figures of illegitimate infanticide will never be known, but most of the desperate women on trial were poor, unwed, unsupported and alone; they were desperate.
Not all this trials resulted in a guilty verdict, and the mother’s life depended on being able to ‘prove’ that the child was stillborn. In 1624, parliament passed an act that made it a capital offense for unmarried mothers to conceal the death of an illegitimate child; the presumption being that if the child died, the mother had killed it. In order to prove that the birth was not concealed, the mother has to produce at least one witness statement that the baby was stillborn. The prosecution would also have to prove that the birth was deliberately concealed. Ann Gardner, mentioned above, was proven to have murdered her baby as she had made no provisions for the baby, and told no one she was pregnant.
The Prisoner could say little in her Defence, it did not appear that she made any Provision for the Birth of the Child, nor was she heard to cry out, or us’d any endeavour to discover it, as the Statute of King James I [the 1624 Act] in such Cases requires. The Fact being clear, upon the whole the Jury found her Guilty of the Indictment.
This was enough to condemn Ann to death; she was executed on 15th Jan 1708.
When the London Foundling Hospital opened in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, his primary aim was to give shelter to the children of the ‘unhappy female, who fell victim to the seductions and false promises of the designing man’, and had been left to ‘irretrievable disgrace’. When it first opened, the hospital expected to receive 20 infants, but was overwhelmed with demand. Eventually, the hospital had to limit admissions to infants under two months, and admittance was done through a ballot system. So that mothers could reclaim their child from the hospital, mothers were initially encouraged to leave a token with their baby, so they could be recognised later. The thousands of ribbons, thimbles, broken coins, lockets, buttons, pieces of paper and shells left with abandoned children are still housed at the Foundling Hospital today.
Photo: The Foundling Museum
Of the 16,282 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed.
Today, most of us are privileged enough that we will never face a situation woman like Ann Gardner found themselves in over 300 years ago; destitute, ill, alone, stigmatised and pregnant with no maternity rights, medical care, security or means to raise a child. Although we have advanced far in 300 years, in terms of social security, medical care and attitudes to sex in general, the debate surrounding abortion are still rooted in religious moralising that seeks to demonise and punish the women who seek them and doctors who perform them. But, as the history of contraceptives shows, abortion will always be sought, risks will always be taken and no amount of criminalisation, not even the death penalty itself, will change that. In 1967, when the UK abortion act was passed, midwife Jennifer Worth was asked to comment on the morality of abortions; after 14 years of witnessing the reality of illegal abortion, she replied she ‘did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, it must be done properly’.
Buchan, William, Domestic Medicine (London: [n.pub.], 1769)
Casanova, Giacomo, The memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt: Complete ([n.p.]: Simon and Schuster, 2013)
Cruickshank, Dan, The secret history of Georgian London: How the wages of sin shaped the capital (London: Windmill Books, 2010)
Harris, Karen, The medieval vagina: A historical and hysterical look at all things vaginal during the middle ages (London: Snark, 2014)
Museum, Foundling, Foundling museum (Foundling Museum, 2016), <http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/about/the-museum/> [accessed 2 September 2016]
Online, Old Bailey Proceedings, Browse - central criminal court (2003), <https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18290409-83&div=t18290409-83&terms=Savin#highlight> [accessed 30 August 2016]
---, Browse - central criminal court (2003), <https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18340515-47&div=t18340515-47&terms=savine#highlight> [accessed 30 August 2016]
Riddle, John M., Eve’s herbs: A history of contraception and abortion in the west (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)
The Tryal of Eleanore Beare of Derby, Gentleman’s Magazine 1732, pp. 933–934
Trials for Adultery; Or, the History of Divorces, III vols, Trials for Adultery (London: [n.pub.], 1779)
Worth, Jennifer, 'A deadly trade', The Guardian, 6 January 2005
About the Author
Dr Kate Lister, post doctoral research associate at Leeds Trinity University. Kate curates the Twitter feed @WhoresofYore and researches the history of sexuality.
Written content of this post copyright © Kate Lister, 2016.