Tuesday 5 November 2019

Unwed Mothers in the Regency by Colin Odom

It's a pleasure to welcome Colin Odom, who is visiting the salon as part of the blog tour for A Covenant of Marriage. Colin is here to share  fascinating post about the lot of unwed mothers in the Regency.


A Covenant of Marriage and Unwed Mothers in the Regency
C. P. Odom

During the writing of A Covenant of Marriage, I wrote a situation involving an unwed mother who, for various reasons, had no recourse to friends or family. Before I could write my way out of that dilemma, I did do a little research into just what would have happened during that particular time and whether or not the charity I postulated might have existed in reality. As shown below, unfortunately, the answer is a tentative Maybe.
In the time of the Regency, society was essentially based on marriage and the family, and adults had their place in that society based on their position in the family unit. Married women were held in higher esteem than unmarried women, and married men were given the respect due to someone who had proven their capability to support a family. Women were identified for tax purposes as either wives, widow, or spinsters, while men were identified by their occupation or social status.
Spinsterhood was a definite liability for a woman, even for an upper class girl (though almost a fourth of such girls remained unmarried). If a single woman had an independent income sufficient for her to support a household, she was able to carry on an independent life. If not, a spinster would be faced with the choice of somehow finding employment suitable to her genteel status or else would have to live in the house of a relative. If a single woman possessed independent means—a fortune of her own sufficient for her to live on, it was possible she could maintain her own household and carry on an independent life.
However, the above situations offered far better prospects than did a young woman who became pregnant without benefit of marriage. In the best of cases, the unfortunate young lady’s family might be able to force the responsible young man to marry their daughter. But this solution depended on money and secrecy to make it work, since neither the bride or the groom could withstand the shame if their situation became openly known. And, if the man later proved incapable of supporting his dependents, this might be described as a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
But many such women were not able to manage such a marriage. Filled with shame at their condition, they and their families often looked for places in which they could be hidden away during their pregnancy. While investigating this situation, I was quite surprised to find that some places advertised themselves in newspapers offering discreet refuge away from the public view. After the mother gave birth, many unwanted children were left on church steps and porches, assuring that the parish would provide care and sustenance for these abandoned orphans. Again, secrecy and money were necessary requirements in making such solutions work.
Less fortunate were those unwed mothers who left their homes, perhaps to keep their family from suffering for her disgrace or because they simply could not bear to openly admit their condition to parents and/or siblings. Many such pregnant women, unable to support themselves, were soon hungry, exhausted, and in poor health and found themselves forced to enter a workhouse, the last retreat for those at the end of their tethers. Some abandoned babies, such as Charles Dickens character in Oliver Twist, also wound up in such a workplace, having been born after his unwed mother died bringing him into the world. The conditions were appalling, and even pregnant women awaiting the birth of their child were expected to work. Many women, like Oliver Twist’s mother, were simply too weak after birth to survive, leaving their unwanted babies as orphans.
But to get back to my novel and the reason for this research, I had come up with the idea of a charity providing a refuge for unwed mothers in a more open environment in London, and I wanted to see if such charities had actually existed. Unfortunately, all I could really uncover was that the first maternity homes were set up to provide shelter for expectant or nursing mothers. However, a very famous institution titled London’s Foundling Hospital was opened in 1741 by an old sea-captain named Thomas Coram who had become a wealthy shipwright and merchant following his time commanding merchant ships. During his travels to and from London on business, Coram had been shocked by the sight of the many unwanted children that tried to find what shelter and sustenance they could. Even if they were found, many of them died from hunger or disease because they were not found in time. He founded his hospital, which is believed to be the world’s first incorporated charity, as a way to take in unwanted children and care for them until they could fend for themselves. The Hospital opened their doors to illegitimate children in 1801.
So, despite the dearth of historical data to validate my invention of a charitable institutions such as “The Bedford Charitable Home for the Unfortunate” in my novel, I still believe such institutions likely existed. The absence of definitive historical documentation could well be the difference in size between my fanciful charity, with only a few dozen beds and perhaps one or two midwives and the large Foundling Hospital. The latter institution was substantial in size, enough so that Charles Dickens and his family worshiped in the Foundling Chapel. Certainly, there was a critical need for such charities, and the less wholesome (and less documented) parts of London could have included such small institutions, many of which might only have lasted for a few years until the founder exhausted his funds and they were forced to close their doors.
In summary, this author asks for a little suspension of disbelief in this matter due to lack of evidence either way. No matter how much internet research one does, a “WayBack Machine”such as in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon shows of my childhood would be needed, and I’m fresh out.


A Covenant of Marriage — legally binding, even for an unwilling bride!
Defined as a formal, solemn, and binding agreement or compact, a covenant is commonly used with regard to relations among nations or as part of a contract. But it can also apply to a marriage as Elizabeth Bennet learns when her father binds her in marriage to a man she dislikes. Against her protests that she cannot be bound against her will, the lady is informed that she lives under her father’s roof and, consequently, is under his control; she is a mere pawn in the proceedings.
With such an inauspicious beginning, how can two people so joined ever make a life together?

Author Bio: 
 By training, I’m a retired engineer, born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and graduated from the University of Oklahoma. Sandwiched in there was a stint in the  Marines, and I’ve lived in Arizona since 1977, working first for Motorola and then General Dynamics. 
I raised two sons with my first wife, Margaret, before her untimely death from cancer, and my second wife, Jeanine, and I adopted two girls from China. The older of my daughters recently graduated with an engineering degree and is working in Phoenix, and the younger girl is heading toward a nursing degree. 
I’ve always been a voracious reader and collector of books, and my favorite genres are science fiction, historical fiction, histories, and, in recent years, reading (and later writing) Jane Austen romantic fiction. This late-developing interest was indirectly stimulated when I read my late wife's beloved Jane Austen books after her passing.  One thing led to another, and I now have four novels published:  Most Civil Proposal(2013), Consequences(2014), Pride, Prejudice, and Secrets(2015), and Perilous Siege(2019). Two of my books are now audiobooks, Most Civil Proposaland Pride, Prejudice, and Secrets
I retired from engineering in 2011, but I still live in Arizona with my family, a pair of dogs (one of which is stubbornly untrainable), and a pair of rather strange cats.  My hobbies are reading, woodworking, and watching college football and LPGA golf (the girls are much nicer than the guys, as well as being fiendishly good putters). Lately I’ve reverted back to my younger years and have taken up building plastic model aircraft and ships (when I can find the time).

Contact Info:

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Blog Tour Schedule:

Meryton Press is giving away 8 eBooks of A Covenant of Marriage via the link blow!


Vesper said...

It's a pity that in canon they didn't put Lydia is a home for wayward females

Francine Howarth said...

Well done, Colin. A good subject for novels, and a good many philanthropists turn up in Regency novels, which is another good thing because it reminds people not all the rich and well off in society were uncharitable, aside from parish and church run charities - one can find mostly by accident - whilst researching other projects. I feel sure you came across "Urania Cottage" as set up by Charles Dickens with the help of his rich, philanthropic friend Lady Burdett-Coutts which was an agreeable establishment run with good will, unlike many others which were run more akin to mental asylums - horrid places as was the Magdalene Asylum in White Chapel. The lady herself was prior helping fallen women before Urania House came into being. That said there were many philanthropists who did support parish houses for fallen women all around the UK, some rural kindly ones attached to grand estates though less spoken of due to the double standards of several grand estate owners who owned plantations in the colonies worked by slaves, not all thank god. Quaker families were well known for setting up charitable means not least some very famous names in the chocolate industry, whose families had been aiding all sorts of charitable foundations. But the city institutions on the whole for fallen women were horrendous akin to workhouses.

Regencyresearcher said...

I can't remember where I saw it, but I have seen a reference to such a place for pregnant women. The Quakers and Evangelicals often set up such charities and worked hard to save the souls of the women.

Most villages and parishes tried to send the poor pregnant women on to another parish so that someone else would be responsible for the woman and child.
Many women who had a bit of income would send the child off to a baby farm, where the child usually died.
If a woman tried to keep the pregnancy and the birth secret and the child died, she could be tried for Infanticide.

RS said...

I've read your book, Mr. Odom, and found it to be well written and engrossing.Congratulatins, well done!

Janet T said...

These are some excellent comments to Colin's topic. I have found all of this interesting and informative. I appreciate the post and all your comments.

Thank you, Catherine, for hosting Colin today.

darcybennett said...

Congrats on the release of your book. Thank you for sharing your research. I like to believe that even if there is no documentation to support it that such places existed.

Kelly M. said...

I had not heard of Thomas Coran before. Thank you for sharing the results of your research and congratulations on "A Convenant of Marriage!

C. P. (Colin) Odom said...

Thanks for the comments above. I definitely have a suspicion that there were more charitable efforts than I could find reference for in the timeframe of interest in my novel (1812), but I also suspect they were, as Francine commented, more similar to workhouses than I would be comfortable with. The lives of women in Regency England might be way better than most places in Europe, they still needed much, much more improvement.

LĂșthien84 said...

Thank you for sharing an excellent insight into unwed mothers, Colin. I suspect the character you were thinking of is Lydia because I just posted a vignette on her plight on my blog.

Dung said...

Such interesting historical information. Looking forward to reading your newest novel!

Mary Seymour said...

There was one other solution for the girl pregnant out of wedlock but it did involve a family conspiracy. The girl's mother would announce she was pregnant and that she was going into the country for a rest, taking her daughter with her as a companion. On the way the two women swopped identities: instead of mother and unwed daughter they became spinster aunt and widowed niece. The girl gave birth where no one knew them but when they returned home, the baby was declared to be the mother's and baptised as such. Thus the child grew up thinking his/her grandmother was his/her mother and his/her mother was his/her big sister. Of course, this could only happen where the mother was still young enough to be of convincing child-bearing age. This practice went on until comparatively recent times. I believe the novelist Catherine Cookson discovered she was such a child when she became an adult.