Contrary to popular myth illegitimacy (i.e. the birth of a child to an unpartnered woman) is not a new thing. What is remarkable about it is the way that it varied both between cultures and over time. Today illegitimacy is almost unknown in many Islamic and Catholic nations, but in Britain and most Western European nations it is quite common with up to one in three babies being born to unmarried (but not necessarily unpartnered) women.
Historically the rate of illegitimacy within Britain and Europe has varied enormously. Evidence based on parish registers, collected by the Cambridge Group, reveal circular trends in England in the level of illegitimacy over time. Such that the illegitimacy ratio (i.e. the proportion of births out of wedlock) fell from 4.4% in the 1540 to a low of 1.0% in the mid-seventeenth century rising to 6.0% in the mid nineteenth century (p. 14). In the 20th century the illegitimacy rate has risen from 4.0% (one in every 20 births) to over 30% (one in every three births) today (p 18).
In the mid-nineteenth-century illegitimacy was high not only in England and Wales, but also in Scotland and much of Northern Europe. In Norway one-in-five births were to unmarried mothers and in some Scottish parishes at this time over half the births were to single women (i.e. illegitimacy was the norm rather than the exception).
Before continuing, however, it is first necessary to define some terms and, in particular, to draw a distinction between the illegitimacy ratio and the illegitimacy rate.
Generally the illegitimacy rate is preferred to the illegitimacy ratio because the ratio will give a distorted picture of the level of illegitimacy in those instances in which there is: (a) a low birth rate, and/or (b) a large sex imbalance within the population. For example, if in an area 1,000 out of the 10,000 births are out of wedlock then the illegitimacy ratio will be 10%. However, if there are 20,000 unpartnered women living in the area the illegitimacy rate will be 5 per 1,000, but it will 20 per 1,000 if their are only 5,000 unpartnered women.
To provide a more accurate measure of the level of illegitimacy, the illegitimate rate should ideally be calculated on the basis of the number of pregnable women (i.e. the number of single and widowed women aged between 15 and 44 years).
Within Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth-century, however, pronounced regional variations existed in the level of illegitimacy. Tables 1 and 2 show differences in the level of illegitimacy both within and between counties.
* Mean of means.
From Table 1 we see that differences in the level of illegitimacy are quite marked: a point that was made by Laslett. Thus the illegitimacy rate for England and Wales as a whole was 20.91 per thousand - the rate being lowest in London (10.68) and Middlesex (10.52), and highest in the northern counties of Cumberland (32.82) and Westmorland (32.77). Overall the southern counties of Kent, London, Essex and Cornwall had lower rates than the Northern Counties. We also see from this table that there were marked variations within, as well as between counties. Thus the 26 RDs in Lancashire had rates varying from 7.31 (Liverpool) to 43.90 (Wigan) and the 37 London ones exhibited rates from 2.47 (Hampstead) to 19.12 (St George Southwark).
Table 2 shows the illegitimacy rate in registration districts with the highest and lowest illegitimacy rates. From this we see that rates tended to be high in the rural areas of the far north of England, and in those districts on the English and Welsh border (e.g. Knighton, Rhyder and Madeley) and in mining districts such as Wigan and Wolstanton. In contrast the rate was lowest in the Scilly Isles and the London districts of Hampstead, City, Lewisham and St George Hanover Square.
There are a number of problems, which one should keep in mind when using statistics from the nineteenth century.
For this exercise you will need to use the SECOS database for four English Counties (Shropshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Cheshire).
If you do not have a copy of SECOS you can obtain a demonstration copy that runs in DOS by clicking here.
Examine the following map showing the illegitimacy rate in each registration district in 1861.
Then consider the following questions:-
Use the SECOS program to work out the correlation coefficients for each of the listed factors and the illegitimacy rate.
If you have undertaken the exercise correctly that you should have reached the following conclusions which probably surprised you.
Illegitimacy was high where the following factors existed:-
Conversely, illegitimacy tended to be low, where:-
Illegitimacy was not related to.
One might seek explanations for illegitimacy by using several methods.
SECOS is rooted in the positivist approach.
One of the first attempts at understanding the causes of illegitimacy was that of the Norwegian Eliert Sundt (Sexual Customs in Rural Norway 1993). During the nineteenth century illegitimacy in Norway was higher than that in England and Wales, in 1851 9.1% in Norway as whole were out of wedlock (p3). Like the sociologist Max Weber, Sundt adopted a dual approach using both positivist and interpretative approaches. Analysis of statistical materials for Norway pointed to marked regional variations in the rate of illegitimacy between areas. Urban areas had high illegitimacy rates, as did many rural areas. Sundt's statistical work revealed that marriages and illegitimacy tended to fluctuate together over time (p193-5) and that illegitimacy rose in periods of prosperity and fell in times of recession.
Sundt, however, was not afraid of getting his boots dirty and into the field he went to interview the mother of illegitimate children. Eventually Sundt argued that illegitimacy, at least in the countryside, had two main causes.
Additional work with his statistics showed illegitimacy tended to be high where one or other or both of these practices existed. Sundt realised that these were not the only causes of illegitimacy, and that economic factors were also important.
Sundt also tried to discover whom the mothers and fathers were. He found that both mothers and fathers tended to be cotters and working class (p.87). Cross-class relationships were relatively uncommon and where there did occur it was usually an upper-class men getting a working class women pregnant (p. 100). Sundt also concluded that repeaters were not common. Only 21% of illegitimate births to women with an illegitimate children (p 132)
Finally, he looked at the relationship between illegitimacy and education. He used several measures of illegitimacy the including pupil-teacher ratio (p224) and expenditure on education. He found that illegitimacy was highest where the numbers in education were lowest.
Sundt work is directly relevant to the case in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. In those parts of rural Scotland and rural Wales where illegitimacy was most prevalent both 'sleeping in barns' and 'bundling' were common place.
Laslett et al looked at a number of other factors that might be related to the level of illegitimacy in society. Most notably the general level of fertility, marital fertility, ages at marriage and the bridal pregnancy rate. Laslett's work, like ours with SECOS, suggested that illegitimacy tends to be high in those instances in which the general level of fertility is also high and a direct and positive relationship was also found between the level of prenuptial pregnancies (or bridal pregnancies) (p 24). In addition, high illegitimacy rates also tended to be associated with a low age at first marriage for both men and women (p 24). Laslett also found marked variations to exist in the numbers of illegitimate births in the mid-nineteenth century the period in which we are concerned. Thus, Scotland had a higher illegitimacy rate than England (p 41), and within England and Wales marked variations were found in the illegitimacy rate (i.e. the number of illegitimate births expressed as a percentage of single and widowed women aged 15-44). In 1870-71 whilst in England and Wales as a whole the illegitimacy rate was approximately 18.5 per thousand the figure varied from as low as 9.5 per thousand in Surrey and 10.3 in London to 28.2 per thousand in Shropshire and 29.2 in Cumberland (p 34-5). Moreover rates were higher in the countryside then in the towns (p. 63).
These somewhat unexpected conclusions were explained by Laslett, using a hypothesis developed by Wrightson and Levine that see illegitimacy and marriage as being directly associated with level and degree of courtship in society. Within this view where the opportunities for courtship are greatest and the sexes have amble opportunity for mixing together one would expect to find both early marriages and a high rate of illegitimacy, and early marriages would be associated with a high level of general and marital fertilities. Conversely, where only limited opportunities for courtship existed and relatively few opportunities existed for the sexes to mix together one would logically expect both a late age at marriage and a low level of illegitimacy. To understand illegitimacy within this framework it is necessary to examine the opposites which exist for courtship within society and the constraints which might be placed on courtship behaviour (p 53). Courtship in turn Laslett argued tended to vary according
Laslett says little about the type of people who give birth out of wedlock. He cites evidence that counties with large numbers of farm servants had high rates of illegitimacy, but he makes the point that the relationship between service and illegitimacy is by no means straightforward (p. 56). He argues further that only a minority of illegitimate children resulted from 'social asymmetry' and victimisation (e.g. from a servant being raped by her employer). Illegitimate births, Laslett argued, were to parents of roughly similar social standing and age, and as such the parents of illegitimate children were little different to the parents of children in general (p. 56).
Laslett, P. (1980) Bastardy and its Comparative History. London: Edward Arnold.
Sundt, E. (1993) Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study. Iowa: Iowa State University Press. Translated into English by Anderson, O.W.