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Whys & wherefores of illegitimacy

By 12 February 2012No Comments
The traditional view of the Victorian age is of tightly-laced family structures.  That would be even more so, it might be thought, in Presbyterian Scotland.  The truth was different however, as Alex Wood demonstrates.
Perhaps surprisingly illegitimacy was higher in Scotland (7.8% in 1855) than in England (6.4%) but with significant local variations.  On the Scottish islands illegitimacy ran at only 4.2% but 13.5% in Dumfriesshire and 13.6% in Banffshire, was relatively low in the cities but was high in the rural north-east and south-west.  In many rural areas illegitimacy carried little stigma.
History Professor T.C. Smout, who wrote A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, attributes the variation to relative economic autonomy.  The areas with the highest bastardy rates were also areas with much year-round employment for girls around the farm-house and the cow shed.

Nor, as the Registrar General said, was the great amount of illegitimacy “properly accountable to vice” for, as he stated, “the parents of many of the illegitimate children are cohabiting as married parties, are true to each other, and are rearing a family”.  In many cases there were multiple illegitimate children born to an individual woman.  In several districts of Aberdeenshire in 1855, where details had been noted, of 212 illegitimate births, 38 were the mother’s second child, 13 her third, six her fourth, four her fifth and one her sixth.
If women’s autonomous working on the land in the north-east and south-west, provided the luxury of being able to afford not to marry even if pregnant, that was even more the case in the mid-nineteenth century textile towns where power-loom weaving was overwhelmingly a female trade.
The case of Mary Scott is an excellent example (See also ‘Paths to the Past’ FT July 2011).  She was born about 1843 in Brechin, Forfarshire, the second of John Scott’s and Janet Young’s 10 children.  She worked throughout her life as a linen weaver.  She had four children by three fathers.
When James Fowler, her first, was born in 1866 his birth certificate noted him as illegitimate and shows his place of birth to be 80 High Street, Brechin.  The father was David Fowler, flesher, and although, by signing the certificate, he acknowledged his paternity, he was not living with Mary Scott at this time but was residing at 18 Bridge Street, Brechin.
In December 1870, Mary Scott gave birth to her second child, Jessie Ann McLean Scott.  Again the certificate notes her as illegitimate.  Mary Scott was then residing in16 Damacre Road, Brechin, and noted as a power loom weaver.  On this occasion, no father signed the certificate.  Jessie Ann Scott, known through her life as Jessie Ann Duff, gave, on her marriage certificate, her father as one Duncan Duff, shoemaker.  There was indeed a Duncan Duff, shoemaker, at that time a single man, resident in Brechin.
In October 1874, again at 16 Damacre Road, Mary Scott gave birth to her third child, David Mitchell Scott.  As with Jessie’s, the certificate notes his illegitimacy and gives no father’s name.  Mary Scott is now noted as a factory worker, although by local custom and practice that referred to a linen factory worker or weaver.  This son was known throughout his life as David Mitchell and his marriage certificate shows his ‘reputed’ father as James Mitchell, baker.
In 1880 Mary gave birth to her fourth and last child, John Fowler, noted on his birth certificate (attached) as illegitimate, born at 111 Montrose Street, Brechin, and with his father registered as David Fowler, butcher, the father James Fowler.  On this occasion, David Fowler is noted at the same address as Mary Scott, by then apparently cohabiting.
On the 1881 census Mary Scott was still residing at 111 Montrose Street, with all her children, James Fowler, Jessie Duff, David Mitchell and John Fowler (all noted under these names) and with a ‘boarder’, none other than David Fowler, butcher.  By the time of the 1891 census, only her youngest son, John Fowler remains at home, but David Fowler remains, again a ‘boarder’.  By 1901 she appears to be living on her own.  David Fowler however is noted at the same address, but as a different household.  David Fowler died in 1903.
Mary Scott’s case implies that living not only with an illegitimate child but, in her case, four of them, was no bar to a continuing, if impermanent, relationship.  Nor was she part of a social underclass.  She appears to have been in employment on every document.  Her children grew up to be respectable members of society: James spent his life as a tenter (a loom mechanic) in Brechin’s largest linen mill; Jessie married an insurance agent who was later elected to Brechin Burgh Council; David was a regular soldier; John was a stone mason.
As well however as having been in stable and reasonably well-paying female work, in the linen mills, and therefore able to choose whether or not to pursue matrimony, there is one other possible reason for Mary Scott’s avoidance of formal marriage.
Mary’s parents, John Scott and Janet Young, were members of Brechin’s High Street United Presbyterian Church, the Session Minutes of which (11 September 1860) state that Mr Watt reported that in consequence of a ‘fama’ [i.e. talk of the multitude] he had spoken to John Scott, who had confessed that he had been guilty of ‘the sin of interference’ and that family disputes had arisen in consequence .  John Scott had sexually abused at least one of his children.  A few months later, at the time of the 1861 census, his daughter Mary Scott, aged 16, is outwith the family home, living in lodgings.  Given that Mary had left the parental home within months of her father being charged by the Kirk Session with (and his confessing to) ‘the sin of interference’ there may well be a connection between the two facts.
Mary Scott’s case illustrates that the choices for pregnant women in Victorian Scotland were much more complex than marriage or the workhouse.  Women like Mary were a tough breed who sought to carve some social and personal autonomy for themselves.   That independence may not have been the norm but perhaps it was more common than the standard view of that age suggests.
The above article was first published in Family Tree in August 2011.

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