COVER FEATURE: FAMILYLIFE
How did our ancestors perceive ‘family’, and what did it mean to them? Doreen Hopwood looks at how events in the wider world, as well as at home, have shaped family experiences
Doreen Hopwood investigates how family life and structure has changed over time, and what‘ family’ has meant to different generations.
In the centuries between the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, there were many changes to family life – but there were also similarities. The family has remained the dominant institution for reproduction and the of rearing children, but as it’s organised
around the human life cycle, the composition and dynamics change as new members join through birth and marriage and others leave through death or to start their own families.
Family relationships are established by blood (ancestors, descendants, siblings) or by law (spouse, in-laws and step-relatives), so people can be described in many familial terms. But who else was considered as ‘family’ in the past? Sponsors, godparents, ‘honorary’ aunts and uncles could be included, and in the 1890s, Mary Lutyens described her nanny as ‘the perfect mother’. Many organisations, such as the church, trade unions and the nursing profession, still refer to members as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.
Rank, wealth and occupation are the main determinants of family experience, so where did your family fit in their contemporary social hierarchy? At the same moment in time, members of same family could be experiencing very different lives. One might have been living in a back-to-back with one breadwinner, ruled by the factory shift system, whilst another worked the land as a family unit, living in a
rural cottage and governed by the seasons.
This period saw the transition from a rural, agricultural-based society to an urban industrial one based on manufacture. In the 1600s, only one in 12 people lived in towns with a population of 5000+, but by 1901, there were more than 6.5 million people living in Greater London. In the 19th century, the expanding population and shift from rural to urban living meant that wider kin often lived under the same roof. Demand for affordable houses in towns exceeded supply, so families might take in lodgers or provided temporary accommodation for newly-arrived relatives. This provided additional income to help pay the rent but could also cause overcrowding. In 1871, for example, Herbert Oldfield lived in a Birmingham back-to-back shared with his wife and five children (aged between eight and 23), plus a lodger and the lodger’s girlfriend.
To alleviate overcrowding in the parental home, grandchildren lived with grandparents, and daughters left to become live-in domestic servants. Fostering, or the informal adoption of children by childless aunts and uncles, was a common occurrence until adoption was formalised in England and Wales in 1927. Kinship networks could provide an informal social security system by taking in family members in times of need, even if it meant considerable sacrifice on their part. One lady who was forced to enter the Govan workhouse in 1909, through disability, begged her sister-inlaw to take in her two children, writing ‘I know if they are with you they will be all right… my heart is broke’.
What were the differences between ‘household’ and ‘family’? Families usually make up a household, but a household can also comprise individuals who aren’t related living under the same roof and sharing some domestic arrangements. In wealthy households, staff could heavily outnumber family members, and in 1684, Sir Richard Newdigate of Warwickshire lived with his wife and seven daughters – and 27 resident servants.
A father reads to his family, 1783
Children outside back-to-back housing in Birmingham in 1925
This unusual image shows Sir Thomas Remington and his wife with their 15 living children and five deceased, c1647