This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine



Prepare to meet the ‘man-midwife’

The 18th century saw male doctors storming Britain's delivery rooms

Women gearing up to give birth in Georgian Britain needed all the moral support they could get – and, for centuries, that support had come exclusively from one gender. Throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods, the delivery room was a woman-only zone, populated by female relatives, friends and neighbours offering encouragement and advice. The father was nowhere to be seen, banished from the birthing room to wait for news elsewhere.

But then, in the 18th century, this traditionally female bastion was disrupted by the ‘man-midwife’. William Smellie (1697–1763) was the most influential of a new generation of male medical practitioners who claimed to be every bit as knowledgeable about childbirth as women. And he bolstered his claim by using a novel instrument: the forceps.

While the forceps would go on to save the lives of many mothers and babies, midwives like Sarah Stone, author of Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), were initially sceptical about their benefits, one criticism being that they were responsible for passing on infection.

Female midwives were also suspicious about the motives of the men who made their careers, and fortunes, from contact with women when at their most vulnerable. These male arrivistes could not possibly comprehend the sensitivities of a female body, they claimed. Midwife Elizabeth Nihell was so enraged by Smellie’s presence in delivery rooms that she accused him of having “the delicate fist of a great-horse-godmother of a he-midwife”.


Accept the will of God

High mortality rates made child-rearing a stressful – often tragic – experience

Starting a family in Georgian Britain was not an undertaking for the faint-hearted. Babies could inspire great joy but they could also bring heartache. Child mortality was far higher in the 18th century than it is today, and newborns were at the greatest risk. It’s estimated that as many as one in four babies died before reaching their first birthday. After all the anticipation and planning that was required for parenthood, losing a child so young was a bitter blow.

More like this

Yet parents were expected to accept their children’s deaths as part of God’s will, and some took comfort from their belief that they would be reunited in heaven. John Verney, writing to his sister after the death of his son in 1737, told her “he left us yesterday morning, about nine o’clock, and we can never see him more in this world, but I trust in God we shall all meet in heaven, where I daresay he now is in perfect happiness, which I can never more enjoy here for want of him”.

Keenly aware of the perils of childhood, many Georgian parents kept detailed accounts of aches, pains and changes in the temperature of their children, in order to anticipate or prevent illness.

Breastfeeding was widely believed to be an effective strategy in fortifying infants against illness, and many mothers were eager to nurse their own children. “My little boy begins to suck very nicely and I am not at all troubled with my milk, he is a charming child and never cries,” wrote Elizabeth Wynne in her diary, just three days after the birth of her first child, Thomas, in 1798.

The wealthiest Georgians, or those who experienced difficulties breastfeeding, sometimes chose to employ a wet nurse. Family archives show that great care was taken to find women who could be trusted to nurture their young charges.

Parents took some comfort from their belief that they would be reunited with their child in heaven

Rearing newborns in the 18th century was seriously hard work, as it is today. But Georgian mothers could console themselves with the knowledge that they enjoyed a higher social standing than their predecessors. Motherhood had by now come to be regarded as a full-time social responsibility, in which women were given the weighty task of raising the next generation. And it was the perceived feminine qualities of patience, forbearance and self-sacrifice that made them suited to this role. As the Reverend James Fordyce emphasised in his two-volume Sermons to Young Women (1766), it was through their mothering that women had the ability to "diffus[e] virtue and happiness through the human race".


Shower your children with gifts

Georgian parents were put under relentless pressure to splash their cash

The commercialisation of childhood is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, it can be traced back to the 18th century – and with that came a new kind of social pressure to demonstrate affection by spending money.

This phenomenon stemmed from what the historian JH Plumb dubbed a “new world” of children, in which childhood was recognised as a special period of life that should be free from work – and full of toys.

Georgian society was racing towards industrialisation, and this was reflected in the way that toys were made and marketed. Newspaper advertisements and trade cards from specialist producers bombarded parents with information about a seemingly endless supply of new purchases.

These purchases included everything from dolls and toy soldiers to rattles and, last but not least, the latest fashions. But parents who dressed their offspring in the best garments that money could buy risked exposing them to a new kind of crime: being abducted and stripped of their clothes. One 19-month-old was found "nearly dead with cold" in a passageway near a pawn shop in Chancery Lane, London in 1818. The Times reported that the child "had been robbed of its shirt, boots, petticoat, feather from the hat, and necklace, only the frock remaining". With such crimes being committed, it's little wonder that older Georgian children were warned of the perils of talking to strangers.

This advice was dispensed in children's books – a brand new phenomenon in Georgian Britain. John Newbery was something of a pioneer in this new field of publishing. He knew all the tricks of marketing: his bestselling A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) coming with 'free' gifts: a ball for a boy and a pincushion for a girl. But he also knew that parents wanted childhood to be a period of preparation for adult life. As his title page declared, his book was not just for amusement, but also for instruction. Playtime needed to be educational.

Not everyone could afford to buy their children books, toys and new clothes, of course. Parenthood exerted even more financial pressure on the poorest families. With more mouths to feed – and mothers unable to contribute to the household income – many were forced to turn to the poor law (poverty relief from the church and government) for support.

AGES 7 TO 11

Find your moral compass

Georgian parents were expected to tease out their children's innate goodness

Parents raising children in the 18th century were doing so at the very moment when Enlightenment ideas were sweeping Europe, a period when the continent’s greatest thinkers were considering the development of children’s minds as well as bodies.

The works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a significant impact on Georgians’ perceptions of childhood. Locke taught parents to think of children as being “white paper, or wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases”. In contrast to many religious writers a century earlier, Rousseau believed that children were born innately good.

Whereas Rousseau thought children could be left to their own devices, Locke pursued a more interventionist approach to parenting. It was nurture not nature that made the difference. “That all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education,” he wrote.

Enlightenment philosophers believed that even the youngest of children had the ability to reason – so new parents were expected to harness this by teaching them the basics of right and wrong, as well as ensuring that they learned to read and write. What’s more, at this age, virtually all teaching was done at home, so the onus was on parents to provide it.

Parents also, of course, had to learn how to discipline their children. In the preceding centuries, they had been quick to resort to physical punishment. The Georgian era, however, witnessed a shift to a more forgiving attitude that rewarded children for good conduct. Wilful misbehaviour could result from children not knowing how to govern their emotions, it was thought, and parents were instructed to teach offspring to exercise their reason to achieve self-control.

Above all – no matter how unruly their child’s behaviour, no matter how exasperating they found the whole child-rearing experience – it was essential that parents remained calm. As the Quaker William Thompson wrote: “Some parents are greatly to blame, who when their children have committed a fault, presently fall into a passion… Like commonly begets its like, passion in parents, is apt either to generate the same in their children; or else to render them dumpish, and melancholick.”


Embrace the empty nest

Most Georgian children had moved out and found work by the time they'd reached 13

It may be hard to believe in today’s world of higher education and rising house prices, but back in the 18th century many children had barely reached their teens when they flew the nest.

This was no doubt a painful experience for many. But those Georgians taking the plunge into the world of parenting could at least console themselves with the thought that their offspring were making the transition from dependant to valuable contributor to the family coffers at the tenderest of ages.

Many youngsters began apprenticeships or took up positions in domestic service between the ages of 11 and 13, their new employers and masters becoming surrogate parents. In rural areas, families were often employed as a group, and so children frequently worked alongside their parents.

The offspring of those occupying the higher reaches of the social ladder often left home at an even younger age – especially if they were boys. Georgians firmly believed that living away from home while at school and university was a crucial step in gaining all-important independence. Those who stayed at home for too long often grew up excessively effeminate, they argued, as they'd spent too much time with overly indulgent mothers. In his Essay on the Nursing and Management of Children (1748) the physician William Cadogan portrayed the "puny insect" of a man who has been the son of such a mother. It was better, he declared, that boys were hardened by the rigours of competition and boarding school life.

Upper-class girls were prepared for their future married lives via an education provided by home tutors. As for their middle-class counterparts, they were encouraged to develop numeracy as well as literacy skills so they could assist their families with the operation of their businesses.

The writer William Fleetwood acknowledged the fact that letting go could be difficult for parents who had invested so much in their children. He counselled parents to play a prominent role in their children’s first marriages, but to take a back seat for second ones. By now, he wrote, children should be freer to make their own decisions. “Now this is not because the parents are no longer parents,” he explained, “nor the children tied to dutiful obedience; but because that greater age and reason make folks fitter to consider themselves, and look after their own affairs.”

The physician William Cadogan portrayed the “puny insect” who had stayed at home with his indulgent mother

Despite this advice, Fleetwood recognised that parenting was a life-long commitment. Family records show that parents were expected to offer their children emotional and economic support well after childhood had ended. They stepped in if their children’s marriages broke down, offered to care for grandchildren, and were a first port of call in a financial crisis. In time, parents could expect their children to reciprocate.

Many children heeded the instructions of advice books, and offered support and shelter to their elderly parents. In the 18th century, the family life-cycle of dependency and care ran full circle.

Dr Elizabeth Foyster is lecturer and fellow in history at Clare College, University of Cambridge. Her books include The Trials of the King of Hampshire: Madness, Secrecy and Betrayal in Georgian England (Oneworld, 2016)

TELEVISION: For more on Georgian Britain, watch the new series of Poldark on BBC One.


LISTEN AGAIN: To listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss childhood on Radio 4’s In Our Time, go to