Poor Women Giving Birth in the Regency- home or hospital?

Where did the Georgian Poor Give Birth?

On one level, the answer to this question is easy; they gave birth in their own home. Unusually for the period, the same is true of the rich, who had great advantages over the common people; but these advantages did not take away the fear of childbirth. Both rich and poor were at the mercy of the germy, unwashed hands of those taking part, but the poor had other problems as well.
The dirt and squalor of their overcrowded homes was a problem, but the most pressing immediate issue was their inability to find, or afford, a reliable midwife. The next stage of the problem appeared if the childbirth was not straightforward, when the poor would not have the networks or money to find somebody with more medical training  who could help.

No help could be expected from the state, so the very poor had two choices the ‘lying in’ hospital- there were a dozen of them on London by 1800 and one in all major provincial towns- or a ‘lying in’ charity which helped the poor to have home births.

The major British Charity for the latter was the ‘Lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’. It was formed in 1757 as a response to the perceived problems of the Lying In Hospitals. Georgian charities had long, cumbersome and descriptive names, which announced what they did, and, more importantly, made it clear what they did not do, e.g the Female Friendly Society and Asylum for the relief of poor infirm and aged Widows and single Women Of good character have seen better days’ or The Mother & Infants Friend Society for relief of Married Women during Confinement if resident within one mile and a half of St Swithin’s Church.

‘The lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’ did an excellent job. By 1818 the charity had helped to deliver nearly 250,000 babies since its inception. It undoubtedly did good things- provided clean linen and straw and the help of a midwife for regular births, and constant on call ‘man midwives’ for more complicated cases. It also trained and vetted midwifes and raised the general standard of the profession. The mid-wives worked on reduced pay for two years and if morally and mediccally sound , received the recommendation of the society and support in their career. The Society continued to work with London’s poor mothers  under different names, until the arrival of the National Health Service in 1948. They were, undoubtedly a good thing.

untitledIt was the appointment of God, in consequence of the first transgression, that is ‘in Sorrow women should bring forth children’ (1772, but reprinted regularly in the Regency) 

However, it was a charity run by the principles of the time, some of which don’t look quite as philanthropic 200 years later. The first, ubiquitous rule was that you had to deserve charity; you were not entitled to it. You had to be selected to be helped, and be respectable, married and poor (for the right reasons). After the successful birth of a child, you were obliged to go to your normal place of worship to thank God (You were disbarred from future help if you did not) and appear in front of the society to thank them as well (although they were often ready to receive the occasional well spoken comment and criticism). Gratitude was required all round; to God and your betters, and there is still Bristol Charity called the Grateful Society, which provided home births and apprenticeships in the eighteenth century and still does charitable work today.

image001It was funded by dinners, galas and sermons where the rich ate well and flaunted their conscience; this did not stop it being a good thing. Its Patron was the Prince Regent, who for most of his reign condescended to contribute £30 a year or so from his taxpayer-funded civil list, and in 1817, its vice-presidents included the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time at a former Mayor of London. Patrons and Presidents would pay an additional subscription of about 10 guineas and gain the right to nominate ten worth individuals per year. The Duke of Wellington was a supporter ‘All London is the Charity’s hospital and every street a ward’.


The Society’s main principle was the undesirability of the ‘Lying In’ Hospital. Firstly, there was the separation of husband and wife- an emotional affair, made worse by the jeopardy that the women was about to encounter. Hospitals were a dangerous place to be pregnant, and thei staff  knew as little about preventing disease as anybody else. There was less segregation of the poor and the sick, and two women in a bed was not unknown. The Society also pointed out that there was no greater, humiliating indication of your poverty  than admission to such a hospital. All this was true and sincerely believed; but they had other, less modern sounding motives.

It was meant to be cheap charity. In 1778, it was calculated that a birth in a hospital was nearly ten times more expensive that a home birth , and was thought by many  that  the poor simply did not deserve this level of expenditure. When questioned about their apparent meanness, the society rightly pointed out that there were so many needy that it was the only way to help was to do it cheaply- better a little help to all, than completely neglecting all.

 Part of the expense of the hospitals was the standard of the food, which would have been higher than the households of the poor themselves. It was morally wrong and impracticable to allow the poor to get used to such food-sometimes three meals a day* Instead, the Society gave mothers  medicine and payments in kind in their own home so money did not have to be diverted into areas that would reduce their ability to afford their normal diet. Laying in hospitals confined the mother for nearly a month,  while straightforward home births could be done in half of this time- so, the hospitals robbed the family of the women’s labour and moral influence, and disrupted the male breadwinner’s work patterns. Some of the society’s literature went as far as suggest that men could not cope on their own with children and housework, and shouldn’t be expected too!

*More on the Lying In Hospitals here

More on my Regency Book here

Three minute  book review here

Cheapest price here



The silent killer of Georgian Britain-damp bed sheets.

passengersIn 1816, the Chester Courant noticed that there was a rage for travelling amongst the rich. It did not know why. It could not understand it. The immediate cause was the end of the war with France, and the consequent fact that the continent was open again. The fact was, reported the news paper, that travelling forces on the rich and lazy many of the habits and necessities of the poor and industrious. The rich grew  coarse, but also a bit brave- after a week they could bear a door being shut loudly, after two weeks they could get onto a stagecoach in the early morning without breakfast. After a month they could shrug off a hair in their soup, and brave a rain shower without repairing to their bed.

One thing that could not be countenanced, either at home or abroad, was damp beds .Foreigners  were well-known for damp sheets. The Germans, it was said, washed their sheets but did not air them, and there was no real point visiting the Rhineland with all your waterproof clothes and your Perrings beaver (a waterproof hat) if sheets were not dry

We do not appreciate how damp the Regency period was- clothes, bed sheets, and churches were damp. Houses were certainly damp- it was only in the 1840s that ordinary houses were being built with a membrane to stop rising damp, and even then it was regarded as a bit of a novelty.

Georgians did mind the damp. It was seen as a silent, unseen killer, especially in the form of damp bed sheets. People today that visit hotels want their sheets to be clean; for many people it is the first thing that they check, as a touchstone of general standards. Travellers in our period wanted the sheets to be dry. In Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1807) damp sheets are the main danger to health of travelling, especially in comparison to the rest of the stay, when the constant changes on temperature were not regarded as very safe.

When a traveller cold and wet arrives at an inn he may, by means of a good fire, warm diluting liquor and a dry bed have the perspiration restored but if he be put into a cold room and laid in a damp bed it will be more obstructed and the worst consequence will ensue. Travellers should avoid inns which are not ted for damp beds as they would a house infected with the plague, as no man however robust is proof against the danger arising from them.

The idea that damp sheets could cause death-even amongst the previously healthy – survived the Georgian (and Victorian) period. The Georgian fear was one of obstructed perspiration, caused by rapid changes in temperature that might be experienced when travelling. This is from Salisbury, in 1810 (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)


The poor old pork butcher, travelling in the wilds of the West Country, was probably sleeping somewhere pretty horrible. These reports in the newspapers regularly and never disbelieved. Distressingly, it also affected people better than shopkeepers and was particularly effective if you were already unwell. This, from 1819:


Newspapers in the 1770s often had sleeping in damp sheets as a cause of death. What made damp sheets a silent killer was that you could not really tell they were injurious until you had got into them and fallen asleep. Most travel guides recommended placing a spy glass (later in the Victorian period it was spectacles) into the bed sheets, waiting half an hour, and then checking if there was any condensation on the glass. If there was, it was recommended that you ripped the sheets off and just slept in the blankets, which shows that dirt was less dangerous than damp.

Coal was expensive in many parts of the country, and Buchan’s Domestic Medicine warned traveller to take extra care in the areas of the country where that was the case. The best way to achieve damp sheets was to travel to an Inn and arrive late. Rooms would only be warmed when they were occupied- so, if you arrive late in an Inn, you would need to eat there before going to bed, as your bed would definitely be damp. If there was nobody expected in your room, that the sheets may not have been warmed by the chambermaid using a bed warming pan, filled with coal. This is the situation that is shown in this Rowlandson cartoon of 1790:


The rich would often take their own linen with them on their travels- not because the sheets that they would encounter on their visits were dirty, but because they were damp. To avoid your own sheets getting damp while travelling, leather sheets were often to be preferred. Hotels would advertise that their rooms were both well ventilated and had clean sheets- this was the great paradox of the late Georgian and Victorian period- the better off and their hundreds of books about health asked for everything to be well ventilated, but this also meant that they were cold.

It wasn’t only inns that were a problem. If you were expecting visitors to your own home, then you would be expected to take precautions about damp. If you were entertaining visiting in a few days time and your sheets were damp, it was prudent to all a servant to sleep in them for a day or two to warm them up, which tells us a lot about attitudes to servants and personal hygiene in the early nineteenth century. The sheets that the visitor used would be dirty because they were not damp, and the servants would have to go back to their own damp bed!

My two books on the late Georgian/ Early Victorian period. 

Dark Days of Georgian Britain – a social history of 1811- 1820 

Passengers – Britain 1790- 1840, with an emphasis on travel, hospitality and transport 


Abortion first becomes  a criminal offence-1803

Laws that criminalize abortion are of relatively recent origin in British history and this is the story of the first one, the Malicious Stabbings or Shooting Act, 1803 (‘Lord Ellenborough’s Act’)

Before 1803 there were no laws criminalising a deliberate termination before the ‘quickening’ of the child in the womb, and procuring an abortion afterwards was a relatively minor civil misdemeanour. The case below came before Lord Justice Kenyon in 1801. It was an allegation that somebody had procured an abortion. The Judge pointed out that this was a civil matter, and asked why he was being asked to comment on it in a criminal tribunal;


What did it mean to be ‘quick with child’ in the eighteenth century? Part of the definition was practical there was a quickening if the baby could be physically felt by the mother. There is a wide range of ages for this, but in the Regency period, doctors put the period at around 16 to 20 weeks. Blackstone’s Law Commentaries made the point ‘life begins in condition of law as soon as the infant stirs in the mother’s womb’.

This  most common Georgian view was that ensoulment, and the creation of the human, happened at quickening and not conception. This was an ancient belief that predated Christianity, and the church tended not to contradict it .It had the unintended consequence of allowing women to control their fertility in the first months after a suspected pregnancy. Although details can never be explicit, it seems that women had always controlled their fertility in the period before quickening, both at home and in the commercial market using herbs and the wisdom of other women to reinstate their period.  It was not a crime at all before 1803. This was a practical application of the law- if there was no proof of a foetus in the womb, and then there could be no victim of a crime.

When the human was created, they had rights- for example they could not be executed in the womb if the mother had committed a crime. This was ‘pleading the belly’, and it was a regular but not common aspect of judicial proceedings in the late Georgian period, and of course this continued after the severe tightening up of the law in 1803.

The 1803 Law itself was a rambling piece of legislation in two large paragraphs which was mainly designed to protect people from being attacked and assaulted with weapons, even if death did not result, or even if there was no intention to kill. The unborn child was added to the list of those protected. So, although not specifically an act against abortion, it had a major consequences. It moved the point of  “human” status from quickening to conception , and a new felony was created from something that was not formally illegal
Anybody who…(the bold parts are mine)

wilfully and maliciously administer to, or cause to be administered to, or taken by any woman, any medicines, drug, or other substance or thing whatsoever, or shall use or employ or cause or procure to be used or employed any instrument or other means whatsoever, with intent thereby to cause the miscarriage of any woman not being, or not being proved to be, quick with child at the time of administering such things…shall be and are hereby declared to be guilty of felony, and shall be liable to be fined, imprisoned, set in and upon the pillory, publicly or privately whipped, or to suffer one or more of the said punishments, or to be transported beyond the seas for any term not exceeding fourteen years…

The Roman Catholic Church did not formally declare that life began at conception until 1869- but English statute law did this more than sixty years earlier.

In the inexorable logic of the bloody code, the new penalty for organising or abetting an abortion post ‘quickening’ had to be death. It had previously been a common law misdemeanour, and the application and meaning of the earlier 1624 statue was unclear. This explains Justice Kendall’s reluctance to have anything to do with the abortion allegation in 1801. A more severe tariff  was needed to differentiate it from the newly created crime.

An examination of the law after 1803 shows that it was not often used on women trying to control their fertility, which were by definition private event. It was mostly used when men fell out and wounded each other with knives and cutlasses, or when drunken individuals waved their guns in the streets. Those who wished to intimidate people with violence before robbing them would have to think twice, although in reality the death sentence was hardly ever applied. In a society where murder, attempted murder and writing an anonymous letter threatening murder all carried the same death penalty, there had to be a degree of leniency.

In January 1804 a Mr Corneille and Mr Draper were capitally convicted of wounding police constable J Boardman with a cutlass as he raided as disorderly house in Hatton Garden. In the same year Hugh Evans was found guilty under Ellenborough’s Act of maiming Elizabeth Palmer and slashing her face until she was unrecognisable. He was one of a gang of three who had intimidated Palmer and her boyfriend with a “What are you nosing at?. John Robinson of the 7 Regiment of Dragoon Guards did similar damage in the same year to a fellow soldier. Only nineteen year old Hugh Evans was executed in 1804 for a his motiveless and vicious crime. On average one person per year (out of about 100 executions a year) was executed per year for cutting and maiming in the late Georgian period.
Some women were convicted under this law. The 1803 Act raised the bar of proof against a women who was thought to have killed her child at birth. The prosecution now had to prove that it was born alive rather than the women prove it was born dead. Any slight doubt would acquit the defendant of infanticide, so a new crime of concealment of birth was introduced with a tariff of two years imprisonment. The case below is from 1808;


Ellenborough’s Law almost was particularly difficult for powerless females, such as domestic servants, who did not have the support network to do something about their pregnancy at an earlier time. I have written about another example, that of Mary Fordham, here.


There were other cases. In 1809 Thomas Newton was found guilty of poisoning Elizabeth Turner in order to prompt a miscarriage and was given three years in prison and a fine of £100. The judge made it plain that it would have been the death penalty if she had been quick with child. Oddly, he was spared transportation because Elizabeth had cooperated with him and survived the attack.

Please consider my three books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here

Radical Victorians– nineteen radical Victorian men and women who dared to think differently. More details here 

Child Stealing in the Regency

There were three broad reasons to steal a child in the Regency. The first was to rob it of its clothes, and then leave the naked child somewhere where it could be found. The second, much less common than the first, was for a grief stricken family to take a child in exchange for a child that had died. The third was to steal a child for criminal reasons- for abuse, for sale on to a chimney sweep or similar child based trade, or as an accessory for a beggar in order to elicit more money through pity.

Until 1814, only stealing a child’s clothes was a crime. High quality children’s clothes had a solid second hand resale  value and could be sold with no questions asked. Most children were stolen from outside their house; a smaller number were stolen from prams; some were taken as they were doing errands for their parents.
If there was a traditional form of child abduction, it went something like this: this is from January 1810:


Most children were near their home when abducted. The main method of decoy was to offer them a treat (money, sweets, or fruit) and then take the child was far enough from home to commit the robbery with ease. On most occasions, all clothes would be taken and child left with nothing. Occasionally they were abandoned somewhere dangerous such as underneath a  bridge at the mercy of the tide, but most of the time they were left in a place that would allow them to be found, but not that quickly. The child was stripped naked; the rug might have been a concession to the fact that it was the middle of winter, rugs are a common reference in the newspapers when kidnapped children were found.

The vast majority of child stealing was done by women, who were more likely to gain the trust of the child quickly. Ana King, age 19 described her method:


The mob opted for instant justice here, although they need not have worried too much. There were witnesses that saw the clothes being stolen. Ana King, like another robber in the newspaper Frances Dunkerley, ‘ a strong and stout young women’ was found guilty and was transported to Australia. In Frances’s case, the crime was of stealing a child’s frock worth a shilling.

Child abduction was not a crime until 1814. If you were in possession of a child which  you had no rights to, then that was not in itself a crime. Theft of property had to be proved and, if  that could not be done, then the accused went free. If nobody had witnessed the theft, then the only way to convict is on the evidence of the second hand clothes dealer, who may have kept some records and may have known the person who was fencing the clothes- but these people were very rare.
The mob often got involved in child stealing cases, providing instant justice to the robber, knowing that it was far from certain that the courts would do it.Throwing them into a stinking pond, ditch or cesspit seemed to be favourite. Some child robbers were found guilty, but discharged, as was William Yeats in Oxford in 1814- the only man I found in my research.
The most famous child stealing case was that of Thomas Dellow. The story is told very well by Naomi Clifford .
On 18 November, three-year-old Thomas Dellow was stolen from his parents’ green-grocers shop St. Martins Lane, Upper Thames Street. A kindly lady had come in and bought some apples, one of which she gave to him. She asked the boy’s sister to direct her to a pastry shop where she would buy a treat for them. Their mother, being distracted with customers, did not object. At the pastry shop the woman promptly took up the boy and disappeared with him.


The distraught parents found him three months later in Gosport, Hampshire When the women, Harriet Magnes, was questioned in London about the events, her story was that she had found the boy in London and taken it home; her husband having said that she would love her more if she presented him with a boy, a request that he took literally. She claimed to have given birth to the child when her husband was at sea.

When their infamy spread through Gosport and Portsmouth, Mr Magnes became so embarrassed with the fuss that-the newspaper reported – he asked the magistrates for a divorce from his wife, which seemed eminently unreasonable, as his unrealistic expectations  caused the problem in the first place.

Harriet had looked after the children moderately well- the newspaper reported a bit sniffily that their house was as  clean and comfortable as you could expect from an artisan. No crime had been committed, despite the anguish of the child’s parents, made worse by the fact that Thomas did not recognise them when they were reunited.

This changed in 1814, when stealing a child less than ten years was made a felony, punishable with seven years transportation. The act exempted any actions by fathers who wished to remove their legitimate or illegitimate children from their mothers. They were still allowed to do this by any means necessary-this new law was deliberately written to avoid giving any new rights to women.

New, severe punishments started to appear in 1815 when the new Act was enforced. In January, Sarah Stone was convicted for abducting a child of the poor women Catherine Kremer, who used her child to ‘ excite compassion’ as she begged in St Paul’s churchyard. Despite her wretched condition, Catherine spent weeks looking for her child and finally tracked her down to a ship that was just leaving the country. In reality, it was Sarah Stone who left the country on her own. She was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay on 28 January 1815. On the same day, two twelve year old boys , Jones and Tidley, were given the same punishment for stealing handkerchiefs. They were in an organised gang of twenty or so boys, which in the eyes of the besieged property owners made it a far worse crime than theft by individuals.

Naomi Clifford


If you enjoyed this, please consider my book (above) either to buy or to recommend to a library. All new material.

A short description from the publisher here 

A chapter-by-chapter breakdown here