With this flagrant parental example set before them, it is hardly surprising that
Mary’s daughters, who were aged nine and twelve in 1884 and so witnessed her behaviour
with knowing eyes, should also have illegitimate children. One of these was born
at Brighton, which may show a desire to conceal the birth from the prying eyes of
Earlier in the century, there was another similar example of a mother and her daughter
having illegitimate children. The family were living firstly in one of the cottages
attached to Preston Hill Farm and then at Kiln Wood. Both mother and daughter had
three illegitimate children. In the mother’s household in 1841, 1851 and 1861 there
is a male lodger of a similar age and one wonders whether they were in a common-law
Because of the prevalence of premarital sex, especially among the labouring class,
it is hard to believe that pregnant brides would have been looked down upon by their
peers - although in a small village they might have been the butt of gossip and speculation.
Possibly, immorality was less socially acceptable as the rate was below the national
average. It would have been difficult to hide an extra-marital affair in such a tightly-knit
In this article, the sexual mores of Preston villagers in the nineteenth century
Even today, this sensitive subject may be embarrassing and frowned upon by many,
especially older ones. In my wife’s family, one relative, a staunch, elderly churchman,
went to extreme lengths to prove the legitimacy of his line – and chose to ignore
other signs of immorality among his ancestors. One cannot change the bald facts of
life which involve our forebears, however untenable. Many family histories have instances
of pregnant brides and illegitimacy; indeed, were it not for the loose morals of
several of my paternal and maternal ancestors, I should never have been born. Who
am I to be judgemental!
Two main topics have been researched: bridal pregnancy and illegitimacy (i.e. children
born out of wedlock). I have a non-salacious interest in this subject as, to put
it bluntly, several of my family at Preston were fornicators and I wondered how they
would have been regarded by their neighbours.
How many of Preston’s brides were ‘infanticipating’ as they walked (or waddled) up
the aisle of local churches? It is a simple exercise to check when a couple married
against the baptismal date of the first child born to the newly-weds. These details
can be found on this web-site. During the century between 1800 and 1900, out of
117 brides who remained in Preston after their wedding, 36 were pregnant (31%). This
is unremarkable. The ratio conforms to the national average -‘in the first half of
the nineteenth century almost one-third of all brides were pregnant’.
Despite the warnings about the perils of fornication from the pulpits of the Anglican
and Baptist churches, there would appear to be a general acceptance among the labouring
classes of Preston that courting couples could be intimate before their nuptials
or that, if an unmarried girl became pregnant, her partner would ‘do the right thing’.
Perhaps a local custom known as ‘bundling’ was practised, which was a means of establishing
whether a union would be fruitful by a trial marriage.
The couple, who left their marriage to the latest of last minutes in the century,
were married at St Mary’s, Hitchin on 9 December 1844 and christened their first
child twenty-nine days later at Kings Walden on 7 January 1845.
In the Church’s eyes, those children born out of wedlock were frowned upon. Illegitimacy
has been described as ‘an offence of the poor and the obscure’. Such progeny were
often stigmatised in the parish records by notes such as ‘base’, ‘bastard’, ‘byeblow’,
‘chanceling’, ‘mis-begotten’, ‘Child of shame’, ‘whoreson’ and ‘lovebegot’. One author
listed eighty-seven different words, English and Latin, which were used to identify
the fruits of fornication.
Because it was likely that a financial burden might be placed on the parish following
the birth of a child to a single woman, a Maintenance Order might be issued. The
father was instructed to make a payment to the overseers of the poor to offset the
costs of confinement care of the infant, as happened to Charles Swain of Preston.
(Link: Maintenance) Sometimes a Bastardy Bond might be arranged whereby the family
of the father would agree to provide for an illegitimate child.
According to the baptismal records of Hitchin, Kings Walden and Ippollitts which
include Preston people, out of 859 baptisms, 34 were illegitimate (4%) – that is,
no father is noted on the page. This is slightly lower than the national average
which was about 6% in the middle of the 1800s. Only two of these children died in
infancy. Although fewer children were baptised near the end of the nineteenth century,
there was a slight trend towards greater illegitimacy in later decades.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of immorality at Preston concerned my great
grandmother, Mary Currell (nee Fairey). Her first child, my grandmother Emily, was
born almost four years before Mary married her husband, Thomas Currell. When the
couple eventually married they had four more children, however when the 1881 census
was taken, the Thomas was no longer living with the family.
Then, on 14 January 1883, Mary had two sons baptised. One, who was born towards the
end of 1880, was fathered by her husband, Thomas. The second son was born in early
1882 (and therefore conceived before the 1881 census) but the parish record describes
Mary as a ‘single woman’. A second illegitimate son was born in 1884 when Mary was
forty-two. Possibly, she had an extramarital affair in 1881 which prompted Thomas
(not one to forgive and forget as shown by his behaviour when he discovered the dying
miller at the bottom of Preston Hill. Link: Miller) to pack his bags and leave.