Category Archives: Community

Where were the servants?!

In my recent supervision, my supervisors (@SashaHandley and @HistoryHannahB) asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. Those of you that know them will understand that this is not an unusual occurrence, despite my best efforts. This particular question, however, has haunted me – partly because I can’t answer it, and partly because I don’t know how to go about finding the answer. It arose as part of a discussion around the chapter I am currently writing on family and childbirth, specifically, the individuals that populated birthrooms in the eighteenth century. The question was this:

“Where were the servants?”


Good question.

Where WERE they?

My research relies heavily upon personal accounts of birth and the various events and rituals that surrounded it, and I can’t think of a single instance where a daily servant has been mentioned. Frances Irwin talked of her Nurse, who stepped into the breach and delivered her child when the midwife was detained, but Nurses weren’t really servants. Not in the traditional sense of the term, anyway. They were employed for a short period of time, to assist with the birth and the lying-in. As such, their duties were clearly defined. Their relationship to their employer differed to that between daily servants and their mistress.

The principle of Occam’s razor would suggest that the servants simply weren’t there, but I can’t believe that. In a large proportion of cases, the relationship between mistress and servant was intimate, at least in terms of physical proximity and knowledge if not emotionally. Depending upon the social status of both employer and employee, a servant would have changed and washed bed linen, dressed her employer, brought her food and drink, helped her with her work. She may even have shared a bed chamber with her. Is it realistic to believe that she would be excluded from the household, or banished to the kitchen while the birth took place? Or is it more likely that she would be required to assist: to make caudle, to change and launder sheets, prepare clothes and compresses? Would she care for older children? Who emptied the water? Who disposed of the pallet bed upon which the birth may have taken place? Who brought logs for the fire? Even if caudle was prepared by the birthroom attendants, who procured the ingredients? Who brought them to the birthroom when they were required? For poor women, these jobs may have been done by the friends and neighbours that attended the birth, but would this still have been the case in houses where help was employed? I simply can’t believe that daily servants weren’t involved in the process of a birth.


So. Why can’t I find them?

One explanation is that they were invisible. The jobs that they undertook were not mentioned in letters and diaries because it was assumed that they would be done. If this was the case, however, I would expect to find instances in which servants had not performed appropriately, or had performed particularly exceptionally during a birth and (so far) I haven’t.

Is it connected to social status? Very poor women would not have employed daily servants. Middling and elite women would have had lots of servants, and were used to seeing (or deliberately not-seeing) them therefore may not mention their actions in their writings. The women that I would expect to find writing about their servants would be those who employed only one or two, and who shared living and working space with them. Women of this status are under-represented in my research, though not totally absent. Yet I have still to find any reference to servants in the birthroom, though daily servants are occasionally mentioned.

Perhaps it is due to source survival. Despite my best efforts, accounts of an actual delivery (excluding those written by medical men) are difficult to find. Perhaps, by the time women were sufficiently recovered to provide me with written sources again (after their lying-in was completed) the servants had returned to their usual duties. As with my first point, however, if it was simply about source survival I would still expect to find an occasional mention of good/bad servant behaviour during the birth.

Age may have had an impact, as my research suggests that knowledge about birth was strictly confined to married women, and preferably those that had given birth themselves. Would unmarried servants have been excluded from the birthroom after all, particularly when delivery became imminent? It is possible, yet women of varied status worked as daily servants. Marriage did not necessarily constitute a bar to this type of employment in the eighteenth-century, particularly where husbands were away at sea/war, or were in employment elsewhere. Daily servants may therefore have been mothers many times over.

All of which leaves me puzzled. WHERE WERE THE FLAMING SERVANTS?! Do you have any ideas?


“I grew weary of my Toil”: Part II

A while ago, I blogged ‘I grew weary of my Toil’ Part I, an account of William Hey’s brutal attempts to extract a dead infant from the body of its mother. You may recall that Hey barely mentioned his patients, except to say that the mother

‘recovered pretty well, only had sore Breasts thro’ improper Application.’

In this post, I’d like to try and put Hey’s account into context. Brief internet searches have identified only one Joseph Fowler of Pudsey during this period. He is listed in the register of baptisms as a clothier, and father of Jonathan whom he had baptised in 1747. Now, this may not be the Joseph Fowler referred to by William Hey, but it is equally conceivable that he could be. Whilst I’m making blanket assumptions, I have decided that Mr Fowler was a mid-level clothier, perhaps living in a few rooms over his workshop.

19thC. Pudsey High Street Map of Pudsey

In Hey’s account, he noted

‘I was sent to for to deliver the Wife of Josp. Fowler of Pudsey of a second Child, the former being born the day before.’

Mrs Fowler was clearly experiencing her first birth, and was in the process of delivering twins. This process must have started at least twenty-four hours previously when she felt her first labour pains. In all likelihood, she would have had women around her who had given birth and so would have recognised the signs.[1] Once labour had begun, she would have ‘made al her mak.’[2] This would involve arranging the living space to accommodate a birth, making up the bed, protecting the mattress, and sometimes arranging a straw pallet bed near the fire for the messy bit. It would also involve summoning some women to attend to her during her labour – between two and four appears to be quite usual. Caudle – a mixture of alcohol, oatmeal, egg and spices – would be boiled up over the fire ready to provide energy to the labouring mother and refreshment to her attendants. Childbed linen – either made by Mrs Fowler or borrowed from her friends and family – would be fetched from the drawers or chests in which they had been stored.

Whilst all this was going on, Mrs Fowler would have progressed through the latent stages of labour, as her cervix gradually dilated to somewhere between six and eight centimetres. She would have been experiencing contractions of between 40 and 60 seconds every three to four minutes. Once the cervix has dilated by eight centimetres, the mother becomes ‘transitional’ which means that the pressure of the baby on her cervix caused it to fully open to ten centimetres. At this stage, Mrs Fowler would have been experiencing very strong contractions, 60 to 90 seconds long, every two to three minutes. Hopefully, after less than an hour of these, her first child would have been born. She would then have had a brief period of respite (no more than a few minutes according to ‘Netmums’) before starting the transitional phase again to deliver baby number two.

Unfortunately for Mrs Fowler, baby number two became stuck with its arm through the cervix. Hey noted that the waters of this infant had broken three hours prior to his arrival. She may therefore have been experiencing strong and intense contractions for a minimum of around four hours before Hey arrived to relieve her[3]. She would not have had any pain relief. During this time, she would have experienced intensely painful internal inspections from her midwife to check on the progression of this second labour. It is pretty reasonable to assume that she was weak and exhausted.

In this context, the brutality of Hey’s actions upon reaching Mrs Fowler becomes more understandable. After spending so long in the birth canal, the infant was probably dead – Hey’s mission was to save the mother and to do so quickly before she, too, died. For him, the priority lay in extracting the infant as quickly as possible and, to that end, he showed a considerable about of skill and persistence. Forceps would not have worked in this situation, and, had his manual extraction not worked he would have had to dismember the infant in the womb with the attendant risks of accidentally damaging her internal organs.

It is a difficult balance to strike as an historian. Compassion and empathy with the people that we study makes us better scholars. It helps us in our mission to understand the past and to interpret the actions of those we study. Yet we also need to maintain a professional distance from our subjects and to consider our own emotional and environmental drivers when we are writing. When I wrote my first blog post, I had spent several evenings reading Hey’s notebooks – his vivid descriptions of using the hook to extract a dead child – while my own children were tucked up asleep in the next room. I found myself physically aching after a couple of hours transcribing his notes from what I considered the barbaric brutality of his methods and the horror of his reports. With a little bit of distance, however, I can see that Hey did save lives – lives which might otherwise have faded away from exhaustion and septicaemia while friends, mothers and husbands watched.

[1] Eighteenth-century letters show a concern to make sure that heavily pregnant women were constantly accompanied in case of sudden labour and to help them recognise the early stages of a birth.

[2] This is taken from the diary of Edmund Harrold, an eighteenth-century wigmaker, as he described the birth of his daughter, Sarah.

[3] From a modern perspective, the transitional phase lasts between 15 minutes and one hour. Any longer would probably result in an emergency caesarean being performed.

‘Baa Lambs, and little Chucky’s’: baby talk in the eighteenth century.

In the course of my research, I am regularly struck by how familiar I find the behaviour of my subjects around very young children.  Perhaps I am a particularly old fashioned mother, but I often see echoes of emotions and fears expressed in an eighteenth-century letter in the conversations I have at the pre-school gate.  Today, I’d like to share with you one of those moments that was particularly delicious – a letter from a devoted Grandma to her infant grandson written in baby talk.


Thomas Rowlandson, undated sketch, ‘Four generations’, Tate Britain

The author of the letter is the genteel Lancashire woman Elizabeth Parker whom I mentioned in a previous post.  Following the death of her husband in 1758, she remarried John Shackleton of Colne but maintained a strong presence in the lives of her sons visiting them often, particularly following the birth of her grandson Robert in 1780.

Her letter is undated, but it would appear from the content that Robert is over six months old (as he is weaned) though I would suggest that he has not yet had his first birthday. Here is what she writes to him.

As all there good things are for my Honey my Love and my own Dear precious beauty I keep thinking away for him and his Mam it is so long since I saw any thing of this sort I am  a blockhead about it.  Two very little Ducks brings love and respects to my own Dear Bonny Love and sweet Child my own King and dear Angel nice little Robert sweet soul.  His Granny wants to know how he do’s thinks every moment she is absent from her own Dear Dear nice pretty Lad an age. How Dos sleep Robs and good had him go on he must eat away and talk to his Nurse and Mamma [illegible]. Parky knows them both.  What a bad day my Love almost starves my Bonny Pretty Robert must have his Blanket petticoat thrown over Linen – must not get cold for one pound of Penny’s – Poor nice Prince. My little Bonny Granny thanks her own dear Child his Father and Mother for her very good dinner.  And above all for the sight and conversation of her Beauty and nice sweet Precious Child – Robert fair and fatty must look through the window shut close and kept warm at his Farm all his nice little Baa Lambs and the good Woman his Turkey Hen in the straw growing nice little Chucky’s for her own Master little Pe Pe Pe’s – Bless my child send him good night. God almighty be with him.[1]

It’s pretty full on!  It is also quite out of character for Elizabeth.  Whilst she is inclined to gush when writing about Robert, the remainder of her correspondence is blunt and business-like.  She clearly enjoys grandparenthood and has anticipated it as a pleasurable point of the lifecycle.  This anticipation appears to be shared by her friends and acquaintances.  Her maternal counterpart, Mrs Parker, received a letter from her friend Mrs Cooper congratulating her on the birth of a sister for Robert and predicting her heavy involvement with his care.  She writes:

Tho you are a letter in my debt I should have wrote sooner to have congratulated you on the Birth of your little Grand Daughter but thought that you would be so much taken up in nursing that you would scarcely have time to read my letter.[2]

These grandmothers were evidently expected to take great pleasure in being surrounded by fat, healthy grandchildren.

Elizabeth’s letter is clearly intended to be read aloud to Robert, to create a direct line of contact between them without any translation being required by his Mamma or Nurse.  The language that she uses is intense and is much more immediate and expressive than anything she could write in a letter to another adult.  Indeed, there are some parallels in the emotions that she expresses in this letter and the passionate love letters that she exchanged with her first husband during their courtship.

You may disagree with me, but I do not get the impression that this letter was deliberately crafted as a keepsake.  It is too impulsive in the way in which it flows and its lack of punctuation, particularly when it is considered alongside some of Elizabeth’s other letters.  She was a prolific and experienced correspondent whose letter-writing skills were regularly praised by her friends and acquaintances (though such praise was generally a matter of good manners in the eighteenth century).  This letter offers us an insight into the strength of her feelings for her grandson and, to me, reads a bit like a huge epistolary hug from ‘Granny’.






[1] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB/ACC/7886/Wallet 2.

[2] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB.72.