Death and sorrow in eighteenth-century English family

Johannes Christiaan Bendorp (1776 - 1825): Dichter Jan Zoet ligt ziek in bed en Machteld Klaas van Medemblik spreekt hem toe terwijl de Dood wenkt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

What children knew about death? Were they kept away when death occurred? How they felt losing their parents or siblings? These are the questions I have come across while searching the experience of eighteenth-century English girls. Several historians have already shown that early modern and eighteenth-century parents loved their children and grieved for their deaths. No matter how young or sickly the child was, its loss had an impact. However, there is little research of the emotions of the young people.

Death was, in the end, an ever-present visitor in eighteenth-century household. Enquiries after health were not empty decorum, but echoed real concern. The illnesses of parents and other family members deserved remark from the young as well. 22-year-old Maria Josepha Holdroyd reported her friend that her step-mother had been ill. She had “Fever and violent Pain in her Side, with incessant cough.” Absent family members were informed how the illnesses developed. 15-year-old Emily Lennox wrote to her father in 1746 that her “Dear Mama is thank God perfectly well, she walked about the Room to Day and finds herself much stronger than usual.”

The harsh realities of life did, indeed, go both ways. It is estimated that child death rate in England between 1500 and 1820 was 0,187 pro mille, whereas between 1600 and 1750 a quarter of youths under 15 years and a third of those under 20 had lost at least one parent, sometimes even both. In the latter part of the eighteenth century the mortality rate declined. 20 per cent of those under 15 and a quarter of those under 20 had lost their parent(s).

As death was a frequent visitor in all eighteenth-century families, even children knew illness might easily lead to death. It duly caused concern even in the minds of the young. Even a possible prospect of a parent dying or being injured caused great anxiety. An unexpected death could also badly injure the prospects of the family. If the father died young or with little economical means his younger children would have to make their fortunes themselves unless the heir was willing or capable of providing for them. For unmarried girls, the death of a father meant that they had to throw themselves to the mercies of their eldest brother and heir or other relatives to provide themselves. The situation was even worse if the heir was a minor.

Little Melesina Chenevix lost both of her parents before she was four and was traumatized to such extent that she lost all remembrance of the event. It is, however, possible that a four-year-old could not remember much in any case. Mary Berry was also four when she lost her mother in 1767. When contemplating afterwards the event in her diary, Mary stated she had no recollection “of the excessive grief of my father and grandmother” or of her “own irreparable loss”. She assumed she was kept away from them. The sickness of Lady Sheffield, Maria Josepha Holroyd’s step-mother led eventually to death in April 1793. Maria’s younger sister Louisa had been visiting her aunt in Bath when the death occurred. The girl had “relieved herself by some hours' crying.”

Unusual, emotional events are easily remembered than more neutral everyday ones, so it is no wonder that these kinds of incidents are most often recorded in letters, diaries and autobiographies. Parental death is one of the most devastating of these. According to Joanne Bailey, eighteenth-century life-writers pinpointed the death of a parent having the most profound consequences for them.

Losing a sibling was not easier to handle. As Amy Harris has pointed out, sibling relations were the long-lasting human relation a person in the eighteenth century could have. Siblings grew up together, and despite some significant age-difference, ties were close. It is now wonder, then, that Fanny Burney stayed up all night beside her sister’s sick bed. She was in agony lest her sister should die. When her half-sister died some years later, Fanny consoled herself with the fact that the girl had been nursed properly and not neglected.

I would argue that, death had major emotion impact on the young and that they were fully aware of its consequences both economic and social. But loving emotions within eighteenth-century family is evident.

Henna Karppinen-Kummunmäki

FM, doctoral candidate, cultural history, University of Turku

Further reading and cited sources

  • Bailey, Joanne: Parenting in England, 1760–1830. Emotion, Identity, & Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.
  • Cooper, Sheila: Kinship and welfare in early modern England. Sometimes charity begins at home. Medicine, Charity and Mutual Aid. The Consumption of Health and Welfare in Britain c. 1550-1950. Anne Borsay & Peter Shapely (eds.)Aldershot, Ashgate 2007, 55–69.
  • Fletcher, Anthony: Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood, 1600‒1914. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010[2008].
  • Harris, Amy: Siblinghood and social relations in Georgian England. Share and share alike. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
  • Kaartinen, Marjo: Arjesta ihmeisiin. Eliitin kulttuurihistoriaa 1500–1800-luvun Euroopassa. Tammi, Hämeenlinna 2006.