Hardships of Working-Class Mothers
In Victorian England


              When thinking of Victorian England, most people picture corseted women and Gothic architecture; however, the real defining characteristic of the era was found in the extreme religious leanings of the people, which resulted in sexual repression and a profound distancing between the wealthy and the working classes. The middle and working classes of mid- to late-nineteenth century England were often overlooked in favor the aristocracy of the time. However, the lower classes, particularly mothers, found themselves in acutely oppressive and challenging situations. While the women of the upper class busied themselves with following the proper protocol in selecting a suitor, the working-class mother found herself scrounging to make ends meet. Oftentimes, a working class mother would not be able to keep her family afloat, which would subsequently result in the issuing of several new laws prohibiting violence towards children. The desperate times that lower class women found themselves in periodically made them stoop to desperate measures, such as prostitution; in addition, there was an increase in abuse and neglect, ranging from infanticide, to abortion, to baby farming, which brought the nature of motherhood in Victorian England into question.

             One of the main reasons that working class women had such trouble getting by in Victorian England was the extreme disparity between theirs and the upper class, both in economic and social terms. Pat Jalland points out that women who came from wealthy backgrounds were often consumed with rituals of marriage and courtship, noting that “elaborate social conventions were created to restrict and regulate young love and courtship among the upper-middle and upper-class” (21). Once women married, Jalland notes, even upper class women risked death in giving birth. Mortality became an issue in miscarriages, still births, and during labor in general; however, the risks that mothers faced were not nearly as great as those of lower class women, who had very few resources to improve their chances of survival (Jalland 159).

Victorian Mother and Child 

Working Class Mother and Child

           Prostitution quickly became an alternative for some women of limited means in the 1800s. Lucy Bland’s essay entitled “Feminist Vigilantes of Late-Victorian England” outlines some of the extreme measures women would take in order to survive, as well as the animosity that surfaced as a result of these actions.  Bland points out that the National Vigilance Association served as both a moral watchdog group, as well as an organization which sought to assist women who were persecuted over issues of sexual deviance, by providing aid to women who were victims of assault or women who were displaced by the Criminal Law Act of 1885, which put a ban on brothels (Bland 39). William Coote, who served as the secretary of the National Vigilance Association, was among those concerned about the welfare of the children of prostitutes. He extended an offer to provide aid to those women and children left homeless, though his efforts went mostly unheeded (Bland 40). Not everyone shared in Coote’s compassion for the impoverished and fallen women of the working class. In fact, new laws were being set in place in the mid- to late-1800s which hit this segment of the population mercilessly.


          From 1861 through 1885, several Acts were instituted which significantly affected the working-class mother. The first of these Acts was the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. According to Carol Smart, in her essay “Disruptive Bodies and Unruly Sex: The Regulation of Reproduction and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” this was established to deal with “rape, procuring, carnal knowledge, abortion, concealment of birth and exposing children to danger” (13). Throughout the nineteenth century, incidents of infanticide were continually on the rise, in large part because little was done to convict the guilty party. Violent acts by desperate working-class women resulted in a movement to put more emphasis on holding someone, namely the mother, responsible for these deaths came to a head with the passing of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.  As working-class women oftentimes found themselves financially challenged, they would accordingly find themselves financially unable to support their children (Smart 17). Women who gave birth to illegitimate children found themselves in a particularly questionable situation. On the one hand, if a woman kept the baby, she would likely be unable to properly provide for it; however, if she concealed her pregnancy and abandoned the child, she would be held liable, with the potential of being sentenced to hang, regardless of whether the baby was born alive or dead (Smart 16). Women who had children out of wedlock, who were unable to financially support their children had to face the difficult decision whether to keep the child or turn the infant over to another’s care, thus avoiding the repercussions of being found guilty of infanticide.

               As the punishment for those convicted of infanticide became harsher and more ubiquitous, and as medical procedures became more advanced, infanticide began to dwindle and abortion became more prevalent. It is pointed out by Carol Smart that although abortion was always deemed an offence by the law, until the nineteenth century, there were very few cases where a woman was actually found guilty of the crime (Smart 18). Laws soon began to develop, differentiating between various stages of development; this was quickly followed with a series of amendments over the course of several decades. By the end of the century, the laws essentially made the woman the sole guilty party, regardless of what stage the pregnancy was terminated, and despite the fact that she may have received aid through another party (Smart 18). The use of birth control also proved to be a morally questionable practice in Victorian England, as those deeply rooted in their Christian beliefs found the regulation of pregnancy deplorable, arguing that it was not a woman’s right to take control of reproduction. The process of childbirth in and of itself in this era was dangerous, especially for working-class women who were unable to seek professional medical care. Although it was initially a moral taboo, eventually the undeniable fact that childbirth took such a toll on women’s bodies became more recognizable, and the use of contraceptives slowly filtered their way into society (Jalland 175).

Street Children 1890s

Victorian Children Playing

             Many working-class women found that they could not afford to support their newborn babies, as most women struggled to make ends meet, providing for their husband and other children. According to Ellen Ross, a woman’s primary duty was to ensure the survival of her children, which was no easy task considering the sheer amount of work involved in keeping the home in order and providing enough food for the family with the limited money provided by her husband.  Many women who did not resort to infanticide or have an abortion, were forced to send their children to be looked after by other women. Ross writes, “This practice, normally netting the nurse mothers about 5 shillings a week for a new baby for most of the period we are discussing, had an evil reputation because of a few notorious trials of ‘baby farmers’ who took dozens of infants simultaneously and had clearly murdered a succession of infants in their charge, sometimes with the tacit consent of their parents” (135). Baby farming, which reached its zenith in the 1870s and ‘80s, as many mothers simply could not handle the burden of an infant while providing for the rest of the family.

Children in Victorian England

Children of Victorian England, poor and bourgeoi   

              In most cases, baby farming could be considered little more than a prolonged version of infanticide. Baby farms served as both a way for women unprepared for motherhood to relieve themselves of the burden, as well as a means for some women to make money from the fees charged to take an infant in. Some of the women who were in the baby farming business were careless in their duties as surrogate guardians, and such cases, the infants stood very little chance of survival under such horrific conditions, where the women were provided little money my the biological mothers and were at times unable to keep the children alive. Women who were found guilty of running the farms were convicted, and sometimes hanged. The History of the London County Council, 1889-1939, as part of its report on baby farming, notes that “in 1870 as many as two hundred and seventy-six infants were found dead in the streets of the metropolitan and city police districts alone” (Gibbon and Bell 294). Ads were often taken out in newspapers, and women who were desperate enough would exercise this final resort.      

              A woman who would consider this option would likely have one or more of the following qualifying problems: “the shame and poverty of the unmarried mother, the inability to care properly for the child, lack of support from the putative father and the limited means of the mother” (Smart 22). The fact that impoverished women resort to such an extreme stance brought the maternal qualifications of working-class women into question, making some wonder if through their extreme poverty, these women may have lost their natural instincts for motherhood (Matus 158).  In an effort to curb the excessive practice of baby farming, the Act for the Protection of Infant Life was put in place in 1872, putting stricter health and safety regulations on those who watched over children (Smart 23).

            Not all women of the lower-class resorted to such harsh alternatives to raising children. Some women, particularly farmers and those living in the country, were able to scrounge and make ends meet for themselves and their families. Many of these women worked tirelessly not only to raise their children, but to contribute to the family income, supplementing their husbands’ earnings when times were tough (Horn 17). In addition, in the Victorian English countryside women even began to band together to improve their lives, both practically and spiritually. A woman named Mary Sumner set out to organize a collection of women to gather and bond together in a quest to rear their children according to their staunch Christian beliefs. This group was called the Mothers’ Union and their first meeting was held in 1876. Not only did they reach out to the community in their own humble congregation, but Sumner and her followers attracted women from neighboring communities, and they even began issuing a quarterly journal which reached upwards of 60,000 people by 1896 (Horn 92). By the turn of the century, women were finally beginning to gather together in an attempt to make their status known in society, and organizations such as the Mothers’ Union helped to establish a new precedent, recognizing the important impact that mothers could make on their families and their communities as a whole.

            Working-class women in Victorian England had many different obstacles to overcome. Not only were they living in a repressive society, but they were marginalized by class issues as well as gender issues. Because of their low status, many women were forced into prostitution, and oftentimes women who had children found themselves so desperate that they resorted to infanticide, abortion, or baby farming. However, by the turn of the century, some progress was being made in the effort to bring the status of women to a higher standing. Organizations like the Mothers’ Union made great strides in helping solidify the reputation of mothers throughout England. However, for the most part, the primary duty of a working-class mother in Victorian England was simply to keep her family afloat. Mothers that were able to provide enough for their children to survive were a success, and it was through their sacrifice and tireless work that these women’s families were able to make it through such difficult times.


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