Living in sin: unmarried relationships in Victorian Britain

Is the idea that Victorian working-class couples often skipped marriage accurate? Rebecca Probert examines the evidence...

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

A wedding party poses for the camera in the 1890s. Despite moralists’ frenzied r
There is a surprisingly widespread assumption, shared by popular and academic historians alike, that cohabitation (living together in a relationship without being married) was common among the Victorian poor. The journalist Matthew Sweet suggests in Inventing the Victorians that working-class men and women took an “equivocal and pragmatic approach” to marriage, with many choosing to cohabit out of economic convenience.
 
Others refer darkly to ‘unknown’ numbers of people living in ‘irregular unions’ – the implication being that those numbers, though unknown, must nevertheless have been large. Moving from the belief that the poor did not marry to the observation that the working classes made up the largest section of the population, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that marriage was a minority practice in Victorian England.
 
Of course, individual examples of cohabiting couples can be found in all classes of Victorian society. George Eliot is a regularly cited example, and her fellow authors Mary Elizabeth Bradden and Wilkie Collins, along with the political activist Eleanor Marx, often feature alongside her on lists of Victorian cohabitants. 
 
And yes, alternatives to marriage were seriously discussed by radical thinkers such as the socialist Robert Owen in the 1830s and the early feminists of the late 19th century. But one should never confuse big names with big numbers. Newly available historical data, using recently digitised sources, clearly establishes that all but a tiny fraction of Victorian couples sharing a home had gone through a ceremony of marriage. 
 
Earlier generations of researchers who have looked at the extent of cohabitation were hampered by the need to wade through thousands of pages of registers when searching for evidence that a marriage had taken place. Understandably, they often failed to trace weddings that had been held more than a few miles from a couple’s home parish, and from this failure deduced high rates of cohabitation.
 
But as any family historian is well aware, finding a marriage depends on searching in the right place. To take an example of how digitisation has revolutionised this task, marriages could only be traced for some two-thirds of couples listed in the 1851 census for the Northamptonshire village of Kilsby when using the laborious old method of looking through the parish registers of the most likely locations. With the assistance of modern databases, though, the proportion traced rose to 100 per cent. In short, Victorian couples were both more mobile and more likely to marry than previously thought. 
 

An 1891 painting of a working-class family during the 1889 dockers’ strike. (AKG) 

 

Crime hotspot 

 
And this social conformity was not confined to rural areas: similar results were achieved for Neithrop, a poor suburb of Banbury, studied because it was notorious locally for crime and immorality. Even here, marriages have been traced for 95 per cent of the people who described themselves as married in the 1851 census, and the missing five per cent can largely be accounted for by recording errors, multiple matches and marriages overseas. Nor was there generally any reason to suspect an illicit cohabiting relationship between men and their ‘housekeepers’, or between female householders and their ‘lodgers’: one couple who looked like possible cohabitants turned out to be a brother and his married sister. Even in this impoverished ward, the picture seems to have been overwhelmingly one of marital conformity. 
 
These findings of very low levels of cohabitation are supported by the conclusions of the more measured Victorian commentators (as opposed to the hysterical polemicists who were responsible for a genre of ‘slum’ literature that makes today’s tabloids seem restrained). Charles Booth, who carried out his survey of working-class life in London between 1886 and 1903, noted that legal marriage was the general rule even among the “roughest class”. Tracing a ceremony of marriage, of course, is no guarantee that a couple were legally married: bigamists abounded, and there are plenty of examples of a man entering into a prohibited marriage with his deceased wife’s sister. But the relatively high incidence of bigamy only serves to underline the significance Victorians attached to marriage. If cohabitation had been acceptable, there would have been no need to risk criminal penalties to secure respectability.
 
So did couples live together before they married, as is the norm today? Some historians have noted Booth’s comment on the frequency with which bridal couples gave the same address, and the marriage registers support his observation. But when addresses in the marriage register are checked against census returns, it turns out that the great majority who claimed to be living together were actually residing at different addresses. Here, the census is likely to be the more reliable. There was, after all, no advantage to be gained from concealing a cohabiting relationship from census-takers. And there was a very practical reason why couples might wish to appear to be living at the same address even if they were not: vicars – and even civil registrars – faced with a couple apparently living together unwed, would often waive the marriage fee. Even though Victorians married late – when compared to the mid-20th century – it was still rare for couples to set up home in advance of the wedding.
 
Indeed, unmarried Victorians had little scope to establish a household of their own. The Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted had a particularly high level of unmarried adults in 1851, with 45 per cent of women aged between 25 and 34 still single and most of these living at home. A further third were working as servants. Only around five per cent headed their own household, and only one woman (out of over 100) appears to have been cohabiting with a man, whom she later married.
 
Very occasionally, a sexual relationship between a woman and a man sharing an address can be inferred from the presence of a child and a subsequent marriage. But this was rare, and childbearing outside marriage was not generally the result of a cohabiting relationship. While some areas of Victorian England had high levels of extramarital births – over 30 per cent in the then Lancashire parish of Culcheth, for example – it is clear that most of the mothers of illegitimate babies were not living with the father. Linking digitised baptism and census records from a range of parishes confirms that such women were more likely to be living in the workhouse, or with family, than with any man who might be the father.    
 
For the Victorians, relationships outside marriage tended to be surreptitious rather than openly acknowledged. The poor, dependent upon landlords, employers, and occasionally charity, needed to maintain a good reputation just as much as the wealthy, if not more so. The diarist and clergyman Francis Kilvert wrote of one couple being evicted from their home simply because they were unmarried, and the receipt of social support could depend on showing one’s ‘marriage lines’. This was a society that drew a sharp distinction between the married and the unmarried. One writer noted that there was a public interest in knowing who was and was not married, since others’ behaviour toward them had to be regulated accordingly. For most, marriage was not a ‘choice’, any more than putting on clothes before one left the house was a ‘choice’. It was simply what one did so as not to cause trouble for oneself or offence for others. 
 

Married couple Harry and Mabel Hill with their six children, in Parkstone, Dorset, 1888. (Alamy)

 

Fear of the slums

 
So why has such a different perception of the Victorian poor proved so popular? Middle-class Victorian moralists were willing to believe the worst of the denizens of outcast London. Fear and suspicion of the poor, who were effectively seen as a race apart, meant that any claims about immorality and sexual licence met with a receptive audience. 
 
The journalist Henry Mayhew was pandering to this taste when he claimed in London Labour and the London Poor that, at most, only one in 10 of London’s costermongers (who sold food from a street barrow or stall) were married. So incensed were the costermongers at this slander that they held a public meeting to condemn Mayhew’s methods. They drew attention to the fact that Mayhew was writing “to suit the tastes and views of the upper and middle classes”, and that he had paid disreputable informants for inaccurate information. But they were only too well aware that it was Mayhew’s account that would eventually survive, given his public platform, and so it has proved. 
 
Today, Mayhew’s costermongers tend to be celebrated rather than condemned for their supposed rejection of marriage. Social commentators’ desire to find precedents for modern trends has led to the unfounded fears of Victorian moralists about the numbers ‘living in sin’ being transformed into evidence of cohabitation.
 
Claims of high rates of cohabitation outside marriage in past centuries seem to be a comforting – but quite incorrect – riposte to modern worries about the collapse of family life. But rather than acclaiming the costermongers as the pioneers of alternative family forms, we should do them the justice of remembering them as they wanted to be remembered – as they pleaded in the name of their “poor but honest wives”. 
 

Cohabitation and the myth of the ‘common-law marriage’

 
Today, 2.8 million British couples live together outside marriage, almost 90 per cent of marrying couples have cohabited beforehand, and 47 per cent of children are born outside marriage, the majority to cohabiting couples. All this, however, is historically unprecedented.
 
Given the rudimentary nature and general unpopularity of birth control until recent decades, most stable sexual relationships would in time produce children. As a result, the illegitimacy ratio gives us a good idea of the maximum possible frequency of cohabiting relationships in the population. But in earlier centuries births outside marriage were relatively rare, and cohabitation proportionally even rarer. Fluctuations in the illegitimacy ratio occurred within a small scale: rising from less than two per cent in 1700 to five per cent by 1800, a little under seven per cent by 1850, then falling again to four per cent by 1900. A close examination of baptism registers suggests that throughout this period cohabiting couples accounted for only a tiny proportion of illegitimate births, and thus a vanishingly small proportion of births overall.     
 
So, what changed? The causes are complex, but one factor – the emergence of the myth that cohabitants had a ‘common-law marriage’ – stands out. Contrary to popular belief, English law has never recognised cohabiting couples as having a ‘common-law marriage’. It was not until the 1960s that the term even crept into popular usage, and it was not until the late 1970s that the myth emerged that cohabiting couples enjoyed the same rights as married couples, a misunderstanding generated by misleading media reporting of the limited legal reforms of the period.
 
After the myth took hold, there was a sharp rise in births outside marriage, from 16 to 30 per cent over the course of the 1980s, with cohabiting couples accounting for the bulk of the increase. 
 
Rebecca Probert is a professor at the University of Warwick Law School. She has written widely on the history of marriage and cohabitation and appeared on programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?  
 
On 25 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks exploring the Victorian period. To find out more about our Victorian Day, and to buy tickets, click here.
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