Victorian Bournemouth (171)

Victorian Bournemouth (170): single mothers (1)

Blighted lives


Victorian Bournemouth (170) explores the subject of illegitimacy as it occurred within the resort and its suburbs. The article references the moral outrage which respectable people expressed for such births. Society’s attention fell on the occurrence but paid little attention to its aftermath. Respectable people wanted to avoid funding the outcomes of extra-marital relations. The article uses genealogical tracking to follow the later lives of both mothers and children. It assesses the extent to which respectable outrage blighted them. 

Victorian Bournemouth (170): background

Moral outrage and finger-pointing

The arrival of children born of unmarried parents touched on disparate parts of English society. It connected economic issues, personal interrelationships, community priorities, the law, social and sexual prejudice, morality, and religious practices and modes of worship. At its heart, however, economic issues determined perceptions and reactions to the event. If the father had evaded identification, then support for mother and child fell on community funds. Wealthier residents provided the highest proportion of these, their purses vulnerable to the actions of others. Thus, rich strangers had to pay for poor babies. This economic impact ignited moral outrage amongst the better people. The social position of such types allowed them to apply the rules and set the tone within their community. The public opprobrium surrounding illegitimate births often centred on the mothers. Society, in particular, respectable people, assigned blame to single mothers, their behaviour seen as irresponsible and immoral.


Many illegitimate children baptised at Bournemouth did not appear in later records. Their mothers perhaps used Bournemouth as a delivery address, thereafter reconstructing their lives elsewhere. One woman came from Levallois-Perret, France to bear her child. The orphanage run by the House of the Sisters of Bethany, founded in Springbourne, 1872, could have attracted expectant mothers into temporary migration. The parish’s records included about a third of all Bournemouth’s illegitimate children. High levels of infant mortality, then applying within society, will have claimed many of the illegitimate children, wherever they went after birth. Tracking those who remained has found early deaths, but also traces of support systems created by their mothers to keep both bodies and souls together during later life. Most of Bournemouth’s identified single mothers belonged to labouring families. This background together with their new status would have limited their future earning’s potential.

Victorian Bournemouth (170): support systems

Third parties

Single mothers having a humble background would have had little opportunity to bring up their child (or children). Some placed their child within a family network. Others used an unrelated support agency. The latter might take the form of actual adoption or temporary placement with a ‘baby farm’. Frederick, aged 3 appears, without his mother, living in Wyndham Road, adopted by James and Elizabeth Fowler, road labourer and nurse. They housed another adopted child, along with an unmarried laundress (28) having the same surname as this infant. In 1891, Frederick still lived with the old couple, joined by a different adopted child. Eliza, 3, lived as a ‘boarder’, with a childless working couple living in Malmesbury Park. Lily, 2, boarded with a chimney sweep and family, but, by 1891, she bears their surname. Perhaps these couples operated as virtual adoption agencies rather than baby farms.


Several examples illustrate how surviving illegitimate children spent their early lives protected within part of their mothers’ kinship networks. William, born 1875, appears later living with his widowed grandmother and an aunt. Ella, 3 in 1881, lived with an uncle, a bricklayer, and aunt in Boscombe. Elizabeth, born in 1879, appeared in 1891 living with an uncle and aunt in the Malmesbury Park estate. No evidence survives in the public documents to show the how such children lived with their relatives. Often, the mother has disappeared. Future contact will have depended on the mother’s circumstances, mindset, and her kinship network. Some families accept the thickness of blood over water, but this may not always have resulted in emotional proximity. Kinship cocoons promised but did not guarantee a happier upbringing for a child. Children adopted by third parties may have felt perhaps more wanted than those dwelling in the kinship nest.

Victorian Bournemouth (170): later life

Connection and recognition

A few examples show how, after an interim period, a single mother and her child have become reunited. Stewart, born in 1872/73, later reconnected with his mother. In 1891, he lived in Holdenhurst with his mother and a man she had married. Alfred, born 1875, by 1881 lived with his mother and stepfather. The household also contained two possible uncles of his. Nevertheless, Alfred retained her maiden name. This, therefore, perhaps indicates that his mother’s husband exhibited only a partial acceptance of the boy. In some cases, however, a single mother who later married may have hidden her child’s existence from her new husband. In one example, a single mother boarded her child with her parents. Soon, she married and moved away. Later, returning with a large family, she lived about twenty miles from her daughter, now an adult. It seems possible that little contact between the two occurred.

‘Normal’ lives

There remains the question as to the extent to which a child’s illegitimacy may have limited choice and opportunities later in life. Several, found in 1939, appear never to have married, some working in service or in manual labour. On the other hand, the census shows that others did marry and appeared to live ‘normal’ lives. They had jobs, children, and a habitation, sometimes traceable grandchildren. For example, Lily, the young boarder with a chimney sweep, married an army widower, having a child while living in Madras. After his death, she lived with an old aunt. This household also contained the aunt’s sister. Because of her Christian name and age, she could have qualified as Lily’s mother. After the illegitimate birth, this single mother appears to have lived with siblings throughout adulthood. Late in life, her well-travelled daughter and she perhaps reached a ‘normal’ life.


Victorian Bournemouth (170) has explored illegitimacy as recorded by the town’s local registers. Such children and their mothers would have received little welcome from society. Surviving evidence has permitted some genealogical analysis, sketching the later lives of both parties. It assessed support systems, kin and third-party, used by mothers for their children. In some cases, it found examples of children later becoming reintegrated with siblings and even their mothers. Some children appear to have lived an adult life involving marriage, their own children, and even grandchildren. Others did not.


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