Victorian Bournemouth (171)

Victorian Bournemouth (171): single mothers (2)

Near but far


Victorian Bournemouth (171) follows the story of a single mother and her daughter through official sources. It finds a curious situation in 1911 when the census enumerator recorded the daughter’s relationships to other household members. Unravelling the story of mother and daughter provides scope to consider the effects that society’s reception of illegitimacy might have on the subsequent lives of its participants.

Victorian Bournemouth (171): murky connections

Shifting relationships

The enumerator found “Jane” (name changed) living in a rural settlement lying to the east of Christchurch. Then aged 34, unmarried, she may have lived there at least since 1881. The household contained two others. One, a single man, head of household, aged 50, who worked on the roads. The other, a spinster aged 24, worked as a house-parlour maid elsewhere. The enumerator recorded the two women’s relationships to the man: sister, visitor. Genealogical analysis provides earlier opportunities to see instances in “Jane’s” life. One, in 1901, creates interest. In that year, she lived in the company of the man, acting as housekeeper. The census listed their relationship, however, as uncle and niece. Beyond reasonable doubt, the two records refer to the same people. The immediate interest falls on how the same two people might report different kinship linkages in consecutive census listings. Perhaps a mistake has happened, perhaps not.

Mum’s subsequent journey

Genealogical exploration follows “Jane’s” mother later in life. Five years after “Jane’s” birth, her mother, still unmarried, became pregnant once more. She married in Bournemouth, her husband a gunner belonging to the Royal Horse Artillery. After the child’s birth in Bournemouth, the couple thereafter embarked on a nomadic life, accompanied by a growing family. They went to London (his earlier station), Dublin (his origin), Exeter, and then a return to settle in Springbourne by 1891. “Jane’s” mother lived for another twenty years, dying in 1911, a little before the Census for that year occurred. “Jane” did not accompany her mother on her nomadic journey. As early as 1881 (if not before) she had lived with her mother’s parents in the same village, perhaps the same house where the enumerator found her in 1911. She lived, therefore, not quite twenty miles to the east of her mother’s Springbourne home.

Victorian Bournemouth (171): clear connections

Uncle and two nieces

This fuller exploration of the family, using record linkage, prompts a return to the puzzling kinship connections reported for “Jane” with her male relative during 1901 and 1911. The census for 1881 shows that she had lived with this man even at that stage. Then, the census listed him as the son of “Jane’s” grandparents. This means that the census gave a correct description of her kinship relationship in 1901, but not in 1911. “Jane” and her male relative connected as uncle and niece. Following “Jane’s” mother has uncovered the identity of the house-parlour maid visiting “Jane” and her uncle in 1911. “Jane” and this woman shared the same mother, but not father. Thus, they connected to each other as half-sisters. Furthermore, in 1911, she had visited the household headed by a man now known as her uncle. So, the household consisted of an uncle and two nieces, half-sisters.

Insufficient reporting

A better refinement of questions becomes possible. In the first place, why did the census of 1901 and 1911 report different relationships between “Jane” and her elder male relative? In the second place, why did the 1911 census ignore the true relationship between the visitor and her two relatives? An immediate assumption would suggest a mistake in recording, perhaps by the enumerator, or perhaps in the subsequent back-office processing of data. Investigation suggests that the enumerator in 1911 had two occupations: a professor of music, a grocer. Thus, as the census organisation required, the man would have had both good literacy and numeracy. A recording mistake seems not plausible. Sometimes, the identity of visitors did ignore their relationship to the head of house, so this may have happened here. Another conclusion, however, would consist of the parties not reporting their relationship in full. 

Victorian Bournemouth (171): wider considerations

Who knew what?

They could have made an incorrect return for two reasons. Either they wanted their relationships to remain obscure, or, they may not have had perfect knowledge of them. It seems almost impossible for “Jane’s” uncle not to know that he had another niece in the visiting house-parlour maid. This would have required little if any communication between him and his sister over more than twenty years. Furthermore, what other reason than a family link would have drawn his younger niece to visit him? A more provoking question lies in the extent to which “Jane” realised she had a half-sister in the house-parlour maid. For this to apply, “Jane” would have had to have lived in ignorance of her mother’s life since 1881. Although implausible, it could have happened if the older family members had always wanted to protect her from knowledge that might have disturbed her. This introduces wider issues.

Secrets and lies

The wider issues lie in society’s attitudes and behaviour towards illegitimacy. As a rule, society outside the family rejected single mothers and their child. Financial reasons wrapped in moral packaging applied. In the nineteenth century, society allocated her child as the single mother’s task. Thus, ‘spinster mothers’ faced problems both to support their child and to withstand society’s (perhaps her family’s) disapproval. In some cases, this resulted in secrecy about relationships. Perhaps this mechanism lay behind the puzzle of 1911. The three may have had full knowledge, but wanted to hide it from an enumerator who could spread gossip. On the other hand, some secrecy within the family had persisted. Perhaps “Jane’s” mother’s husband had not wanted to acknowledge Jane for personal, religious (his Catholicism), or financial reasons. Furthermore, their mother not long passed, this census, in recording the first encounter between half-sisters may have ended the secrets and lies.


Victorian Bournemouth (171) has applied genealogical research to solving an apparent kinship puzzle found in a census return for 1911. This process has solved the possible conundrum but opened a wider question about the reason for its occurrence. A plausible answer lay in the moral judgement society could have placed on the single mother and her child. Preventing shunning and avoiding disdain could generate secrecy both outside and even inside a family. This moral judgement, therefore, might have a destructive impact on the future lives led by both mother and child.


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