Family Life

Throughout the nineteenth century, churches, the State and the respectable classes promoted marriage, family life, legitimacy and social stability. That was a struggle in a working class community with a high proportion of sailors and many insecure jobs. It was not a compelling prospect: cottages were cheaply built and badly serviced: wives had to rely on their husbands’ income: they and their numerous children bore the brunt of strike action, lockouts and recurrent unemployment.

Husbands’ jobs were exhausting, and they rarely helped in the relentless domestic tasks of shopping, cooking, child-minding, laundry and cleaning grimy homes. They socialised in pubs, or gambled, always with other men – their wives resented both. Yet family life predominated, even when it was threatened by unemployment and eviction in the twentieth century.

Happy families not only resemble each other: they also escape attention. Newspapers reported the tragic effects of family breakdown, but most families stuck together. How was this possible? Church social events were managed by women: this is where wives found friendship, support, and sober pleasures. This is perhaps the network that made family life tolerable, and often rewarding.

Less formal lifestyles emerged in the 1960s, especially in squats which hosted (to quote Bill Burton) “free sex and mung beans”. Although the squatters moved on, Victorian values were not restored: marriage, family life and legitimacy are now optional, and employment stability a distant memory.