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The Patriarchs And The Softies

By Harald Breiding-Buss

“During the process of writing this book, all my preconceptions about fathers and fathering have been overturned” begins Adrienne Burgess’s book “Fatherhood Reclaimed”.

Like few other people she has investigated the myths and tales that have surrounded fatherhood over the centuries and compared them with present day fatherhood. What she uncovered may come as a surprise to many, who believe that fathers only started caring about – and for – children very recently.

The picture we have today especially of Victorian fathers may be distorted, because historians relied on public documents: visual arts, advice literature or religious sermons. But such material is no more representative of what parents actually did in those days than TV ads would be of people’s actual lives today.

A group of Cambridge-based demographers took a different approach: Assisted by an army of volunteers across the United Kingdom they began to collect personal data from diaries, autobiographies and letters, stored at parishes and other places and documenting the lives of thousands of ordinary people back to the 16th century.

They revealed a picture very different to the staunch disciplinarians Victorian fathers were thought to be. While early historians did use diaries as well, they were very selective in their use of them. When Ralph Josselin, a 17th Century vicar, recorded the death of his son in a matter-of-fact way, this was cited as evidence that 17th century fathers didn’t care.

What the historians omitted were several pages from the same diary where the vicar recorded his deep grief!

Even aristocratic fathers, thought to be the most emotionally distant of all, showed deep love and affection for their children: Philippe II of France wrote no less than 34 loving letters to his two teenage daughters while away on a sea voyage.

And Sir Thomas More wrote in 1517: “it is not so strange that i love you with my whole heart, for being a father is not a tie which can be ignored. Nature in her wisdom has attached the parent to the child and bound them together with a Herculean knot.”

There was no indication in the diaries that these fathers thought their feelings or their attention was unusual or inappropriate. To the contrary: while their writing style was formal, they seems actually less inhibited to express their emotions physically than today’s fathers.

Many reported to have cried easily.

The fathers of those days shared similar worries with today’s fathers: a teenage son going off the rails, or if a very sick child will ever get better. And like today, many fathers of the past resolved to be better fathers then their own. Fathers grieved as much about the death of a daughter as of a son.

“On going into the library the window looks into the little garden in which i have so many times seen her happy. O gracious and merciful God! Pardon me for allowing any earthly object thus to engross my feelings and overpower my whole soul!…I [have] buried her in my pew, fixing the coffin so that when i kneel it will be between her head and her dear heart … that when the great author of my existence may please to take me i may join my child…”
(Arthur Young, 1797. He never recovered from his 14 year old daughters death.)

Before industrialisation, fathers – and mothers – were more available from their children from day-to-day. In there homes there was no separation between working, eating or sleeping space.

And Burgess believed that architectural evidence speaks against the idea that even upper class children were brought up in nurseries separate from their parents. In those days a father’s work dependent very much on weather and season.

At harvest time, both men and women and children worked long hours in the field. When there was no field work to be done, men and women worked around the yard.

Childrearing may have been a much more shared activity that it is today, and burgess thinks that attachment to the mother, or mother figure, may not have been the universal pattern that it is today. However, there were also fathers who worked many months away from the family.

Neither is the nuclear family a modern invention. Between the 16th and the 19th centuries the nuclear family was probably the normal family structure. There were simply few grandparents around: people died young in those days.

Older children in their teens usually moved away to where they found work. Communal or family support networks of women were probably less common than today, believes Burgess. Women, like men, contributed to the family’s economic outcome – when they were away, dad was looking after the children.

A survey of living conditions in the Midlands and North of England reports that men were “taking care of the house and children and busily engaged in washing, baking, nursing, and preparing the humble repast for the wife, who is wearing her life away toiling in the factory”.

Single fathers were a lot more common in those days then they are now. In pre industrial Britain, about one in three marriages ended prematurely through either death or separation. Before 1839 custody was automatically given to the father.

This meant that throughout the 17th and 18th century about a quarter of all single parents were fathers.

Today in New Zealand the figure is 18% – and considered high. In England a mere 2% of single parents are fathers.

One in three of the pre-industrial single dads had no live-in support. The idea that fathers simply delegated the task of child raising to another woman is another myth. And the patriarchs had a harder job than today: according to statistics from Stoke-on-Trent from 1701, 30% of mothers were older than fathers.

Throughout history mothers have complained that their partners are too soft, and some fathers have refused to act as a policeman on demand.

Burgess believes that full-scale beatings have probably been as rare as today. Instead, the discussion about corporal punishment was as lively as today.

“I was teached blindly to obey,
without consulting either my
feelings or my senses. … All this may
be intended for the best and
term’d good education, but I shall
ever insist, that nothing can be
worse than never to consult a
child’s motives or desires which not
only makes them miserable, but ten
to one must end in making them
bad men. ” (John Stedman, 1744-97)

Burgess points out that the absence of the Victorian “paterfamilia” from the works of the great authors of the time is curious if this type of fatherhood was so widespread as is claimed by many.

Instead, the researchers stumbled across many examples of compassionate and anti-authoritarian fathers, such as this son of a paper-works manager in the late 19th century:

“My father was naturally kind and compassionate … Nearly all his evenings were given either to helping us with our lessons or amusing us in several ways … Long before jigsaw puzzles were available he cut cardboard into geometrical shapes and sizes and colours them for us to put together. He drew and cut out cardboard figures to stand up … Sometimes he would read suitable passages from Dickens and reputable authors.”

Many fathers also had much less control over the future of their children than today’s dads: 17th century fathers did not expect their sons to follow in their footsteps – a situation that had only changed two hundred years later. Instead, children were encouraged to go into different trades to “spread the risk” – which also means reduced control for the parents.

Fathers probably did take an active part in their children’s education. According to Burgess there is no indication that they believed a girl’s education is unimportant.

A father’s literacy level was predictive of a child’s academic achievement, but literate mothers often had illiterate children. Today the opposite is true.

Things began to change in the early 19th, but definitely by the early 20th century. But in 1850 still only 5% of jobs were factory jobs, where often horrific conditions of child labour became more common. At the same time parents started to use more physical punishment on their children.

But most fathers still worked close to home or at home, and it is during the period of industrialisation, sons started to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Industrialisation was not an easy transition for families. First generation factory workers must have been quite a headache to the employers. They wandered about, chatted to workmates, stretched out their midday break to two hours, took Mondays off when they liked and saw it as their right to attend a wide array of holiday festivals.

Men seem to have been used to interruption from the time when they still worked at home -interruption partly by their children. The separation between work and leisure time, and the transition from multi-tasking to single-tasking for men had begun.

Not before the early 20th century was father absence a common feature in diaries and personal records. Now the journey to work became longer and they had to work longer hours. Men’s leisure time became separated from the home.

In-house education virtually stopped. Burgess believes that only during this relatively brief period in history, which lasts until today, for the first time a significant number of fathers had lost the emotional connection with their children.

Early this century social historian Trevor Lummey conducted what was probably one of the first social fatherhood studies of the word to find out the true nature of the father-child relationship. To this end he interviewed 60 people of an East Anglian fishing community.

The study challenges the image of the bullying, drunken working-class father which has begun to take hold in the public perception. Instead, 38% of men regularly undertook domestic work and childcare. Only two refused out of principle. Lummy found little corporal punishment, and when it was applied, it was by mothers – and then most often by those whose husbands were away for long periods of time.

This pattern still holds up in modern society: physical child abuse is most common in single mother households. Lummy’s study also revealed a problem social researchers have been baffling with until today: underreporting of the amount and type of father involvement.

One participant, for example, categorically denied that his father did anything around the house, but later it turned out that this father would feed the horses first thing in the morning, light the fire, cook breakfast and make the tea before waking his wife…

Burgess is under no illusion hat the abusive, violent disciplinarian did – and does – exist, but she believes he is and has always been an exception. The bond between men and children has only been severed very recently, and today’s fathers are beginning to rediscover it and to readjust their priorities.

Next: Sharing The Parents

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