Sunday 28 September 2014

A History of Working-Class Marriage

When I began tracing my family tree, I was surprised to discover the high rate of children born outside marriage, particularly in the Victorian era. I was also confused by the fact that many marriages didn’t take place in a church but in the manse or the bride's parent’s home. As I researched further it became clear that my view of how my Victorian ancestors lived was nowhere near the reality.
Our Traditional View of Family Life

Having now been researching for over ten years, and having looked into so many different families, a better picture has built up in my mind of what life was really like. There are still many questions, though, that I have not yet found an answer to. This is why I was delighted to hear that a team at Glasgow University have undertaken the project ‘A History of Working-Class Marriage’. The project looks across Scotland from 1855 to 1976. The results of this project will be useful and interesting to anybody tracing their Scottish family, which is why the Scottish Genealogy Network attended their workshop in Dumfries yesterday.

Poor Mary died in childbirth only two years
into her marriage. Death remains the main reason for
the end of a marriage.

The project

In the words of their website, “we want to get beyond public discourses and official policy to understand what people are actually thinking and experiencing of marriage and cohabitation; and how that experience relates to broader social and political understandings. To do this, we are asking for your help!" As a group of professional genealogists, the Scottish Genealogy Network took this on board and headed down to Dumfries to meet the team and hear a talk on the subject.

Specifics of the project

The team are gathering information throughout Scotland, and want to hear from you wherever you are. They are looking at different family forms: regular marriages, irregular marriages, marriage by declaration and marriage by habit and repute. They are interested in different cultural backgrounds. They are examining all types of families, not just families in their traditional form. The project is broken into the following sections: Life course of a marriage Love and courtship Expectations and experience of a marriage End of a marriage: divorce, death informal separation and divorce Parenting, influence of having children
William Beattie and Christina Scott Heatlie
on their wedding day
19 Febuary 1875

Findings so far

Dr Jeff Meek, a member of the team, has been looking at five diverse geographic areas of Scotland and has sampled 1000 families in each area for the census years 1861, 1881 and 1901. Looking at the samples in all all five areas across Scotland, the team has discovered that around 50% of families were traditional or nuclear families; parents and children. There are regional variations. An example is Perthshire, where in the 1881 census 43% of families we ‘traditional families’ and 33% were single parent families. I found it really interesting to learn that the statistic of 50% of families being traditional or nuclear families is much the same as it is today. In the 1960s and 1970s however, the figure was much higher. This perhaps explains why we may have preconceived ideas about the family structures of our ancestors.

Jim Maxwell and Isobel Sommerville
on their wedding day in 1941

The team needs your help

The team are now almost half way through their four year project and they really need your help. They are looking to hear from anyone with experience of family (that’s everyone) prior to 1976. This means that the baby boomers of the post war generation are perfect, and also anybody older than that. Even if, like me, you’re a little too young to give your experiences you can help by submitting ephemera. Do you have pre-1976 wedding photos, love letters and stories? If you’re not sure that what you have would be valuable to the team, why not contact them and let them decide? This is just a brief overview of what the team are doing, visit their website and follow them on twitter to learn more and follow their progress.

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