Thursday, 27 October 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No. 10: Born in the coffin house, born in the street

Judging from the 'Unwed mothers single-handedly destroy the economy'-style articles of certain 21st century newspapers, one might be tempted to think of the debate around the moral and economic impacts of single motherhood as a uniquely modern social phenomenon. But in reading the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda, it soon becomes clear that this was also an issue of great importance in 16th and 17th century London. However, some things were decidedly different. Without the safety net of social welfare programmes, homeless, pregnant women often found themselves having to give birth in truly dreadful circumstances, as the following two christening notices make clear.
7 May Ano 1589
fol. 56r
Amy Hurtlye the baceborne Dawghter of Jhon Hurtlye a baker begotten of the body of Passcall Davis a widdowe Havinge no abydinge place but was Browght abed in Hogg lane neare the barres and lyeinge in chyldbed in the coffin Howse in the churche yeard whose Sayd chyld was cristned the vijth Daye of May anno 1589 beinge no parishioneres chyld

26 Octobris 1614
Elizabeth yarner, the Reputed daughter of one Thomas yarner a lewd fellow, the Mother named Agnes Charley, as Bae as the father, who was delivered of the same Child in the libertie of East smith smith in ye street, it was Christned the xxvith day of October, Anno domini 1614

You may have noticed the very different moral tones taken by our two Parish Clerks in documenting these births. Thomas Harrydaunce in 1589 restricts himself to a fairly neutral statement of the facts. And he later records that Pascal Davis – a homeless widow reduced to giving birth in the coffin house of St Botolphs, and whose infant daughter sadly died one week later - was 'churched' on 24th May. 'Churching' was the ritual welcoming of a woman back into the church after giving birth. Whether this ritual was primarily one of purification, or of thanksgiving for having survived the ordeal, is a matter of some dispute among historians, but the churching of Pascal showed that she was still welcome within St Botolphs, in spite of having a child out of wedlock, and in spite of being categorised as not having previously been a parishioner. From the tone of Parish Clerk John Clerke in 1614, however, it is likely that Agnes Charley – giving birth in the street, and described as being as base as her lewd partner Thomas – was not similarly welcomed, and indeed there is no indication in the Memorandum book that she was ever churched.

The PCMs record many births either to single mothers or to women who were married but “no parishioners” in which someone from the community would officially pledge to make sure that the child would not become a financial burden to the parish, or in the terminology of the day “to be kept harmles to the parish”. And there are recurring entries throughout the PCMs detailing the expenses paid by the church for the housing, feeding, and education of orphans. Most historians of illegitimacy in early modern England agree that the primary concern of church officials was the financial settlement of such children.(1) And indeed, punishment of unwed parents was largely unheard of for wealthy nobles. The notion of morality as involving not only the committing of sin, but also of the subsequent economic impact on the wider community, was deeply ingrained in early modern England’s secular and church laws. Interestingly, in the 16th century men and women tended to be punished roughly equally, being publicly whipped or spending time in the stocks as evidence of their immorality and thus serving as a cautionary tale for the rest of the community. But in 1609 imprisonment was introduced as a punishment for adultery – but only for women. Men were required to remain free to work and earn wages so that they could pay for the upkeep of their illegitimate children.(2) Women became the symbol of moral turpitude that had to be kept away from the rest of society. Could imprisonment have been the fate of Agnes Charley and her child? The PCMs appear to reflect a significant change in the attitudes of the church towards unmarried mothers between the 16th and 17th centuries.

Donna Baillie

1. Love, Lust and License in Early Modern England, Johanna Rickman (Ashgate, 2008).

2. Ibid.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;

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