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Wealth, poverty, and childbirth in Victorian Britain

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What was it like to give birth in Victorian Britain? Much depended, of course, on individual circumstances: health, wealth, social – including marital – status, and access to medical care.

For the Queen for whom the period is named, childbirth was a painful, in some respects unwelcome, experience (despite the need to produce an heir) – and one which she endured nine times. Victoria, it is fair to say, was not enamoured of the physical aspects of motherhood: pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. She employed wet nurses to feed her children, rather than nurse them herself, and no doubt would have preferred it if others could have carried and delivered her children as well, if only that had been a possibility.

She was disappointed to fall pregnant soon after her marriage to Albert in 1840, as she recalled many years later in a letter to her first-born child:

‘If I had had a year of happy enjoyment with dear Papa’, she wrote, ‘how thankful I should have been! But […] I was in for it at once – and furious I was’.

Like so many women of the time, she had little control over when and how often she fell pregnant. She was, though, attended in childbirth by the most respected doctors of the age, as well as by a multitude of servants. In her journals, Victoria comments on the pain she endured during childbirth, but during the births of her last two children, she was administered chloroform, which provided some relief.

For Victoria’s poorer subjects, multiple childbirths were also often unwelcome, each child an additional burden on limited family finances at a time when state support was extremely limited. Poverty was frequently a contributing factor to poor maternal health, which in turn could lead to more complicated deliveries, with poorer outcomes for both mother and child. Rickets, for example – a disease associated with poor diet and lack of sunlight – could deform the skeleton and make it difficult (sometimes impossible) for women to deliver live infants. Medical care, in the days before the NHS, could be expensive, and thus for some women largely inaccessible.

The pain relief to which Victoria eventually had access was typically not an option for poorer women. Women living in poverty – in slum housing or workhouses – were often forced to give birth in unsanitary conditions, and sometimes afforded little opportunity to recover before domestic and/or paid labour had to be resumed. The social inequality which marked the Victorian period was as evident in the birthing room as anywhere else.

The history of childbirth in nineteenth-century Britain, then, reveals much about the social history of the age, and offers a window into the everyday lived experiences of Victorian mothers.

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