Widows and widowers

In the 1830s it was assumed that all women would wish to marry. In fact they had little alternative, unless they were independently wealthy. Very few women could earn enough to keep themselves decently housed and fed without some assistance, since women’s wages were very low – generally half those of men, even where the work was similar.  But marriage also brought real risks. For women the greatest risk was childbirth itself, and this was a risk they faced every two years on average.

Being left a widow with young children to support was also something to be feared, unless the husband was sufficiently prosperous to leave his wife well provided for. Most were not. Add the risk of emigration and the prospect of widowhood, far from friends and family, was a dire fate indeed. We know that this was the fate of Mrs Thompson, wife of the first mate on board the Lady Mary Pelham.

In 1836 there was no widow’s pension to fall back on. In fact there was no government assistance of any kind, with the exception of the workhouse, and this was the last resort of the absolutely destitute. In the workhouses mothers and children were often separated, or else the children were admitted and the woman was forced to work outside. Women went to great lengths to avoid the workhouse. Many widows subsisted on the meagre assistance of charity, but even this was generally only offered to women considered ‘deserving’ – usually defined as being well behaved and ‘respectable’.

Poor widows had no alternative but to work at whatever was offered – washing clothes, taking in needlework, or providing lodging to strangers, if they had room. Since there was no childcare, they could not work outside the home unless they could arrange for someone to mind their young children, and that could mean that the children were neglected. ‘Baby farming’ as it was called was one of the more unsavoury occupations of the nineteenth century.

If there were older children, they could be sent out to work and the family would pool all the wages. But often widows remarried as soon as they could, regardless of their feelings. It could be their only option.

Widowers did not face the immediate threat of poverty and starvation, but if they were left with young children, they did face the problem of child care. Often young children were farmed out to friends and relatives, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century. It was assumed that men could not look after young children, and in truth, they could not do so and work as well. If there was no family to act as a back up, men might be forced to place children in an orphanage, but often they would re-marry quite quickly, to provide the children with a substitute mother. For men too, emigration represented a risk, as family and friends were left far behind and the number of marriageable women was very limited, especially in the early days of settlement. We will encounter at least one widower in the course of these nine voyages.

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