Working-class mothers were not brutal or negligent but saviours of infant life

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Melanie-Reynolds

A new book by an Oxford Brookes academic has challenged historians who cast nineteenth -century working-class women as the villains of infant life.

In her book Melanie Reynolds, author of Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care, 1850-1899, unlocks the hidden history of northern working-class child care and disputes the entrenched assumption that working mothers were to blame for the high infant mortality rate (IMR) where up to 249/1000 infants died per year in the northern industrial districts during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Melanie said: “There are deep-seated suspicions among historians that working-class mothers were incompetent and neglectful and that this was the prime cause of the high northern infant mortality rate.” 

“In fact, northern working-class mothers did care for their babies and they went to extraordinary lengths to do so. For what was their purpose of their full time work, if not to provide for and protect their families? As valued workers in brickyards, factories, salt works and agricultural fields industrial mothers used this value as leverage to adapt their work places into a far more domestic and infant friendly environments, than we have been led to believe - to ensure infant life.

“Workhouse nurses were equally as pro-active when caring for poor infants in the workhouse. Unlike the infamous drunken and incompetent Sarah Gamp northern workhouse nurses worked in tandem with medical doctors and as usually mothers themselves, demonstrated a strong positive work ethic capable of excellent nursery skill.   

There are deep-seated suspicions among historians that working-class mothers were incompetent and neglectful and that this was the prime cause of the high northern infant mortality rate. In fact, northern working-class mothers did care for their babies and they went to extraordinary lengths to do so.

Dr Melanie Reynolds, Associate Lecturer, Oxford Brookes University

“Lancashire day carers were, contrary to the murderous baby-farmer stereotype propagated in the nineteenth century, ‘identified as reliable and responsible’ and northern infants benefitted from the kindness given to them by neighbourly day-carers.“

What led to infant death for example, was the penny pinching factory owners who refused to invest in improving the factory conditions and incorrect medical knowledge. Nineteenth century workhouse doctors were obligated to provide ‘up to date’ medical care to infants in the workhouse, but how accurate was their medical knowledge? Was it defined by excellence, or flawed and built on a class bias which defined working-class mothers ill equipped to feed their infants, the remedy of which rendered them ill - in turn increasing the high northern IMR? 

The book uses research from a new and wide range of source material, which includes medical and poor law history to show how working-class mothers saved infant life. Infant Mortality and Working-Class Child Care, 1850-1899 is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Melanie Reynolds is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University.