One peculiarity of Victorian England is the rather very high number of illegitimate births and premarital conceptions relative to the periods before it. Illegitimate births and premarital conceptions reached their highest recorded level during Victorian times, as around 1650, less than 1% of all births were illegitimate and only 16% were premaritally conceived. In sharp contrast, in 1852, 6.8% of all births were illegitimate and over 40% were premaritally conceived. In certain areas in the United Kingdom, however, the percentages were even higher. In Eastern Scotland, over 60% of all births were premaritally conceived. Many rural areas in England also similar percentages.

Wrigley in his history on English populations has estimated through reconstitutions that for the period 1800-1837, about 37.6% of all 'first' births were premaritally conceived. He however points out that about a quarter of all 'first' births were illegitimate, implying the majority of first births occurred in a premarital context. I do not quite understand this, since only 6.8% of 'all' births were illegitimate, how can around 20-25% 'first' births be illegitimate?

Furthermore, in Michael Anderson's article on the social implications of demographic change for this period, he points out similarly to Wrigley that "an estimated 20 percent of first births were illegitimate and over half of all first births were probably conceived outside marriage".

Is there any more detailed data available about this? We have much information about premaritally conceived 'first' births for the 1500s onwards but less so about 'first' births that were illegitimate. For example, is there any source which points out what percentage of such births were illegitimate in the 1850s or the 1830s and can present some statistical continuity or change? So far, we have only the '20 percent' figure available. It would be helpful for anything more detailed to be obtained on this matter.

  • Women probably got married after their first child was born. All subsequent births would be legitimate. May 10, 2019 at 21:55
  • As for Wrigley, the methodology used there is described in Steven Ruggles' review paper The limitations of English family reconstitution: English population history from family reconstitution 1580–1837. It was based on a (small) sample of parish registers transcribed by volunteers. Those volunteers also extracted the linked family information. How representative that data was of the wider population remains an open question. May 10, 2019 at 21:57
  • @sempaiscuba: Wrigley, as far as I am aware, was the most recent scholar to consider and attempt to calculate the rates through the data that he had available to him. Many others had already calculated premarital conceptions through other data such as Laslett, Shorter, Hair and several others who examined rural places. If anything, Wrigley's 37.6% mark is probably lower than the national average, as Wrigley is the only one who gives a rate lower than 40%, whereas the authors I mentioned and several others gave rates of higher than 40%, some others give over 55%.
    – Jasmus
    May 10, 2019 at 22:01
  • What I am saying is that prenuptial conceptions relating to 'first' births has been rigorously examined for England in the 19th century and study and study makes it clear that 35-40% of all 'first' births were conceived premaritally. However, what is not clear is how many 'first' births were "illegitimate". The 20% figure is often quoted but I am not sure on what basis. I am looking for any source which examines this in more detail.
    – Jasmus
    May 10, 2019 at 22:05
  • Yep, Ruggles' criticisms could apply equally to all of these estimates too. My point is that, despite the published studies, we do not have an estimate which we can consider to be representative. May 10, 2019 at 22:06


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