Monday 11 March 2013

Fearless Females - childbearing in the 18th century

Last year I discovered a reprinted booklet on Amazon entitled "A Short Account of the Death of Mrs Mary Hutton, of Sunderland, Who Died Feb. 24, 1777" - at only 22 pages long it seemed a bit expensive, even the cheapest Amazon Marketplace discounted copy was over £7.  I had to wait to buy it until I had some Christmas money from my mum. 

Mary's story seems an appropriate one to write about in Women's Month, she wasn't anyone in particular, but her experience was probably very similar to thousands of other women in the days before birth control and modern medicines.

Mary is my 5x great grandmother.  Born Mary Rawling in around 1745, she marries Robert Hutton in 1768 when she would have been about 23 years old.  I knew she had died before 1780 because Robert marries again that year.  The family used the Holy Trinity church in Sunderland at this time.  I have looked at the registers for this church on at least one of my visits to Durham County Record office, but some of the records I mention below were found on Durham Records Online and I have not yet obtained copies of the original entries.

Holy Trinity church, Sunderland - from an old postcard
The burial register of the Holy Trinity church, Sunderland contains the following entry, so it seemed a fair guess that the booklet was about my Mary.

1777 26th Febry Mary wife of Robert Hutton

Written by a local clergyman, Joseph Benson, the booklet describes the premature end of Mary's life and goes into a lot of detail concerning how her religion helped her come to terms with it.  In the preface he says that it is an account originally intended to be read at her funeral.  However it does contain gems of both genealogical and social information.
Snips from "A short account ..." by Joseph Benson
In the first snip I have included above, indicated as item 2 in the book, it notes that she had her first child five years previously, which would be around 1772, so not straight after her marriage.  This entry in the Holy Trinity records appears to fit.

15 Sept 1772 Robert son of Robert and Mary Hutton born Febry 11th

By this time Mary was 27 years old.  She fell very ill after the birth of this child and "her recovery was almost despaired of".  This may have been the result of a childbed fever of some kind or of heavy bleeding during childbirth.  These were the days before antiseptics and disinfectants, and around 5% of women died in childbirth.  Her long illness may account for the eight months between Robert's birth and his baptism.  Her mother is mentioned in the snip, so we can imagine her caring for her daughter and maybe helping to look after baby Robert. 

The third snip, indicated as item 4, notes that two of her children died before she did, leaving one survivor, so she had two more children.  I have found one more relevant baptism at Holy Trinity, thanks to Durham Records Online.

15 Sep 1773 Thomas Hutton, born 21-Jun 1773, son of Robert & Mary Hutton
Thomas's conception appears to coincide with Mary's return to health in September 1772.  There is a burial record for this child in 1776 making him 2 years 9 months old when he died.   
14 Mar 1776 Thomas Hutton, son of Robert & Mary Hutton

 Although Thomas was younger than Robert his death appears to fit the description of being "torn from his mother's bleeding heart last year at this time", which death the clergyman ascribes to Mary's eldest child.  Joseph Benson is writing on the 14th March 1777 and the Thomas's death was in March 1776.  Robert, who was the eldest, as far as I know, does not die as a child - he can't have done for he is my 4x great grandfather!

For "the youngest died in August last", I propose the following burial at Holy Trinity. 

7 Aug 1776 James Hutton, son of Robert & Mary Hutton

I can't find a baptism for James, so we can only estimate how old he was when he died.  He must have been born at least 9 months after Thomas's birth, so from March 1774 onwards.  Therefore he can't have been more than 2 years 5 months old and probably less.

Joseph Benson states, in the item marked 3,  that Mary "began to relapse into her former bad state of health" two years before her death, so around February 1775.  She may have given birth to three children in less than three years, I'm not surprised she wasn't well.  Even if James wasn't born until 1775 or 1776 this would still be three pregnancies in four years and having her third child as she began to relapse would not have helped.  Imagine how dreadful the loss of two of her children so closely following one after another in March and August 1776 must have been to a woman already feeling ill.

At the time of her death Mary is described as "a poor weak and frail creature, emaciated by sickness, racked with pain, and assaulted by the powers of darkness".  In item 3 it suggests that her "disorder increased continually, with but few promising intervals", so fairly bad, but the fact that Joseph mentions "promising intervals" at all means there were some good days.  He appears to have visited her at increasingly frequent intervals for the last few weeks of her life, read to her and sometimes sang hymns with her.

Holy Trinty church still stands, although the houses around about have been cleared
Remember that Joseph Benson wrote the little booklet that I found to celebrate the way that Mary dealt with her impending death - tellingly she says "I see nothing here worth living for", and he notes "the serenity, joy and glory on her smiling contenance" as she tells him how much she is looking forward to being with Jesus.  She goes on to mention a Methodist love feast "September last" which she greatly enjoyed.  This would have been not long after the death of her son James, I imagine she would have been hunting for something, anything to give her hope after losing two children within six months.  At the very start of the booklet Joseph Benson mentions that "twelve years ago she joined the society", which together with the lovefeast reference suggests that Mary was an established non-conformist.
Mary died when she was 32 years old after months of illness.  I'm glad she did find some comfort - but I will always wonder what she died of, maybe one of the most common progressive diseases of the time, consumption or maybe she was just worn out with childbirth and the grief of losing her children.

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