Historian Joanne Bailey discovers she has to revise her views on men who abandoned their families

Historians in the News
tags: womens history

About four years ago I was chastened by a student’s module evaluation. S/he was positive about my teaching, but noted that I had made a dismissive comment about men. As a historian of masculinity, I’m hardly anti-men, so I interrogated my memory and eventually realised s/he was referring to a session on marital desertion in the long eighteenth century. I had outlined the research (some of it my own) to the seminar group and in a throwaway comment said I despised these men who had abandoned their families in time of need.

Over time, I have come to think that my disparaging remark was not just something to avoid in the classroom, but represented a shortcoming of my research. I am happy with most of the conclusions I drew in my PhD research that became my first book Unquiet Lives, but there is one area that I now see as flawed. Interestingly, the problem is linked to my unquestioning preconceptions about marital desertion: that when the going got tough, men got going.

Okay, I wasn’t the only one to start from this viewpoint. For, example, it was thought that many of the husbands who deserted their wives and families used the army as an escape mechanism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This certainly fitted with the stereotype of the soldier of the Napoleonic wars as the ‘scum of the earth’. In 1813 the Duke of Wellington even commented: ‘I have often been induced to attribute the frequency and enormity of the crimes committed by the soldiers to our having so many who must have left their families to starve for the inducement of a few guineas to get drunk’.[1]

Yet, as Jennine Hurl-Eamon reveals in her recent fascinating article, ‘Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert Their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London’ this stereotype does not stand up to inspection. In fact, she demonstrates, poor men who left their families to join the army or militia often did so as a survival strategy and not to escape their obligations. In the army they at least had a stable income and wives could seek poor relief.

Jennine’s work makes me realise that it is not safe to assume that all the women who sought relief from the parish for themselves and their families due to their husbands’ absence had been abandoned. So I looked again at my chapter which deals with husbands who deserted their wives. It struck me that I had evidence which did not necessarily fit exactly into the story I was telling.

In my conventional story, men left families because the strain of supporting them became too much. Deserted families had similar characteristics, after all; spouses were in their early thirties and had several young children, typically aged five years and under. This point in the family’s life-course was when the full burden of provisioning fell upon the husband because his wife was unable to work, due to the demands of caring for small children, and the children were too young to contribute to the household’s income.

This correlates with the fact that ‘desertion’ was more widespread during periods of economic difficulties. My examples from counties in the north-east and south-east of England certainly peaked in the decades of the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s; a time of harvest failures, rises in food prices which outstripped wage rates, and disruption to trades caused by warfare and demobilisation.

I did note that the deserted families shared characteristics of pauper families who used deliberate strategies to improve their chances of survival, citing  Jeremy Boulton’s findings that poor families would split up with children boarded out and husbands leaving to take paid labour.[2] But I didn’t take it much further than that. Jennine’s article helps me re-see the material I collected and used – and that my preconceptions may have directed me down a narrow path. It is time to revisit the question of husbands leaving their wives and families. ...

Read entire article at Joanne Bailey Blog

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