Mothers day: Looking back to the past

6th March 2016

By Emma Johnson

It’s the 6th March- mother’s day! Today is a day that lots of mothers will receive cards, flowers or other gifts, deservedly so, from their children to let them know how much they appreciate them and all that they do.

But if we look back to the past, historically, women have not had an easy time; and mothers in particular have had to endure many hardships. It wasn’t until the Victorian period and acts such as the Child Custody Act of 1839 that allowed divorced women, who were proven innocent of adultery, to have custody of their children under 7 years old.

If we look back a little further to the 17th century, parishes were responsible for administering relief to the deserving poor in their parish. This also meant that a lot of time was taken up trying to prove if a pauper actually belonged to that parish, or if another parish was responsible for them. In 1662, the Law of Settlement was introduced- if you could not prove that you were born in said parish, or had rented property, paid the poor rate or were undertaking an apprenticeship, you were liable to be removed from that parish. Parishes were also responsible for the maintenance of single mothers and their illegitimate children. A lot of time was spent trying to establish who the fathers were and to get them to take responsibility for the mother and child.

As a result of Parish responsibility for the poor and the documentation that this produced, the East Sussex Record Office holds many records that show the hardships that many mothers had to face.

Here is the examination of Sarah Poole:

The examination of Sarah Poole of the parish of Wadhurst widdow of Thomas Poole deceased touching her being begotten with child of a bastard child taken upon oath before Henry May Esq one of her majesties justices of the peace the 28 day of October 1708-

Sayth that on Saturday the day of April last she was travilling in the high way between wadhurst town and frant a person unknown to her being a large tall man with black haire over tooke her on the road and intised her into a plot of bushes and there had carnal knowledge of the body of her the said Sarah Poole and that noe other person whatsoever had carnal knowledge of the body of the said Sarah since the death of her deceased husband which happened about 10- years part.

The examination of Sarah Poole

As this case demonstrates, not only did Sarah have to go through this ordeal, intimate details about her life were then openly discussed and preserved in writing. However, this does allow us to see what life was truly like for some mothers.

If you’re are interested in finding out more about the poor people of East Sussex and hearing their stories which are preserved in our archives, County Archivist Elizabeth Hughes is running a workshop on ‘Being Poor in East Sussex 1600-1834’ on the 23rd April. Click here for more information.