Dear Readers, let us take a moment to step away from the ChallengeAZ to look at a topic that we find most curious and well worthy of further study - by someone else.
A few years ago, we wrote a post entitled "Did English Women Take Advantage of Anonymous Birth Laws in France?" and we are now quite convinced that the answer to the question is an emphatic yes. We have seen repeated many more times since writing that post the pattern that we described there: a small child appears, seemingly out of nowhere, on a British census, living with his or her mother. The mother and the child may or may not have the same surname, but there is no father in the household. The UK census shows that the child was born in France, often "in Paris". A possible French marriage may or may not be mentioned. Yet, while the illegitimate birth at times may be found in French registers, a search for the marriage will be fruitless. The comment to that post, by Madame R. makes it clear that, in the last thirty years or so of the nineteenth century, the social stigma for a woman who had a child while not married would have been quite dreadful to endure. Those who could have afforded the voyage and stay, might have considered spending the confinement in France, where it would have been possible to register the child's birth either under a false name or completely anonymously.
We think this would make an interesting study. In our own research, we have noticed that rather a lot of such births happened at small clinics in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just to the west of Paris. It would be possible to comb through the birth register entries of Neuilly for, say, the last three decades of the nineteenth century, seeking all births for which the mother had an English-sounding name. One would want to look at how many were illegitimate births versus how many were legitimate. Then, one could note the addresses where the births took place and check those addresses in the census returns for those decades. Did a majority of the illegitimate births take place at the same clinic or with the same midwife? (A list of Neuilly's maternity clinics and midwives would have to be compiled.) Did some of the women show up in the Neuilly census returns with the children? Were they at the same addresses? Finding the women and children afterward in the UK census returns would be the next step. Were they concentrated in the same regions or cities?
Ultimately, the most interesting question to answer would be "How did they know to go to Neuilly?" Did the French clinics advertise in British newspapers? Would the UK census returns show that they lived near a specific doctor or midwife and could that doctor or midwife have advised them to go to France? We now have seen too many cases of this for it to have been coincidence. In some unknown, perhaps "underground", way women in the early stages of pregnancy in England were learning that they could go to a rather obscure suburb of Paris to have their child under a different name or giving no name at all, then return to England with the child to claim on the census there that it was her own, the product of a fictional French marriage, or a friend's, later to be adopted.
Any post graduates in gender studies and/or women's studies out there looking for a topic?
We have had this very interesting comment on the above from Madame L.:
"I imagine the topic of travel would have come up on the grapevine: that is in gossip between their mothers at some local event, like a church bazaar or a children's party, or perhaps through an intimate conversation with a school-friend. The other alternative for middle-class women, a 'nervous breakdown' in a distant private nursing home was so much more demeaning. I don't believe a respectable newspaper would have carried an overt advertisement, though the subject might have come up in a salacious gossip column, probably in the indirect code which English society uses and understands. Working-class women might stay with an aunt, but without a sympathetic relative or money, there was only the workhouse."
©2021 Anne Morddel