The Statistics of Morality in Victorian Cumbria.



In 1865, moral standards in Cumbria were questioned. It had emerged from the analysis of census data, that rates of illegitimacy were higher in Westmorland and Cumberland than anywhere else in England. Remarkably, the most rural and remote parts of the counties had the highest levels of illegitimacy in the country: they were also parishes where the attendance rates at religious worship were amongst the county’s highest.

Rates of illegitimate births per 1000 live births, 1868

England and Wales 58
London 42
Cumberland 107
Westmorland 100
County Durham 51
Lancashire 57
Alston (Cumberland) 155
East Ward (Westmorland) 120


Was immorality a problem in nineteenth century Cumbria? George Moore, a Cumbrian living in Newcastle, thought so: he  started a campaign to deal with this ‘problem,’ by calling a meeting in Keswick and offering a ten pound prize for the best essay on how illegitimacy could be reduced, but his efforts were met with derision.  William Henry Wakefield, banker, landowner and magistrate of Westmorland, spoke at the Cumberland and Westmorland Agricultural Society in September 1865 to condemn the wrong and false impression that Cumbrians were immoral. His argument was that levels of prostitution in Cumbria were far lower than elsewhere. Prostitution was a ‘fearful evil,’ whereas illegitimacy was, he felt, a far less serious problem that was quite understandable in the context of the system of live-in farm servants that was so widespread in Cumbria.

Annual police returns, published every year in the Judicial Statistics, did show that the number of known prostitutes was significantly lower in Cumbria than the rest of England. However, these figures did not really show how much prostitution there was in any place, they merely reflected the attitudes of the police in each part of the kingdom. The Cumbrian police did not prioritise prostitution: they rarely arrested women for soliciting or indecency, but some of the women arrested for drunkenness and for larceny were obviously prostitutes. This debate on morality in nineteenth century Cumbria shows once again the shortcoming of statistics, which were so often the creation of a particular group (such as the police) and served to sustain the position and world view of their creators.

3 thoughts on “The Statistics of Morality in Victorian Cumbria.

  1. In the article on bastardy on the genealogy website it is suggested that the rise in illegitimacy in the late 18th century may have been linked to the rapid growth in the number of public houses. The author does not provide the evidence for this but it begs the question as to whether a similar correlation can be made with the statistics for 19th century Cumbria.

  2. Thanks, Vivienne, for your comment and the link. I am loathe to accept that the number of pubs and of illegitimate births were linked, cause and effect. I believe that it is more likely that both the number of pubs and the number of early courtships increased when wage-paying jobs for young people became more available in the early industrial revolution. Many social histories note that the age of marriage went down as wage-paying jobs became more common. In hard times, people did not take risks, but as confidence increased more babies were born to young mothers, and more of them were left in the lurch.

  3. Wakefield’s point that in rural areas like Cumbria the pattern of live-in farm servants contributed to illegitimacy is an interesting one. The records of Foundling Hospitals sometimes show that in urban areas girls living in as servants were also more vulnerable to being ‘left in the lurch’ as you put it. In both contexts it is possible that sexual power relationships left women more vulnerable at times. But as we can see from articles on bastardy in journals like Local Population Studies, most situations were more complex.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *