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|
|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.