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Love, Religion and Power in the Making of Marriages in Early Nineteenth-Century Rural Industrial Lancashire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2010

Department of History, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK Email:


This article addresses the relative dearth of work on courtship and marriage motivations for early nineteenth-century England. Focusing on rural-industrial Lancashire, the article draws on a rare conjunction of sources: an autobiography, a series of love-letters and letters from friends, relating to the nascent textile entrepreneur David Whitehead and his intended wife Betty Wood. Triangulating these sources suggests that some of the seemingly dominant influences on courtship and marriage seen in other studies, such as the economic status of partners, family and kin, had little part in this drama. Rather, issues of love, destiny and, above all, religious suitability dictated the pace, content and outcome of the courtship process. Against this backdrop, it was Betty Wood, rather than David Whitehead, who held the levers of power in the courtship. The article also explores other aspects of courtship, most especially the relationship between courtship intensity/fragility and the spatial dynamics of the marriage market.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1. For an overview see the exchange between Gillis, John, Wall, Richard and King, Steven in International Review of Social History, 44 (1999), 2376CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wrigley, Tony, Davies, Ros, Oeppen, Jim and Schofield, Roger, English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Richard, ‘Marriage Processes in the Past: Some Continuities’, in Bonfield, Lloyd, Smith, Richard and Wrightson, Keith, eds, The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure (Oxford, 1986), pp. 4399Google Scholar.

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3. See for instance Gillis, John, A World of their own Making: A History of Myth and Ritual in Family Life (Oxford, 1997)Google Scholar, but note also the way that Gillis intermelds statistical and cultural approaches in For Better, For Worse: British Marriages 1600 to the Present (Oxford, 1985). For an excellent critique of recent cultural approaches, see Probert, Rebecca, Marriage, Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (Cambridge, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. Frost, Ginger, Promises Broken: Courtship, Gender and Class in Victorian England (Charlottesville, 1995)Google Scholar.

5. Bailey, Joanne, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England 1660–1800 (Cambridge, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. O'Hara, Diana, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester, 2000)Google Scholar, p. 3 argues that: ‘love was linked indissolubly to questions of family credit, economic worth, and the successful handling of both courtship situations and the sensitive negotiations that accompanied them’. See also Frances, Catherine, ‘Making Marriages in Early Modern England: Rethinking the Role of Family and Friends’, in Ågren, Maria and Erickson, Amy Louise, eds, The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain, 1400–1900 (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 3956Google Scholar. On the slim survival of letters and diaries, see Amy Erickson, ‘The Marital Economy in Comparative Perspective’, in Ågren and Erickson, The Marital Economy, pp. 3–22, p. 14.

7. Tadmor, Naomi, Family and Friends in Eighteenth Century England: Family, Friends and Patronage (Cambridge, 2000)Google Scholar; Flint, Christopher, Family Fictions: Narrative and Domestic Relations in Britain 1688–1798 (Stanford, 1998), pp. 12 and 38Google Scholar. For a critique of these approaches, see Hurl-Eamon, Jennine, ‘Insights into Plebian Marriages: Soldiers, Sailors and their Wives in the Old Bailey Proceedings’, London Journal, 30 (2005), 2238CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also Green, Katherine, The Courtship Novel, 1740–1820: A Feminized Genre (Lexington, 1991)Google Scholar.

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9. Although see Stephens, Isaac, ‘The Courtship and Singlehood of Elizabeth Isham, 1630–1634’, Historical Journal, 51 (2008), 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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11. Hajnal, John, ‘European Marriage Patterns in Perspective’, in Glass, David and Eversley, David, eds, Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography (London, 1965), pp. 101–43Google Scholar, and Hajnal, John, ‘Two Kinds of Pre-Industrial Household Formation Systems’, Population and Development Review, 8 (1982), 449–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For excellent reinterpretations, see contributions to Theo Engelen and Arthur Wolf, eds, Marriage and the Family in Eurasia: Perspectives on the Hajnal Hypothesis (Amsterdam, 2005), pp. 37–48 and 73–103.

12. For an important empirical discussion of this point, see Richard Wall, ‘Real Property, Marriage and Children: The Evidence from Four Pre-Industrial Communities’, in Richard Smith, ed., Land, Kinship and Life Cycle (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 443–79, and Lloyd Bonfield, ‘Normative Rules and Property Transmission: Reflections on the Links between Marriage and Inheritance in Early Modern England’, in Bonfield et al., The World, pp. 155–76.

13. For a discussion see Cressy, David, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fletcher, Anthony, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500–1800 (New Haven, 1995)Google Scholar; Hill, Bridget, ‘The Case of the Marriage of Elizabeth Montague: An Ambitious and Talented Woman without Means’, Journal of Family History, 26 (2001), 317CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frances, ‘Making Marriages’, p. 40; Gillis, A World, p. 135. For a forceful repudiation of the role of love in eighteenth-century courtships, see Eustace, Nicole, ‘The Cornerstone of a Copious Work: Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship’, Journal of Social History, 34 (2001), 517–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar,

14. Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘Marriage Strategies and Strategies of Social Reproduction’, in Forster, Robert and Ranum, Orest, eds, Family and Society (Baltimore, 1976), p. 141Google Scholar.

15. Ehmer, Josef, ‘Marriage’, in Kertzer, David and Barbagli, Marizio, eds, Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789–1913 (New Haven, 2002), p. 304Google Scholar. See also on the ‘right’ age to marry Jürgen Schlumbohm, ‘Micro-History and the Models of the European Demographic System in Pre-Industrial Times: Life Course Patterns in the Parish of Belm (Northwest Germany), Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries’, History of the Family, 1 (1996), 81–95, 190.

16. O'Hara, Courtship and Constraint, pp. 37–8.

17. Rushton, Peter, ‘Property, Power, and Family Networks: The Problem of Disputed Marriage in Early Modern England’, Journal of Family History, 11 (1986), 205–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18. Frost, Promises Broken, p. 75.

19. Frances's claim in ‘Making Marriages’, p. 42 that women were empowered because the ultimate decision on a match could be passed over to kin is contradicted by Hill, Bridget, Women, Work and Sexual Politics in 18th Century England (London, 1993), p. 179Google Scholar.

20. Antoinette Chamoux, Fauve, ‘Marriage, Widowhood, Divorce’, in Kertzer, David and Barbagli, Marizio, eds, Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500–1789 (New Haven, 2001), p. 224Google Scholar.

21. Frost, Promises Broken, p. 62.

22. The Whitehead Collection, which includes the autobiography and letters described here but also business and personal correspondence covering the duration of David's life, publications on the Whithead business, business cards, samples of cloth, periodic diaries and an extensive collection of Methodist ephemera, was originally split between two institutions (the Local Studies Library and Rossendale Museum) in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. All sources mentioned in this article were consulted and transcribed in these locations in the period 1994 to 1996. Subsequently parts of the collection have been moved to the Lancashire Record Office and David Whitehead's autobiography has been transcribed, Stanley Chapman, ed., The Autobiography of David Whitehead of Rawtenstall (1790–1865), Cotton Spinner and Merchant (Helmshore, 2001). All references are to this excellent edition. The original is written in bold hand with numerous deleted words or phrases and superscript additions. Whitehead crossed through some one hundred passages and moved them to different, often distant, pages, suggesting that he was trying to achieve some sort of chronological ordering.

23. Rose, Mary, Firms, Networks and Business Values: The British and American Cotton Industries since 1750 (Cambridge, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24. Honeyman, Katrina, Child Workers in England 1780–1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force (Aldershot, 2007)Google Scholar.

25. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 25.

26. Ibid., p. 19. Literacy was ‘at once a personal and a collective possession’ for David Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914 (Cambridge, 1989), p. 49.

27. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 41.

28. Ibid., p. 44.

29. A transcript of the will is held at Rawtenstall Library.

30. Chapman, Stanley, ‘The Innovating Entrepreneurs in the British Ready-Made Clothing Industry’, Textile History, 24 (1993), 525CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 203.

32. See Burnett, John, Vincent, David and Mayall, David, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography (Brighton, 1984)Google Scholar; Vincent, David, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (London, 1981)Google Scholar.

33. Hopkin, David, ‘Storytelling, Fairytales and Autobiography: Some Observations on Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century French Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memoirs’, Social History, 29 (2004), p. 198CrossRefGoogle Scholar, refers to these as ‘conversion narratives’. See also Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2005).

34. See Hudson, Geoffrey, ‘Arguing Disability: Ex-Servicemen's Own Stories in Early Modern England, 1590–1790’, in Bivins, Roberta and Pickstone, John, eds, Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 105–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the wider discussion by Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2004).

35. This is especially true for Methodists, for whom the whole purpose of writing was to inspire others. See Mack, Phyllis, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (Cambridge, 2008)Google Scholar. On textual communities, see Stock, Brian, Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 140–58Google Scholar.

36. French, Henry and Barry, Jonathan, ‘Identity and Agency in English Society, 1500–1800: Introduction’, in French and Barry, eds, Identity and Agency in England 1500–1800 (Basingstoke, 2004), p. 29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37. Porter, Roy, ‘Introduction’, in Burke, Peter and Porter, Roy, eds, Language, Self and Society: A Social History of Language (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 2 and 12Google Scholar.

38. See contributions to Wertheimer, Molly Meijer, ed., Listening to their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women (Columbia, 1997)Google Scholar, and Eustace, ‘The Cornerstone’, p. 584.

39. Mack, Heart Religion, pp. 14–27. Also Rule, John, ‘Methodism, Popular Beliefs and Village Culture in Cornwall, 1800–50’, in Storch, Robert, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1982), pp. 4870Google Scholar, and Barker, Hannah, ‘Soul, Purse and Family: Middling and Lower-Class Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Manchester’, Social History, 33 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40. Chapman, The Autobiography, p.xv-xvii.

41. The precise motivation for writing is unclear, but the volume has an educative tone and may well have been regarded as a resource for the children.

42. Ibid., p. 47.

43. Ibid., p. 49. My italics.

44. For a recent survey see Rosemary O'Day, Women's Agency in Early Modern Britain and the American Colonies (London, 2004). We also see some of these themes played out in near contemporary autobiographies by other writers. See Chancellor, Victor, ed., Master and Artisan in Victorian England: The Diary of William Andrews and the Autobiography of Joseph Gutteridge (London, 1969), pp. 110 and 113Google Scholar.

45. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 49.

46. On the cultural underpinning of marriage age disparities, see O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 75.

47. In casually saying that he was on a business errand when he first met Betty, David may have been establishing a face-saving mechanism in case things went wrong. I am grateful to Jane Humphries for this point.

48. Rossendale Museum. David Whitehead Letters, items 43 and 83.

49. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 50.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. See Fauve Chamoux, ‘Marriage, Widowhood’, p. 236, who argues that geographical endogamy at marriage often went hand in hand with marriage to the closest available relative. See also contributions to Naomi Miller and Naomi Yavneh, eds, Sibling Relations and Gender in the Early Modern World: Sisters, Brothers and Others (Aldershot, 2006).

53. Snell, ‘English Rural Society’.

54. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 50.

55. Ibid., p. 51

56. Ibid. That is to say, she was always missing her passing opportunities.

57. Ibid., p. 52.

58. Ibid.

59. Frost, Promises Broken, p. 9, suggests that the same was true in the Victorian period.

60. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 52. For other examples of Methodist epiphanies see Mack, Heart Religion, p.100.

61. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 52.

62. Ibid. My italics.

63. Ibid.

64. Rawtenstall Library, Whitehead Collection (hereafter RL), 22nd December 1817.

65. Ibid. My italics. Destiny is a strong sub-theme of these letters.

66. See Hill, Women, Work, p. 178, who shows that the eighteenth-century diarist Thomas Turner used the same language in his courtship, pointing to the context of conventions with real longevity. For a sceptical view of the meaning of the language of love see Eustace, ‘The Cornerstone’.

67. RL, 30th December 1817. See Hill, Women, Work, p. 179 for contextual discussion of the importance of a woman's ‘inclination’.

68. RL, 20th January 1818.

69. RL, 4th February 1818. My italics.

70. Ibid.

71. For Wesley on marriage see Mack, Heart Religion, pp. 22, 96, and 142.

72. RL, 16th February 1818.

73. RL, 28th February 1818. The sub-theme of destiny is again revealed.

74. RL, 17th March 1818.

75. RL, 19th March 1818.

76. RL, 16th April 1818. My italics.

77. RL, 16th April 1818. My italics. The destiny card is played very purposively here. For contextual discussion that shows their intimacy was indeed short, at least for the mid-Victorian period, see Frost, Promises Broken, p. 61.

78. Of course, devotional allegiance could have been used to lever a match that would have taken place anyway irrespective of religious compatibility. I am grateful to Alannah Tomkins for this point.

79. RL, 6th May 1818. My italics. On the importance of potential distance from family as a factor in gentry and aristocrat courtships, see O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 169.

80. RL, 7th May 1818. My italics.

81. RL, 27th May1818.

82. RL, 28th May1818. My italics.

83. RL, 10th June 1818.

84. RL, 13th June 1818.

85. Ibid.

86. RL, 20th June 1818.

87. I am grateful to Keith Snell for this point.

88. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 54.

89. RL, 1st July 1818.

90. I am grateful to Jane Humphries for suggesting that I tie lack of discussion of a dowry into a more detailed dissection of the subsequent role that Betty was to play in the marriage.

91. O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 121.

92. Frances, ‘Making Marriages’; Erickson, Amy, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993)Google Scholar; Morris, Robert, Men, Women and Property in England 1780–1870: A Social and Economic History of Family Strategies among the Leeds Middle Classes (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93. On the way in which Methodists elaborated emotion in narrative sources, see Mack, Heart Religion, pp. 9 and 25. More widely on religion as a courtship framework for the middling sorts, see Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (London, 1987)Google Scholar.

94. Chapman, The Autobiography, p. 183.

95. Ibid., Passim. For marital endogamy amongst the Baptists in this period, see Marjorie Reeves, Pursuing the Muses: Female Education and Nonconformist Culture, 1700–1900 (Leicester, 1997).

96. See Snell, Keith and Ell, Paul, Rival Jerusalems: The Geography of Victorian Religion (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 111–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

97. O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 83. See also Frost, Promises Broken, p. 80 on the common failure of courtships in mid-Victorian England.

98. See also Roulston, Chris, ‘Space and the Representation of Marriage in Eighteenth Century Advice Literature’, The Eighteenth Century, 49 (2008), 2541CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

99. Evans, Tanya, ‘“Blooming virgins all beware”: Love, Courtship and Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Popular Literature’, in Levene, Alysa, Nutt, Thomas and Williams, Samantha, eds, Illegitimacy in Britain 1700–1920 (Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 1833Google Scholar.

100. Turner, David, ‘Popular Marriage and the Law: Tales of Bigamy at the Eighteenth-Century Old Bailey’, London Journal, 30 (2005), 621CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also Yeazell, Fictions of Modesty.

101. O'Day, Women's Agency, pp. 112–18; Erickson, Women and Property; O'Hara, Courtship and Constraint.

102. For a wider discussion of this point see O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 118.

103. See also Frost, Promises Broken, p. 40 for a discussion of ‘correct’ behaviour.

104. This was also a courtship without the ritualistic elements discerned by Frost, Promises Broken, p. 58, for the Victorian period.

105. Acting in fact much as agents in aristocratic marriages might have done. See O'Day, Women's Agency, p. 78.

106. Eustace, ‘The Cornerstone’, p. 524.

107. Frost, Promises Broken, pp. 61–72.

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