Atkinson, Paul David (2010) Cultural Causes of the Nineteenth-Century Fertility Decline: A Study of Three Yorkshire Towns. Doctoral thesis, University of Leeds.

Statistical methods have provided insight into the post-1860 fertility decline, but the deeper explanations lie in the choices of individuals, shaped by the cultures of local communities. This thesis combines the use of statistical and qualitative information, each form of enquiry guiding the other. It gains analytical strength by comparing three differing towns, Bradford, Leeds and Middlesbrough. Relationships between culture, employment, and fertility are examined by studying differences in local cultures and local labour markets, including female and child employment. The main argument of the thesis is for the impact of rising expectations about how a working-class family should live, underestimated by existing accounts. Working-class parents pursued higher living standards, not to emulate the better-off but, for example, to give their children better lives than they had experienced. To make these goals achievable, they chose to have fewer children, allowing more resources and attention for each family member. Such an explanation places a new stress on the nature of rising working-class consumption.

In all three towns, evidence is put forward for a strong growth in expectations about standards. This is demonstrated in relation to diet, housing, clothing, and leisure: the impacts of compulsory education and changing views of family life are also shown. The thesis shows that mothers and fathers came to see family limitation as a necessary part of pursuing these standards. Differences between the towns mainly reflect the varying frequency of female full-time work. Expectations of rising living standards placed the greatest pressures on working mothers, who had to pursue them by both wage labour and domestic labour. This made them the most susceptible to the appeal of family limitation. The study also shows, however, that fathers too had incentives to family limitation, which previous studies have underestimated.

For sources, qualitative evidence comes from cheap local newspapers with a substantial working-class readership. These new sources make evidence available which has never previously been used in research into the fertility decline. This is also true of the Bradford and Middlesbrough oral history collections used here. Materials in the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies at Brunel University are also utilised. Use is made, too, of advice literature directed at the working class of the three towns, and reports of social conditions by, for example, doctors and social reformers. These materials are combined with quantitative evidence from the registration of births, Census Reports, Parliamentary Papers, and the Census Enumerators’ Books.

This thesis is significant because it is one of a surprisingly small number of studies which investigate the cultural causes of the fertility decline, a need identified by leading researchers. By placing attention, as it should, on the behaviour of the majority rather than better-researched elites, the thesis brings new sources such as cheap newspapers into the study of the fertility decline. Above all, its description of rising expectations about consumption and their impact sheds new light on the causes of the fertility decline, drawing attention to the adoption by working-class people of more demanding goals for the quality of family life, which they met with a shift to smaller families.

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