Motherhood and Marriage

Mother and her three children outside a cottage in Styal

Between 1750 and 1850 people were having more children than ever before, both inside and outside marriage. Women of all social backgrounds had on average 6 or 7 children each. The job of caring for and raising children was deemed women’s work. Good mothering and responsible child-rearing was thought to be women’s social duty.

Children over 5 could attend Styal Primary School after it was set up by Hannah Greg in 1823. By the age of 10 many children were also working and providing a welcome additional income to the family.

It is regularly assumed that women were married before choosing to have children, or that women who fell pregnant outside of wedlock quickly married the father. The infamous Esther Price, a Mill worker who came to Quarry Bank as an apprentice at the age of 12, shows that this was not always the case. We know that Esther was seeing a man named William Whittaker and that she had several children with him during her time at the Mill. She lived with her children in one of the cellars in Styal village for around 8 years before she married William. Living in the village would have meant Esther was part of a large community with multiple women offering childcare when mothers went back to work.

The archives at Quarry Bank shed light on the nature of Esther Price who once ran away from the Apprentice House and managed to get herself out of serving her full sentence of punishment. Esther’s indenture listed her as younger than she was which in turn meant she would have to live in the Apprentice House past the age of 18. Esther did everything in her power to get out of the House on time and managed to retrieve a copy of her birth certificate to prove her age.

Birth Certificate of Esther Price
Image of the birth certificate of Esther Price
Birth Certificate of Esther Price

We can not say for sure why the marriage of Esther and William didn’t happen sooner, but we do know that Esther would have had access to benefits such as the Sick Club, which supported women financially when they were ill. Access to this club was unavailable to married women. We also know that the wedding took place just after the deaths of William’s elderly parents. We might speculate that his parents were not keen on the match and that Esther and William waited to marry to avoid family conflicts. Or, as women regularly took on the duty of care in addition to their many other labours, perhaps this was yet another example of Esther’s independence.