All posts by WCM Project Team

Desperately Seeking Someone: The Classified Ad in Scotland 1860-1940

In 2013 there are a multitude of platforms through which Scottish men and women can seek romantic possibilities. The internet is awash with dating agencies which aim to find your perfect mate for the price of a monthly subscription. These social tools allow us to search for potential matches based on a vast assortment of preferences, from preferred height and weight to hair colour, outside interests and occupations. We can interact socially through social media tools such as Twitter or Facebook and keep in constant contact with friends, lovers and family through email, Skype and instant messaging. The world has never been smaller.

This does make us wonder just how men and women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought romance and the perfect mate and, indeed, what they looked for in a perfect mate. Traditional patterns of courtship faced challenges by the end of the 19th century and fears existed that the rapid changes that had occurred during the period had impacted negatively on those traditional patterns of courtship. As Harry Cocks has detailed, modern workers were finding more of their time occupied by regulated hours of work, and displacement in the nation’s larger towns and cities meant that traditional communities and their ties were being broken. Indeed, the urban environment also provided further threats to the morality of the young urban worker (prostitution, drugs, drink) and therefore any attempt to ensure proper patterns of courtship were maintained, although updated, were cautiously welcomed. [1]

It was during this period that we see the emergence of personal advertisements in the Scottish printed media, which were initially focussed on matrimonial matters.  More and more column inches in national newspapers were being given over to lonely lads and lassies searching for romantic companionship. Whereas in England there appears to have been a plethora of publications catering for lonely men and women seeking companionship and romance were such options available to Scots lads and lassies?

A small number of Scottish newspapers began to permit ‘matrimonial ads’ in the mid to late 19th century. The Scotsman newspaper was one such publication. A search of this newspaper demonstrates that by the late 19th century matrimonial ads were becoming commonplace, but what sort of men and women were seeking partners via this system?

A typical early matrimonial advertisement (1863) was brief and to the point:

Classified Ad 21 Nov 1863


The inclusion of a specific income seems a rather curious decision, but appears to have been relatively common during this period.  After all, a genteel lady of modest means would require assurance that any potential suitor would be able to support them both. Whereas the majority of personal ads during this period were pretty precise and perfunctory, some were written with humour and the slightest hint of euphemism (1868).



What is notable about this ad is that matrimony is not mentioned and ‘mutual condolence’ and ‘comfort’ might be mistaken for something a bit saucier. The personal ad appears to have offered other possibilities outside of mere romantic attachments. Some men used these as an opportunity to attract not only matrimony but much needed financial investment. These adverts from 1909, 1868 & 1937 are pretty straight to the point:







Undoubtedly, some of these adverts were genuine, if ill advised, but by the late 19th century there had been a number of criminal cases related to hoax matrimonial advertisements. In other cases hopeful men in receipt of responses from supposedly eligible females arrived at the pre-arranged meeting point to find themselves pelted with eggs and flour by groups of mischievous rascals.



While some adverts flirted with criminality and bad taste others hinted at clandestine meetings (1867-1869).


Classified dearestjack









There is, of course, no way of finding out who these advertisers were and why they had resorted to communicating via anonymous advertisements, but as Cocks had demonstrated the personal ad appealed to a wide variety of men and women who required anonymity. What is apparent is that many continued their discussions through the medium of the newspaper. Some resorted to extreme measures to ensure that their conversations remained secret and anonymous (1867).





While it is difficult to tell if these 19th-century ads related to same-sex desire, other contemporary conventions were challenged through the personal ad. Cross-class liaisons would undoubtedly have been frowned upon but some advertisers were quite specific in the type of romantic partner they required (1896):




Perhaps the spinster’s desire for a tradesman partner had a very practical basis.  As we can see, financial and economic considerations were  given a high priority in these adverts.

The perils of the personal ad were not limited to devious men (and women) seeking to line their pockets through promises of romance. The possibility of rejection also loomed large; perhaps related to disappointment on meeting that fair-haired, handsome bachelor, who didn’t quite meet expectation, as this ‘Judy’ cartoon suggests.



There could also be be tears (1896, 1868). And bitterness (1868).











Not only had this gent’s efforts to communicate with the lady from Torquay been seemingly fruitless, she had failed to return his photograph!

We’ve all seen those sections in free newspapers where you might have been spotted by an interested party on the number 4 bus, but who was too shy or too slow to make contact. Apparently, the very same happened in Edinburgh in the late 19th century:





While the majority of personal ads seemed to relate to the desire to meet that special someone, others were cryptic and their true meanings will forever be lost:





What these examples from the 19th- and early 20th-century Scottish newspapers demonstrate is the resourcefulness of Scottish men and women in their efforts to find that special someone with whom to begin a romantic liaison. They also offer us examples of the flexibility of the classifieds in that they often used for purposes that we can only speculate upon; clandestine meetings, secret liaisons, petty criminality and so on. There are also hints of transgressive behaviour, and suggestions of public flirtations enacted under a cloak of anonymity. Perhaps we have become less flexible, less resourceful with all the technological platforms at our disposal.  You may never look at those sepia-toned photographs of your great, great grandparents in the same way again.

[1] H. G. Cocks, Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column (London; Random House, 2009)


Food Parcels, Poverty and Poor Relief

Recent headlines regarding poverty in Britain offer a picture with almost Dickensian qualities:

“Food parcels in Aberdeen to soar to 10,000 a month as poverty gap widens”

“Families too poor to heat up food given by charity”

“Britain’s hungry children: Desperate schoolkids forced to steal leftovers”

“Almost one in three children in Britain living in poverty”

According to research conducted by The Trussell Trust, over 6000 Scots children needed food parcels in the past 5 months alone. Of the 16000 adults requiring such help, 3200 were in work. For the first time since the Second World War, the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels to those in need in the UK this winter. Further, it’s been reported that parents are going without food for days to ensure that their children are being properly fed. This is not 19th-century Britain, but Britain in the 21st century.

Food Parcel

Victorian Britain is often thought of as an era of punitive attitudes to those in poverty and where care of the poor was left to those with a conscience and to charitable institutions.  Yet how far has our state welfare provisions advanced from the seeming indifference of the Victorian era to the plight of the poor, and particularly to child poverty?

The spectre of poverty also loomed large in the lives of the working class in industrial Scotland over 100 years ago. The insecurity of work and the pressures of parenthood, coupled with authorities’ increasing paranoia over the nature of the family (sound familiar?), meant that working-class families fell under the gaze of the state as the 19th century progressed. An inadequate welfare system that relied on permissive funding became more and more stretched just as the need for social security became more vital. The most powerless members of the working class were undoubtedly children, particularly those from Scotland’s larger urban centres. There had been a shift in the discourse of the child in Scotland from 17th century concepts of the ‘innately evil’ to the concept of ‘born innocent’, which dominated 19th-century thinking. This discourse coupled with late nineteenth-century and early twentieth- century concerns about the health and wealth of the nation resulted in a keener interest in the health of the child, so that as the 19th century progressed more and more children fell under the control of parish authorities.

In 1895, nearly 5,700 children were ‘under the parish’. Of this number, 2994 were orphaned, 1322 deserted and 1357 separated from their parents by the poor relief administrators. This figure does not include the children within families in receipt of assistance. Separation (remove from your mind images of children being torn from the grasp of failed parents) was largely a consensual affair, driven by poverty, desperation and imposed definitions of bad parenting. However, the parish authorities were loath to intervene unless absolutely necessary. The poorhouse was the least used option for children; Sir John McNeil, the Chairman of the Board of Supervision remarked in 1868: ‘I would rather no child were in any poorhouse. Every child that is brought up in the poorhouse is in heart a pauper’. Thus, the Scottish authorities much preferred the system of boarding-out: the placing of a child with a foster family, or with relatives. However, this was not always a possibility; perhaps due to parental refusal, or because the child in question was not obviously disadvantaged by familial circumstances. In such cases children were directed to attend ‘ragged schools’. In Scotland children in receipt of indoor or outdoor relief received educational support, and three meals a day. In 1853 the school day went as follows:

7:30am-9:00am Washing and play

9:00am-9:30am Breakfast (Porridge and Buttermilk)

9:30am-12:30pm School, secular and religious education

12:30pm-1:00pm Play

1:00pm-2:00pm Work

2:00pm-2:30pm Dinner (Barley, Bullock’s Head & Vegetable Soup, bread)

2:30pm-4:00 School

4:00pm-4:30pm Play

4:30pm-6:30pm Work

6:30pm-7:00pm Supper (Porridge and Buttermilk)

7:00pm – Change of clothes and dismissed


There were some objections to state intervention when children from the working class were offered funded support for education and nutrition. However, poor law officials viewed such support as a matter of dignity, a necessary investment and a moral obligation.  One poor law official commented that there was ‘no question as to the moral obligation which lies with all Parochial Boards to see to the education of all poor children’, and that it was ‘a great surprise to us that any Board would hesitate for a moment to pay school fees in addition to the alimentary allowances’.

Even the embryonic welfare provisions of the Victorian local state, in the shape of the poor relief system, advocated that no child should be in want of proper nutrition and it was viewed as a national disgrace if the future generation of Scots were to be denied such a basic and fundamental human right.  Despite the panoply of contemporary state welfare provision that exists today, it seems that such a basic and fundamental human right is being left to voluntary and charitable agencies.

The Birth of a Royal Baby: Then and Now

As the Queen met her great grandson, now named as George Alexander Louis, two days after his birth on 22 July 2013, newspapers and the wider media highlighted the fact that it was the first time in almost 120 years that a reigning monarch had met a great grandchild born in direct succession to the Crown. The last occasion was on 27 June 1894, when Queen Victoria met her great grandson, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, four days after his birth on 23 June 1894. The infant Edward, later Edward VIII, was also third in line to the throne.

As the Royal birth happened to just about coincide with a project team meeting, we unashamedly decided to capitalise on the event by considering the differences between royal births now and in the past. In recent days, anyone with access to any form of media knew when the Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labour. In 1894, newspaper reports, published after the event, more discreetly referred to Edward’s mother, Victoria Mary, the Duchess of York, having been ‘taken ill’.  As was the custom for the wealthy classes, the Duchess of York was delivered at home, home being White Lodge In Richmond, former Royal residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert before his untimely death from typhoid in 1861. The Duchess of York was attended by an elite male obstetrician, in this case, John Williams of Harley Street, and the family’s medical advisor, John Wadd, rather than a midwife, as was the custom for the lower classes. Today, almost all births take place in a hospital setting, and yet this is only the second time an heir to the throne has been born in a hospital, the first being Prince William. All hospital settings are not equal though, with the cost of the Duchess of Cambridge’s stay and level of professional attendance at St Mary’s of London being widely covered in the press.

In 1894, the Duchess of York was attended by her mother-in-law, the Princess of Wales throughout her labour, in addition to the medical men. By Royal standards, this was a relatively private delivery. The London Gazette reported that Queen Victoria had been attended by no fewer than seven people, including her husband, at the birth of her first child in 1840, with a further 13 people in an adjoining room, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and various Ministers of government, and a further 8 members of the Royal household in an ante-room. Aside from Queen Victoria herself, and her Lady in Waiting, the members of the birth party were all men. This was a complete reversal of the practice up until the seventeenth century when only women were present at a royal birth. Contrary to popular belief, the Home Secretary was not usually in the room when a royal heir was delivered, but in an adjoining room.

The Birth in the Glasgow Herald, page 6

Much was made of the fact that news of the recent royal birth was conveyed by email and/or Twitter, a departure from the ‘tradition’ of announcing the birth on an easel outside Buckingham Palace. In 1894, the news was also spread using the most up-to-date modern technology: namely, the telegraph. The Scotsman reported that the Duke of York entirely blocked the local telegraph apparatus after the delivery, telegraphing close members of the Royal Family and the Home Secretary, Asquith, who made their way to White Lodge to see the new baby. In this case, Asquith came after the birth, and the  the baby was presented in another room by a nurse. Queen Victoria was also informed within a few minutes of the birth. Telegraphs were also sent within the hour to various other Royal personages across the globe, including the Kaiser of Germany, the Czar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey and so on, showing the networks of power in place at the end of the 19th century. At some point, however, someone must have also informed the crowds waiting ‘at a respectful distance’ outside White Lodge, as the Scotsman reported ‘an outburst of enthusiasm throughout the district’ on the intimation of the news, with the churches of Mortlake and Barnes ringing out ‘merry peals’. (At least one can switch today’s media off). Were that not celebration enough, the good residents of the area around White Lodge lit bonfires and ‘gave vent to their unbounded enthusiasm in various ways’. Unfortunately, the Scotsman was hazy on the specifics of these various ways. However, coincidence-watchers might be interested to know that locals around White Lodge informally named the new baby George. And what of the people who were neither important Royal personages, nor loyal subjects waiting outside White Lodge? How did they find out? The birth was on a Saturday evening at 10pm, and the newspapers did not carry the story until the Monday morning.

But even in 1894, there were ways of sharing such happy news quickly. Both the Herald and the Scotsman reported that, at 10.48pm, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh was sent a telegram, and telegrams were sent through the press agencies to the clubs in and around Princes Street, Edinburgh, at around midnight. This refers to private gentlemen’s clubs, accessible only to wealthy men. Ministers across Scotland were informed by the Lord Provost, and shared the news with their congregations throughout the next day, which was of course a Sunday, with more joyful bell-ringing ensuing. Thus, to quote the Herald, ‘intelligence of the interesting event spread rapidly’. It is of course a measure of our times that news spreads via Twitter today rather than through Church attendance. However, reflecting on the hierarchies evident in 1894 as the news was spread, it is notable that, while one might assume electronic media is more egalitarian, the media and the Twittersphere were notified a good four hours after the birth in 2013.

And what of the traditional easel? A formal letter was written by Asquith to the Lord Mayor of London shortly after 11.30pm, who ‘at once’ had the letter posted outside the Mansion House. Then, as now, the most important part of the news, that mother and baby were doing well, was included.

Asquith's Letter

Shrivelled Ovaries Cast Anew

The subject of women and fertility is once again in the headlines thanks to a provocative advertising campaign for pregnancy test manufacturer First Response. Not content with profiting from women’s desire to know they are pregnant at an ever earlier stage, the company is now seeking to encourage the population of Britain to consider their fertility. Particularly women who, in the words of Kate Garraway, fronting the campaign, may be more concerned about ‘careers and finances’ than getting pregnant. The spectre of the woman who ploughs her energies into career building, only to find herself single and/or struggling to conceive over the age of 40, haunts popular consciousness (not least in the pages of the Daily Mail).

While the image used in the campaign (Kate Garraway heavily made up to look 70 and pregnant) has been roundly, and rightly, criticised in the media, there is little analysis of the historical precedents for such concerns. When women began to campaign for basic rights such as access to education and professional employment in the mid-19th century, there was a groundswell of criticism and condemnation justified by contemporary understandings of female biology. Education of girls and young women would, according to critics of the time, impair their capacity to bear and raise children. Given the eugenic context of the time, such concerns were couched in the language of race and nation, particularly in light of the declining birth-rate amongst the more well-to-do classes. In March 1913,for example, an article in the British Medical Journal drew attention to the proportion of ‘more highly gifted women’ who were either unmarried or childless ‘to the loss of a great national asset in the future’ (BMJ, 29 March 1913, p. 672). The author speculated whether this ‘infertility’ was biologically based as a result of the greater strain on the nervous system from higher education, or chosen in line with a belief in emancipation and equality of the sexes.

Similarly, Dr Arabella Kenealy (1864 – 1938), a writer and former pioneering medical woman, echoed many earlier critics when she wrote in 1910 that feminism had resulted in young women who were ‘weedy, anaemic and neurotic’ with a distaste for ‘the natural functions of their sex’. Such women were either prone to infertility or gave birth to ‘constitutional bankrupts’ whom they were unable to nurse properly. Most pertinently, educated, professional women appeared ‘singularly old for their age’ (BMJ, 15 October 1910, p. 1172). It is probably no coincidence that Keneally also sought to convince women (‘as usurpers’) to give up their jobs in favour of demobilised soldiers in the aftermath of World War One (Feminism and Sex Extinction, 1920).

The underlying tenet of these related arguments was that by looking away from their ‘natural’ function of having children towards intellectual self-development, and social and financial autonomy, women risked their physical attractiveness and reproductive functioning, destabilising gender roles and society as a whole. While we may have moved away from explicitly eugenic language, current concerns about delayed motherhood and reproductive failure due to (implicitly misguided) focus on ‘career and finances’ simply cast many old arguments anew.

‘Scroungers’, ‘Welfare Dependency’, and Poverty

Consider, if you will, some of these objections to welfare:


“There is a growing class who will accept benefits readily.”

“Welfare dependency weakens familial responsibility”

“Dependency on welfare fosters improvidence”

“Some…view welfare as a form of insurance: a ‘benefit society’”

“Poverty appears hereditary”

“Benefit dependency is no longer viewed as a stigma”


The ‘debt crisis’ and the austerity cuts introduced by the government have been used to justify a deluge of cuts to the benefit system.  This has been accompanied by a discourse labelling those on benefits as morally reprehensible and socially irresponsible. Several examples, most notably the Philpott Case, have been used by some in the media (and in government) as illustrations of what is wrong with the current benefits system. These examples have been used to forward a position that welfare dependency is a financial and moral catastrophe, which requires extensive invasive surgery to correct.

Related to this are objections about who gets what, and why:

“We were struck by the large amounts of earnings coming in to some of the families to which benefits were granted. For instance, a single woman with three dependent children received benefits on top of £160* of earnings in a week”. 

Another objection, in a similar vein, is that the “taxpayer is now supporting the idle”, and that there are increasing numbers accepting public assistance which “weakens family responsibility [and] pride”. Effectively, assistance from relatives should be sought before any appeal to welfare.

I will admit that I have been slightly disingenuous with the examples that I have used. I have switched the terms ‘benefits’ and ‘welfare’ for the original terms ‘poor relief’ and ‘out relief’. The examples I have used all come from Edwardian Scottish society; predominantly from discussions regarding the operation and management of poor relief.  In effect, current ‘debates’ are nothing new and the same discourses regarding welfare are trotted out with alarming regularity. Despite the objections raised a Royal Commission investigating the operation of poor relief in Scotland in 1909 found that “the statistics of pauperism since 1869 furnish in themselves convincing proof that the Scottish outdoor relief system has not led to any widespread demoralisation of the people”. In effect, the availability of relief had not led to an explosion in dependency on that relief. Knowledge about what support could be received had not led the Scottish working classes to down tools, strip off their moral fibre and live at the expense of the middle-class taxpayer and church-goer.

Thus, one must assume that the objections voiced said more about bourgeois attitudes to the working man, than about the reality of poverty and despair which faced many Edwardian Scottish families.

Speaking of assumptions, we should be careful not to assume that the loudest voices are necessarily representative. Indeed, looking at the poor relief system in Scotland prior to 1921, it becomes evident that a fair amount of empathy existed within the system. Despite it being part of statute that able-bodied men could not receive relief there are numerous examples of parishes ignoring this ruling and giving temporary relief to families facing absolute poverty (even if it meant indoor relief). One senior medical officer remarked that “if you examine a man long enough, you will find some trifle that you can get hold of”. In our cynical society that would be viewed as participating in fraud, but in pre-war Scotland this was an act of kindness, of charity, for without relief that man, and his family, may well have faced starvation. The committee who sat in judgement of the system did not see this as fraud either, and pointed to the fact that several years previous the poor law authorities had advised their staff that they “should not carry the letter of the law to an extreme”.

Contrast this with the intense micro-management of the current welfare system that has resulted in much of the focus being on the administration (financial and bureaucratic) of the system rather than what is was set up to do in the first place. This has intensified to such a level in the past 30 years that any appeal regarding the latter is likely to fail.  In a recent article Polly Toynbee, one of the fiercest and most articulate critics of Government attacks on the benefit system, claimed that , ‘You need to go back to Edwardian times to find ministers and commentators so viciously dismissing all on low incomes as cheats, idlers and drunks’.  As historians have long argued, the Whig view of history where things keep getting better all the time, is deeply flawed.  Over a century ago, there were certainly negative and stigmatising discourses  relating to poverty but  they were tempered  by a recognition amongst the authorities that the poor did not create poverty and that there was room for discretion and even compassion.  The latter is a word that is sadly absent from the current government’s lexicon and practices.

*adjusted to 2005 values

Raiding the Archives

Recent information published from the last census in 2011 suggests that single-person households are now the largest type of household in Scotland eclipsing figures from historical censuses. However, as we have argued in our previous blog relying simply on statistics is misleading, as this reliance is likely to lead to spurious assumptions.

This research project is using a host of sources and archival materials in an attempt to understand the history of working-class marriage, courtship, relationships and household forms in Scotland. Such an undertaking requires a good knowledge of what archives exist and what they hold that might relate to our underpinning research questions.  The Census of Scotland is an excellent starting point for understanding the demographic make-up of the nation. The census returns offer an unparalleled insight into the household formations of ordinary Scots. The census reports which were generally published within 3 years of the census date contain a vast amount of information ranging from the conjugal ‘state of the nation’ to the prevalence of foreigners within the country.  However, for a deeper understanding of individual family make-up we have also been examining the census returns, page after page after page after page after page (ok, you get the idea) of households located within working-class districts of large Scottish parishes such as Govan to smaller rural parishes such as Echt, in Aberdeenshire. Alongside this material we’ve also been using the district examiners’ reports which contain a wealth of information regarding aspects of Scottish culture and tradition.

 On top of the census reports the annual Registrar-General’s reports prove invaluable; they are a statistician’s delight and used in combination with censuses can offer a rich analysis of life in Scotland. Our analysis demonstrates that there were very few truly ‘national’ trends; each geographical area contained its own peculiarities whether related to family forms, gender and work, or sexual ‘morality’. For example, in the Rhins peninsula the illegitimacy rate was 10 times that of Lorn, 100 miles to the north. Even within regions the diversity of illegitimacy rates are surprising, Aberdeenshire being a good example. Household structure also varied considerably. Using the example of Aberdeenshire we have found that single-parent families were considerably more common in Strathdon than they were in Leochel Cushnie.  Careful analysis will help to understand such variation within Scotland.

Yet, the census returns, reports and statistics cannot possibly tell the whole story. We learn very little about the day-to-day ‘ordinary’ experiences of those individuals and families contained within those pages. Thus, in an effort to find out more we are using Poor Law archives. The quality of surviving poor law material varies by region, so we have undertaken exhaustive enquiries to determine where the very best preserved material exists. This could not have been achieved without the co-operation of local authority archivists and archive assistants up and down Scotland. The specific regions that we are using (and visiting regularly this year) are those whose records will enable us to draw out key material which will be used in our research output.

Poor Relief archives not only offer us an insight into the economic conditions in which working-class Scots operated but they reveal evidence of dominant attitudes of the time. In the report from the House of Commons Select Committee on the Poor Law in Scotland (1870) it was stated that the Committee was aware ‘of the grave evils, moral, social, and economical, which are created by granting to any class in the community a legal claim for relief on their wealthier neighbours…and the amount of improvidence and recklessness it engenders’. It appears that little has changed and the discourse of ‘welfare dependency’ persists to this day, when we compare such a position to that emanating from government.   Recent trips to Ayrshire Archives to examine poor relief records for Kilmarnock reveal further interesting parallels with today: not only were applicants’ economic situations scrutinised but their characters and living arrangements were too. After the passing of the Poor Law Emergency Powers (Scotland) Act, 1921, the ‘able-bodied’ were able to apply for poor relief, and throughout the records – from a variety of regions – comments such as ‘ill-tempered fellow’, ‘a heavy drinker’, ‘idle and unfriendly’, ‘house is a tip’, ‘children unwashed and ill mannered’,  ‘wife is slovenly’, ‘this man has no intention of working’ appear.

Scottish birth, death, marriage and demographics records are among the best in the world, and regional archives house rich resources which will prove invaluable in our research.

‘Living on my own’: The Single-Person Household

Recently released information from the 2011 Census in Scotland reveals that for the first time since records began single-person households represent the largest household form.  These accounted for 35% of all households in Scotland. When the figures are broken down geographically we find that in Glasgow, for example, that figure is even higher at 43%.[1]

What should we make of the rise in single-person households?  In 1961 only 14% of households in Scotland were of this formation. Has Scotland become a lonelier place as suggested by the Daily Express? [2]  If we simply examine numbers then perhaps the rise in people living alone does suggest that we are living more and more isolated lives, especially in the larger cities of the nation. However, it is crucial to examine such information critically and within an historical context.

Historical demographers stress the statistical dominance of the nuclear family since at least the early modern period.  Our research is questioning the predominance of nuclear or extended units based around a married couple and their children.  Our research to date suggests that married couple households were not necessarily the norm during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is certainly true that single-person households were in the minority but the reasons behind this are important. During this period it was economically unviable for the majority to live alone and with the absence of social housing most adult single people could be found living with family or with non-related households as boarders or lodgers. For example, in Govan, Scotland’s third largest parish, between one half and one third of households kept lodgers or boarders. In effect, such arrangements masked the true number of single people no longer living within the family home. Due to the cyclical nature of unemployment, housing shortages and low wages single people could ill afford to live independently.

These realities hint at some of the reasons why we have seen a rise in single-person households over the past couple of decades. More disaggregation of the statistics might tell us that the largest group of those single-person households consists of the elderly. With people living longer and more healthily and the baby boomer generation still to make their impact on the demographics of aging, undoubtedly there will be more elderly living alone.  Welfare and social reforms have also enabled people such as the divorced, the deserted, and the separated to live alone. Economic independence has enabled single people to live alone, as has the rise in the availability of social housing. But are they ‘lonely’? Many of those people may very well be in relationships; we have seen the rise in couples ‘living apart together’, no less monogamous than their parents but being equipped with the necessary economic powers to determine when they will ‘settle down’ in a joint household. (Additionally, being single does not necessarily equate to being lonely).

Will this rise in single-person households continue? We are currently experiencing a period of economic uncertainty, with wages freezes and cuts, measures of austerity, and welfare cuts (especially Housing Benefit). These are similar economic conditions to those which limited the numbers of single-person households in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, we might see over the next few years a reduction in the number of single-person households. Only time will tell.

Listen to the BBC Radio Scotland interview with Dr Annmarie Hughes here

[1] Census 2011: Population Estimates for Scotland,, accessed 25/03/2013

[2] Dean Herbert, ‘Lonelier and Older- that’s Scotland today’,, accessed 25/03/2013

Media Update

Over the next few days our research team can be found on the airwaves and in print. On Monday morning at 09:30 Annmarie Hughes will be on ‘Call Kay’ on BBC Radio Scotland discussing the shift in demographics and family structure in Scotland.

In The Herald there will be an article discussing the project’s initial findings on family structure, marriage and cohabitation. This will be published this week; we’ll update on that soon.


You can hear what Dr Annmarie Hughes had to say about household formation and the changing demographics of Scotland here.

The Story so Far

We are now six months in to the project and have constructed substantial databases of family structures over the period 1861, 1881 and 1911 for our focus areas, which include parishes in the North East, the South West and the North West.  We are supplementing the census figures with information drawn from Poor Law applications which give much more detailed information on family structures that is often omitted from the census schedules. Surprisingly, we have found that the class composition of applicants mirrors the general population with representations from the unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and even some lower middle-class applicants.  So we will also use the Poor Law applications as a proxy for the census which is available only until 1911.

Census Database

At the same time as the family structure research, we have been looking at irregular/informal marriage.  Scotland was virtually unique in Europe in recognising three forms of irregular marriage as legally valid until 1939, and in the case of marriage with habit and repute, until 2006.  We will shortly have a podcast on the website discussing official attitudes to irregular marriage and popular practice. So do please check back soon (if you follow us on Twitter @WCMScotland you will receive notifications of when our latest blog goes live).

Our findings have been presented to the SSH conference in Vancouver, the Centre for Gender History at Glasgow and at the Economic and Social History seminar series in the School of Political and Social Sciences. There will also be an article on irregular marriage published in one of the leading international social history journals:

 Gordon, E (2013) ‘Irregular Marriage: Myth and Reality’, Journal of Social History, 47 (2)

We have been discussing our plans for presenting a panel at the joint Women’s History Network /International Federation for Research on Women’s History in Sheffield at the end of August.  The theme of the conference: the Local and the Global fits very well with our research on the impact of war on family structure, marriage, marriage breakup and cohabitation.  It seems appropriate that the project team attend this conference as the journal, Gender & History will be hosting a reception to celebrate its 25th anniversary.  The Journal is edited here at Glasgow by three of the members of the Centre for Gender History and is one of a number of projects that members of the Centre are involved in. For further details of the Centre, its staff and research scope please feel free to visit the website.