Pregnant and Unwed in Regency England
Published on September 29, 2015 by lahilden | Views: 1216

Unwed pregnant women from Regency England had very few options.  Unmarried mothers were often filled with shame and sought special hiding places to keep their impregnated state from Society’s ever-watchful eye.  There were advertisements in the newspapers offering discreet asylum for these pregnant women for a fee.  These places offered the women a place to “lie-in” while their babies would be put out to nurse and be taken care of by others.  Secrecy and money was key to making these institutions successful.

Unfortunately, due to the ostracism and shame societal judgment cast on unwed pregnant mothers, some of these women were desperate enough to try and abort the fetus by ingesting poison or by inserting a wire or knife into the uterus.  This often harmed the mother as well as the fetus.  Midwives often assisted these desperate women and recommended elixirs to induce a miscarriage.  These potions were often made of ergot, rue, pennyroyal, tansy, and savin.  An unwed mother could not seek employment and many resorted to drastic measures to make sure they didn’t lose their standing in Society.  Many of these women were young and found themselves shunned by their families with nowhere else to turn.

For married women contraception took the form of abstinence or breastfeeding, which is why Regency married women averaged six to seven children, this number does not include miscarriages.  Married women were encouraged to breast feed for 3-4 years so they could time their pregnancies better, but many women chose to hand their child over to a wet nurse, thus their menstruation returned.  “It was deemed morally unacceptable for married women to use artificial contraception.”  Nevertheless, this does not mean women did not try to prevent pregnancy.  Sponges soaked with vinegar or lemon juice were used to try and prevent pregnancy, while condoms were used to try to prevent disease and pregnancy.  And yet, condoms were not used by married women, they were used by men to prevent disease and pregnancy when they were with prostitutes or mistresses.  This method of birth control was linked to vice and practiced in the houses of ill repute.  Regency condoms were made from dried out sheep gut or a linen soaked in a chemical solution and tied with strings to stay in place.  Mistresses were kept by financially solvent men from the gentry and upper classes.  There were many prostitutes during the Regency Period and men of all classes were known to frequent them.  The Regency Era was a time when mistresses and prostitutes were tolerated by Society.  In my Time Travel, Desirea’s Escape, my 21st century heroine finds herself in London Regency’s red light district surrounded by these used condoms.  Not only is Desirea lost in time, she’s lost in the wrong area.

Unwanted children were abandoned in markets, churches, and on porches, this assured the mother that the parish would provide for her abandoned children.  The parish was responsible for caring for abandoned children and orphans when the relatives were not known.  In 1741, Thomas Coram opened London’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned children and in 1801; the doors were opened for illegitimate children too.  In my Regency Historical, The Vengeful Earl, the hero opens an orphanage for young girls on his property.  And in my new release, The Wallflower’s Godmother my hero’s illegitimate child is left on his doorstep.  It was not uncommon for illegitimate children to be brought into a peer of the realms family and even to be raised by the man’s current wife, although the illegitimate child would need to live on the fringe of Society when compared to their legitimate half siblings, and they were not in line to inherit anything tied to their father’s title.

My blog on Regency England and Medical Care


A special thank you: Roy and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England and