Widows in 18th century England

There has been an unfortunate accident. Mr. Bumfrey's ship, The Gigantic, has gone down in shark-infested waters. One survivor reported that your husband's last words were "if you build it, they will- glub." Alas, you are now a young widow with no children and hardly any money to support yourself.

Widows in 18th century England have three courses of action. They can remarry, rely on their children or take to a trade to support themselves.

Remarrying is a common option. Thirty-five percent of the widows in London remarried within a nine month time span 48. While this number sounds high, there were really few widows due to high mortality rates 49. Widows of London craftsmen and tradesmen were inclined to remarry because it was "difficult otherwise to continue their business and obtain a livelihood" 50. Often, men wanted to marry a widow because of the expense of children 51.

One-fifth of households in any single English community in the 18th century were those of widows 52. But the way that you were treated depended on how much money your family had. Rich widows were well-provided for. "Any property that she brought into the marriage was restored to her" 53. There were fewer rich widows though, as many rich women died in childbirth as male doctors began assisting 54.

But most widows rely on their children, even if they chose to remarry later. In fact, it is common advice that each child's birth was "further insurance" for the future 55. Eight to fifteen percent of widowed grandparents and parents went to live with their children 56. If you had wealthy children, they would install you in your own dower house. If your children were poor, you would move in with them. Very often, problems would ensue after the widow would move in with her children's family. It became "customary in England to make very clear that the widow's apartment was to be a separate enclave. The widow would not be subject to the authority of the child and the wife would not have to put up with the interference" 57.

In terms of legal rights, the Statutes of Distribution says that "a widow could claim one-third of an estate as of legal right if there was an heir and one-half if there was not" 58. Widows could plea for their rights in equity courts but not in common courts. "Common law denied a married woman's legal identity and therefore, any contracts she made were rendered null and void" 59. But many men put conditions in their wills saying that "the wife should take none of their wealth into a new marriage" 60. Petty conditions like this kept many women powerless to control their own financial destiny. With these conditions, any kind of remarriage that could reinstate her style of living was discouraged as well as any opportunity to build a fortune for her children from that marriage.

Many women started a shop or took to needlework to support themselves. The shops usually sold linens and fabrics. In the period from 1750-1800, 24% of the business proprietors in Colchester, England were women 61. With more and more women running shops, women working with the needle were struggling to pay their bills. Widow Ann Herbert said that 62:

"[I] Git my Livelehood by plain Knedlework- and on a Fair Calculation I can say truly it will not mount to more than 3 shillings."

Not all of the attention given to widows was as serious as it may sound. In The Beggar's Opera, when "Polly says that she does not want to part with the man she loves, her father replies, 'Parting with him! Why that is the whole scheme and intention of the marriage articles. The comfortable estate of widowhood, is the only hope that keeps up a wife's spirits" 63.

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