Education & Family

Traditional British family a myth, academic says

1950s family Image copyright ClassicStock / Alamy
Image caption The 1950s is often seen as a golden age of family life

The idea that British children grew up in typical two-parent families until the permissiveness of the 1960s has been challenged by an academic.

Prof Pat Thane argued that until World War Two, significant numbers of people never married.

She also cited evidence that in 1939, some 30% of children were conceived out of wedlock.

The Family Education Trust responded by saying that marriage rates had fallen steeply since 1970.

The professor in contemporary history at King's College, London, said: "There is a well-known narrative in Britain about the history of the family - that 'traditionally' people lived in stable two-parent families with married parents who stayed together life-long, boys had fathers at home for role-models who kept them disciplined, and everyone looked after the older generation.

"Then came the 1960s and permissiveness, and people started divorcing, living together and having babies outside marriage; unprecedented numbers of complex families of step-relatives formed; and British society was 'broken' as some would put it.

"I want suggest that the real story is a bit more complicated."

The professor, who is presenting her research this weekend at the Economic History Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick, said: "Of course there have been major changes since the early 1970s.

"In particular, divorce, open cohabitation and childbirth outside marriage became more widespread and socially accepted and the reasons for this need to be explored. But the longer-term story is more complex and less well understood."

Prof Thane acknowledged that there was at least one point between 1945 and 1979 that marriage became "almost universal".

But she said: "This is a period which, in present-day discourse, is often presented as an historical norm of long-lasting stable marriages. It was actually historically very unusual in the numbers of long-lasting marriages."

'Unmarried wives'

Prof Thane said marriages had lasted longer because they generally started at an earlier age, were less likely to be broken by death in young adulthood as life expectancy grew, and divorce was hard to obtain.

She also cited evidence that both "irregular partnerships" and separations were recognised legally as early as 1878, and the dependents of servicemen including "unmarried wives" had long been paid their partners' pensions.

And she said there was much evidence of cohabitation, not just among working-class people, throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Couples often appeared to conform to this mythical norm by presenting themselves "as married people" and were accepted as such, she said.

And she added: "Illegitimacy remained until the end of the supposedly very respectable 1950s at levels not seen since the fairly high levels of the 1860s.

"Then it rose rapidly through the 60s, 70s, and faster of all 1980s. By 1993 more than one-third of all births in England and Wales occurred outside marriage.

Prof Thane said that people had seen the cultural changes brought about by the advent of the 1960s with its more permissive way of living as causing the changes.

"But in a sense, the change in the 1960s - and there certainly was change - was that people started to let it all hang out. It becomes more honest.

"Before it was all hidden, people knew all about couples living out of wedlock in their neighbourhood but they didn't talk about it."

This was accompanied by major reform of the the divorce laws in 1969, she said, which made it easier - and contrasted markedly with the late 19th Century when a private act of Parliament was required to sanction a divorce.


What followed the change in the law was a growing divorce rate - from an average of 57,089 petitions per year between 1967 and 1970 to 165,000 in 1993 - she said.

She concluded: "Divorce like cohabitation largely lost its stigma. Another change was the end of much of the secrecy and shame that had long surrounded aspects of personal behaviour in England.

"Since the 60s almost everything is public, for good or ill. Whatever the reasons, it's a major cultural change."

But Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust said: "No-one denies that cohabitation occurred prior to the sexual revolution nor would anyone suggest that sex never took place outside marriage or that 'shotgun marriages' never happened.

"But what is clear is that over the past four decades we have seen a dramatic decline in marriage rates and a massive increase in the incidence of cohabitation either before or instead of marriage. This has contributed to a situation in which almost 50% of children are now born to unmarried parents."

He added: "No rewriting of history in an attempt to play down the seismic shift that has taken place with regard to the way marriage is understood can change the fact that many more children today are suffering the adverse consequences associated with family breakdown than was the case prior to the sexual revolution."

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