Policy Papers

‘Happy families?’ history and policy

Pat Thane |

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Executive Summary

  • The 'permissive'1960s were not the decisive break with long-established norms of marital stability and sexual propriety that is often thought.
  • There was a change in the late 1960s from some of the norms of the post-Second World War period, but that was the historically unusual period, with high rates of relatively long-lasting marriages.
  • High rates of lone motherhood and of complex step-families were common for centuries due to high death rates especially among younger men.
  • High rates of marriage break-up, often due to domestic violence towards women and children, were also common in the past.
  • High rates of unmarried cohabitation of men and women bringing up children prevailed over many centuries, mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining a divorce before 1969.
  • Premarital sex was a normal part of the courtship process for very large sections of the population long before the 1960, and partly accounts for the persistence of illegitimacy over the centuries.
  • Younger people are not more neglectful of older relatives than in the past: older people are now more likely to have surviving children and to be in regular touch with them, with mutual support between the generations widespread.
  • The poorest families have always found it hardest to achieve stability and harmony, suggesting that socio-economic inequality may be a more important challenge than features of the family itself.


There is a widespread belief that since the 1960s there has been a breakdown of family life in this country without historical precedent. These claims risk leading to policy responses based on false assumptions about the ways in which families and family structures have changed in recent years.

The longer history of lone parenthood

The first important thing to note is the longer history of lone parenthood than might be expected, mostly motherhood, and thus of boys growing up without a male role model in the home. The major reason was the death of a parent. In the late 1730s, 24 percent of marriages were ended by the death of a partner, more often the male, within ten years and 56 percent within 25 years. For the same reason, complex families of step-parents and step-children were commonplace in Britain. As health and life expectancy improved in the twentieth century, so did the survival chances of marriage. By the 1930s, despite wartime losses, just 5 percent of marriages were ended prematurely by death. Thereafter separation and divorce replaced death as the primary reason for the ending of marriages.

Divorce rates have increased fastest since the Divorce Reform Act (1969) established irretrievable breakdown as a valid ground for divorce. Also since the early 1970s, rates of open cohabitation of couples, often with children, have risen as have the numbers of children born outside wedlock, up to a third of all births by the end of the 1980s. These practices are seen as a break from those of the previous generation which are represented as a long-term historical norm.

In fact the decades after the end of the Second World War constituted a quite abnormal period, with much higher marriage rates and much lower rates of non-marriage than had previously been known. In the 1930s 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men did not marry. Similar numbers had long been normal. After 1945 marriage, at least once, became almost universal and most marriages produced children. Average age at marriage fell to historically low levels at the same time that life expectancy was rising and divorce remained difficult to obtain, so marriages tended to last longer. How contented they were is less certain: the rapid increase in divorce among these very couples after 1969, most initiated by women, along with the growing preference for unmarried cohabitation on the part of many of their children, may call in question the success of many of these marriages.

The longer history of marital break-up

For hundreds of years before the 1960s it was hard, particularly for women and poorer people, to escape from non-functioning or violent marriages in England and Wales (Scottish law and practice had long been different in important respects). Divorce was unavailable before 1867 except to the very rich and thereafter it was expensive and heavily stigmatized. This was especially the case for women, for until 1923, whereas a man could divorce a woman for adultery alone, such was the sexual double standard that a woman had to prove some fault in addition to adultery in order to divorce her husband, such as violence, bestiality or sodomy - any of these would do, but not desertion.

A further problem for women was that until 1839 they had no right to custody over their children. This was vested in the husband. After a battle by a courageous woman, Caroline Norton, in 1839 mothers gained the right to apply for custody of their children, but up to age of 7 only. This remained the case until 1925 when, after another campaign by women, married women were allowed to apply for custody of their children at all ages. Only in 1973 did they gain equal, unconditional, guardianship rights. It was also, for centuries, very difficult for women who left unsustainable marriages to support themselves and their children.

When marriages did break up, it was often because of the violence of husbands against wives. There were protests, mainly by feminists including John Stuart Mill, from the mid-nineteenth century against the extreme violence many women suffered and the fact that a woman who attacked her husband, even in self-defence, was liable to a heavier penalty than a violent man. But domestic violence did not become a legal offence until 1978, long after violence against animals (prohibited in 1835) and against children (prohibited in 1889).

In effect the law left many people with no alternative to illicit and secretive cohabitation. This was widely perceived to be extensive, though there were no official statistics for England and Wales until the 1970s. Cohabitation could be registered officially in Scotland and accounted for 12 per cent of all couples at the beginning of the twentieth century. A survey of working class Londoners in the 1890s found that particularly couples who met when they were older tended to live in non-legalised unions, often following an earlier marriage break-up. This seems to have been accepted, though regretted, even by many clergymen.

The law also was pragmatic, providing for 'illegitimate' family units in the Workman's Compensation Act (1906), in unemployment insurance legislation and in the cases of the 'married wives' of servicemen during both world wars. Very many of these illicit couples lived respectable, committed lives and were regarded as married by their neighbours, even when they knew the truth. Many would willingly have married had it been possible, and many survivors did so when the 1969 Act made divorce possible. A minority, mainly intellectuals, rejected marriage on the grounds that real commitment did not need the sanction of church or state. Concern at this situation led the Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in 1912 to recommend that divorce should be affordable by the mass of the population, on less restrictive grounds and equally to women and men, but their recommendations were largely ignored. Similar concerns and recommendations continued and the law was slowly reformed, assisted by the extension of legal aid after the Second World War, leading up to the comprehensive reform of 1969.

The longer history of extra-marital sex

In 1939, for the first time, the Registrar General counted the number of pre-marital conceptions. He found that 30 percent of all first children born in the UK in the previous year had been conceived out of wedlock. This was not new. There are no official statistics of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales before 1837. At that time around 20 percent of first births were illegitimate and over half of all first births were probably conceived outside marriage. Clearly premarital sex has been widespread, and pregnancy a trigger for marriage, for centuries. The main change since the 1960s has been greater openness about such matters.

Some women who became pregnant outside marriage were unable to marry in time, especially in wartime, when partners were away or dead. During the Second World War illegitimacy rates rose, causing moral panic, but the numbers of births within the first eight months of marriage fell by a similar amount. The high illegitimacy rate of the early-nineteenth century was not historically unusual. For reasons that are hard to explain, it was exceptionally low in the 1920s and 1930s at 5.5 illegitimate births for every thousand unmarried women aged 15-44, before rising gradually through the 'respectable' 1950s to 19 in 1961-5.

The longer history of lonely old age

It is also often assumed that relations between older and younger generations in families have declined since some assumed past golden age when older people were cared for by their loving children without need for community welfare, whereas in mobile, busy, modern communities younger people have no time for the older generation. In reality, until the mid-twentieth century many people who reached old age had no children, because they had not married, were infertile, or, all too often, because their children had died, given the much higher mortality rates of earlier centuries. It is estimated that in late-seventeeth-century England about one-third of women reaching their sixties had no surviving children. If the children did survive they might be too poor to give material support to aged parents as well as bringing up their own children, or they might migrate far away in search of work. If children migrated to Australia or Canada in the nineteenth century, as hundreds of thousands did, it was hard for the generations to keep in touch.

By the end of the twentieth century birth rates had fallen, but so had death rates, while fertility and partnership rates (both married and unmarried) had risen. Nowadays almost everyone has at least one surviving child as they reach old age and there is strong evidence of mutual support across the generations in very many families: large numbers of grandparents care for grandchildren while their children work, and those who can afford it give financial support to children and grandchildren; with the older generation being supported in return.

More older people live alone than in the past, as do more people of all ages, but this does not necessarily indicate loneliness. Rather, more older people than in the past can afford to live independently for as long as they are able, and there is strong historical evidence that this has always been a preference. It does not necessarily mean that they are not in close touch with family and friends: 'kinship does not stop at the front door' as historian Michael Anderson has put it. If children live at a distance, modern technology - motor and air transport, telephones, the internet - make contact easier than in the past, when communications were poor and slow, and illiteracy was widespread. Sadly there are, of course, still many lonely and neglected older people but, very probably, fewer than in past times.


Families have changed over time, but there has not been a straightforward shift from one extreme of secure and happy marriages, to another of divorce, cohabitation and unmarried parenthood. Families have always been diverse, though patterns of diversity have shifted.

It is also clear that poorer people have had, and continue to have, the most unstable family lives: most prone to break-up due to death, desertion, violence or stress due to unemployment and poverty.

Thus the tendency to blame family break-up for social problems, such as educational under-achievement and crime, may divert attention from another major cause both of these problems and of family instability: socio-economic inequality.

Further Reading

Happy Families? History and Family Policy is the latest output from the British Academy Policy Centre. The report is free to download at http://www.britac.ac.uk/.

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