Pre-Marital Sexual Activity and Marital Fertility during the First Demographic Transition in England and Wales

Alice Reid , University of Cambridge
Eilidh Garrett, Cambridge University
Hannaliis Jaadla, University of Cambridge

This paper examines the influence of pre-marital sexual activity and marriage patterns on pre-nuptial pregnancy, age-specific marital fertility and illegitimacy between 1851 and 1911 in England and Wales. This period witnessed the start of the first demographic transition: fertility was declining both within and outwith marriage: rates of marital fertility started to decline from the 1870s or 1880s, and illegitimate fertility from 1851 or before. Delayed marriage also contributed to declines in overall fertility. Of all of these factors, falling marital fertility contributed most to lower overall fertility, and fertility declined among all ages of women older than the mean age at marriage (mid-20s). Among women in their early twenties, however, marital fertility rates increased sharply. We hypothesise that increasing marital fertility rates among young women were due to the increasing selection of pre-nuptially pregnant women into marriage. Two factors contribute to this; first, the increasing demands of Victorian respectability increased the likelihood that any girls who did fall pregnant would marry before the birth of their child, transforming potentially illegitimate births into pre-nuptially conceived but legitimate births. Secondly, as the average age of marriage increased, these women will have formed a higher proportion of married women in their early twenties. Our paper explores plausible levels of exposure to pre-nuptial sexual activity and marriage chances of unmarried pregnant women which would be consistent with observed patterns and changes in illegitimacy, nuptiality and age-specific marital fertility in England and Wales. We test our theories using longitudinal data from Kilmarnock, Scotland 1861-1901.

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 Presented in Session 25. Social Gradients in Mortality and Family Formation