Elizabeth Craig-Atkins
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Marking maternity
Integrating historical and archaeological evidence for reproduction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

This chapter explores an archaeological finding unique in Britain – a burial group of thirty-four perinates and fetuses from a late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century site in South Shields – while adopting and reflecting upon a novel model of co-working between an archaeologist and historian. The interments, dating from c.1780–1818, were situated in unconsecrated ground adjoining an active churchyard, suggesting a process of ‘vernacular consecration’ occurred, in which the regular burial of unbaptised remains just outside the churchyard sanctified the area. The authors locate these findings in a landscape of working-class reproductive risk and argue that the site reflects a paradox: working-class infants were both highly valued and often unwanted. Historical and archaeological methods are brought together to explore three intersecting fields of force within which the authors constitute the material and documentary evidence: high perinatal mortality rates and experience of miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death; the importance but high cost of decent burial among all social classes; and the potential for unwanted pregnancies resulting from lack of access to reliable contraception and the stigma of unwed motherhood. Methodologically, the authors eschew what they call ‘the handmaiden problem’ in which one discipline is treated as accessory to another, concealing epistemological practices. Adopting a critical approach to interdisciplinary collaborative writing, they show how archaeological and historical analyses of this site can be both reinforcing and result in productive conflict. The new insights our approach has generated provides a strong justification for its widespread adoption when integrating historical and archaeological sources.

Like so many disused urban churchyards in England, St Hilda's in South Shields succumbed to the pressures of urbanisation and redevelopment. A 2006 developer-funded excavation in advance of construction work on Coronation Street yielded an unexpected finding: a cluster of fetal and perinatal remains. Such a finding is surprising in at least two ways: first, the bodies of unbaptised infants, whether stillborn or live births, were not supposed to be buried in such a graveyard. Only the remains of those who had been christened should have been interred in consecrated ground (Houlbrooke, 1998). Second, in the lower levels of the cemetery, these remains were grouped together in a space dominated by such graves, rather than being buried in family plots, as was the norm (Tarlow, 2010: 108). This chapter explores a range of historical possibilities for this striking finding, thus identifying and examining an array of themes common to the archaeology of childhood and history of reproduction and the emotions to which a unified approach has yet to be taken. In doing so, we raise broader questions about interdisciplinary working and demonstrate the significant value of close collaboration between historians and archaeologists in studies of the material and experiencing body. We present a novel, effective model of co-working and offer justification for others to adopt our approach to integrating historical and archaeological sources.

The assemblage from St Hilda's church would not be startling were it found in Ireland, where a significant number of so-called cilliní were dedicated to the interment of what seem to have been unbaptised infants and children (Finlay, 2000; Murphy, 2011a; 2011b). In the period under study, both Protestant and Catholic Churches in Ireland followed the same burial rules as in England: no unbaptised individuals could be buried in consecrated ground. The Irish repurposed prehistoric monuments and disused structures or dedicated specific plots for the burial of unbaptised infants and children, but also adults of unknown baptismal status (Finlay, 2000: 409). This created what we might call sites of vernacular consecration, a concept we will return to later in our discussion of the evidence from St Hilda's. However, no burial sites comparable to the Irish cilliní are known in England. In some cases, fetal remains are recovered from within the pelvic cavities of adult female skeletons, suggesting contemporaneous death during pregnancy or childbirth. 1 Rarely, burials of fetuses, perinates and infants have also been encountered in locations outside consecrated ground in England (Cherryson et al., 2012: 122; Heighway and Bryant, 1999: 200; Nowakowski and Thomas, 1992; Tarlow, 2010; Whitworth, 1994: 136). These examples have never been discussed collectively, but in combination suggest that there may have been specific cultural practices in response to the deaths of the youngest individuals that the archaeological evidence has yet to fully reveal.

This chapter argues that situating the St Hilda's assemblage in a larger social and cultural history of death rituals and fetal and perinatal loss provides useful contexts for interpreting the skeletal remains. While an understanding of the legal codes governing burial is helpful, more significant are scattered stories of individuals contravening or contesting those rules, which afford glimpses of the meanings of death and burial for people whose beliefs and attitudes are otherwise unknown. These small stories may challenge casual assumptions about the significance of infant loss for working-class families who experienced high rates of infant mortality. Similarly, from an archaeological perspective, consideration of the information that can be obtained from such skeletal remains, alongside funerary and burial evidence, enriches and problematises this inquiry through its illumination of the actions taken by the living in response to those deaths.

Explaining the presence of fetal and perinatal remains in eighteenth and nineteenth century burial sites is challenging; by and large, unbaptised individuals, especially the very young, were not interred in consecrated ground, but were buried or simply abandoned in out of the way places (Tarlow, 2010: 52). While rules about christening have always been stretched by midwives administering emergency baptisms, or local vicars baptising newly deceased infants to ensure proper burial, fetal remains invoke different contexts: the deaths of women during pregnancy, stillbirth, induced abortion and infanticide (Tomkins, 2010, see esp. 210). Such histories are not often combined, but primary sources suggest that re-constructing a reproductive history that considers all the potential pathways to the burial of such remains is productive. In this chapter we bring both historical and archaeological methods to bear upon the site of St Hilda's, exploring what we are calling the fields of force within which it was constituted.

St Hilda's church cemetery

A small part of the southern section of the cemetery of St Hilda's church, South Shields, was excavated in 2006 prior to its destruction during the construction of a supermarket (Raynor et al., 2011) (see Figure 2.1). The church occupied the southern edge of the market square in the rapidly industrialising town. Its Coronation Street burial ground appears to have been the only churchyard serving the community of South Shields during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the time period from which the archaeological evidence dates. The cemetery excavations revealed two distinct chronological phases of burial, split by a period during which the over-full cemetery was built up with a substantial quantity of new earth. The lower burials date from the latter quarter of the eighteenth century to 1818 and the upper burials from 1818 to just beyond the cemetery's closure in 1855, with burial finally ceasing completely around 1860 (Raynor et al., 2011: 30, 98).

Figure 2.1 Location of St Hilda's church and the surrounding town of South Shields as represented on Richardson's map of 1768 and Fryer's map of 1773. The area of excavation which revealed the fetal and perinate group discussed in this chapter is overlain.

The excavated area was 70 m south of the church, which still stands. During the early phase of burial this land was beyond the southern boundary of the cemetery as indicated on contemporary maps (Fryer, 1773; Raynor et al., 2011: 99; Richardson, 1768), but was still used for a substantial number of burials. The western area of this lower burial group was dominated by the interments of fetuses and perinates. At the time of excavation and reporting in 2011, such a concentration of burials was described as unprecedented in Britain (Raynor et al., 2011: 6), and indeed there are many unusual aspects of this burial group. In total, thirty-four burials of fetuses and perinates were excavated from thirty-three plots (see Figure 2.2). In no cases were these burials accompanied by adult female remains, suggesting all were postpartum. In eight instances, it appears that plots were intentionally reused for one or more additional burials of fetuses and perinates, suggesting graves were sufficiently visible to facilitate identification and reuse. The vast majority of burials were made in individual wooden containers. Given the estimated ages at death of the remains and their location beyond the contemporary cemetery boundary, this burial cluster was interpreted by the excavators as unbaptised infants, for whom burial within the cemetery proper was not legitimate (Raynor et al., 2011: 98). However, the archaeological evidence of these graves is entirely inconsistent with their being covert burials. Rather, we suggest that the intention was to provide normative funerary rites to the perinates, with concomitant investment in planning and ceremony. The clustering did not continue after work to raise the cemetery between 1816–18. At this point the cemetery boundary was also extended, so that the excavated area was now within its periphery, at which point the burials of older children and adults began to appear frequently in this location. What had formerly been, we argue, a site informally consecrated through local practices now became part of the officially consecrated churchyard.

Figure 2.2 Plan of the lower level of the western section of the excavated area, indicating the locations of human skeletal and coffin remains.

Unusually, from 1798, St Hilda's parish burial records include age at death; occupation of male head of household (burials of women and children were listed by husbands’ or fathers’ occupations); and, occasionally, causes of death, providing data about mortality and economic structures in South Shields (Durham Record Office, EP/SS.SH 1/78 Register of burials, 19 May 1785–30 October 1799). We used the 167 burial records from January to September 1798 to create a snapshot view of the parish. A smallpox epidemic marked the last quarter of 1798, so those months were not included. This was a maritime economy; of the sixty-seven entries that listed occupation, thirty-six, or over half, were of burials whose wage-earners worked in shipping, including twenty-three ‘mariners’, a few shipwrights, a sailmaker and five ‘trimmers’, the men who distributed cargo, especially coal, on board a ship as it was loaded. By contrast, only three gentleman and eight artisanal occupations, including blacksmith, clockmaker, cordwainer, joiner and watchmaker, were listed.

Age at death statistics indicate the hazards of infancy in South Shields: thirty-eight out of 167 burials were of infants less than 1 year old; another thirteen were between 1 and 2 years old; 31% of all burials were for children under 2. However, neonatal and perinatal burials were under-represented by comparison to the archaeological sample discussed here; just under 5% of burials were for babies under a month old. If a South Shields resident survived childhood, they might live to an old age; 10% of burials were for those aged 80 years and above. Consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) was far and away the biggest killer listed; of the thirty-three burials that listed cause of death, nineteen, or 58% were due to consumption. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s, of all occupations, succumbed to the disease. Fever, dropsy and smallpox were the other diseases listed, suggesting that perhaps the parish clerk had a particular concern with these ailments.

Disciplinary lenses

In exploring the meanings of these remains, this chapter poses methodological questions about how bioarchaeology and the history of medicine might inform each other. While these questions have been debated between us as a result of our work on the case study of St Hilda's church, they have a wider resonance for our disciplines. We have identified what we call the handmaiden problem. 2 Many collaborations put one or other discipline into a helper role, called upon to explain some facet of the other discipline's project, creating epistemological problems by concealing the knowledge-making practices that generated that ‘helper’ knowledge. One discipline's ‘results’ are stripped of information about their making, transformed into facts, and mobilised to explain part of the other discipline's project. Much of the subtlety, the soft spaces where further research might interrogate knowledge-making practices as well as knowledge itself, is made to disappear.

We propose a different model: our disciplines function as equals in a mutually devised project. Each of us has had to reflect on disciplinary biases and habits of mind, and how we frame what the ‘other’ discipline does. As we worked together, it became clear that different disciplinary training led us to see sources and problems in different ways, differences that have been productive. In what follows, we will offer a series of brief sketches of the kinds of differences to which we refer, and then dive deeper into the assumptions each of us brought to our work. Most of the chapter has been fully co-written, the result of many productive cross-disciplinary conversations that probed deeper disciplinary assumptions as well as interpretive strategies. Our collaboration worked in part because neither of us felt the need to defend customary disciplinary practices, but, rather, to explain and illustrate how they worked for the other scholar. To underline the ways in which our respective disciplines sometimes differ, we indicate which of us is ‘speaking’ when discussing such moments of productive difference and dialogue.

We noticed that Fissell moved immediately from human remains to issues of motherhood and reproduction; the bones were quickly embedded in a social matrix. Such a move is not surprising; not only has she been working on the history of gender and reproduction for a long time, but also history might have little to say about such perinatal individuals as individuals (Fissell, 2004a; Fissell, 2017). Craig-Atkins's focus initially rested on the fetal and perinatal remains. Her first consideration was to obtain data from the bones, evaluating this at the individual and group level. Next, she was concerned with the funerary context – how and where the individuals had been buried. Her approach tackled the material evidence first, and, as a result of the physically bounded nature of the material body, began with the individual. Additional layers of interpretation and enquiry rested on what Julienne Rutherford (2017: 15) has called ‘the spatiotemporal complexity of fetal experience’. As a consequence of biological and social interconnectivity, the fetal and perinatal skeleton reflects the experiences of its mother, including maternal nutrition, rearing behaviour and stress exposure (Rutherford, 2017: 18). Similarly, the creation of social identity for perinates and stillbirths is complex and relational, connected by its making to mother, father and society (Ellis, 2020: 188). Identifying whether women have borne children from their skeletal remains is highly problematic (McFadden, 2020), and it is rarely possible to pair infant skeletons with those of their mothers. 3 Therefore, for bioarchaeologists, the skeletal remains of fetuses, perinates and infants offer a more direct route to studying maternity than the remains of women themselves. Moreover, as a result of their heightened susceptibility to environmental stressors, the youngest members of any group offer a sensitive proxy for the health of an entire population, not just childbearing women (Satterlee Blake, 2017).

We brought different assumptions to the language used to describe the remains. Craig-Atkins was mindful of biologically accurate and comparable terminology (see Buckberry, 2018: 56–7). Prioritising a standardised biological basis for terminology (e.g. Gowland, 2006: 143–4; Lewis, 2007: 2; Sofaer, 2005: 121–4), the terms fetus, perinate and infant were used to reflect stages of physiological development. 4 In most cases, we simply cannot determine the gestational status of any individual set of remains. A skeleton of the same developmental stage – for example 36 gestational weeks (GWS) – might be the remains of a stillborn fetus, or a low-birthweight newborn, or even the result of a very late-term abortion (Lewis, 2007: 84). We agreed that using terms linked to skeletal development makes clear the limits of our knowledge. Words like baby and mother were used rarely, but could be deployed when conveying the socially constructed implications of these biological identities. Fissell was concerned about the emotive connotations of such words.

Fissell: Over the past three decades, the history of medicine has taken a social – and then a cultural – turn, much like the larger discipline of history (Craig-Atkins and Harvey, this volume: introduction; Fissell, 2004b). Such turns may seem implicitly antithetical to the science-based discipline of bioarchaeology, as in the case of so-called retrospective diagnosis (Arrizabalaga, 2002; Mitchell, 2011; Packard, 2016; Wilson, 2000). For many historians of medicine, Fissell included, knowing what people in the past really died of can seem like a form of historical blindness. In this case the word really means ‘using modern medical diagnostic categories’. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing so, but for a cultural historian, it can seem like an empty form of precision that might occlude the very things that we are exploring. Cultural historians are much more interested in understanding how historical actors made sense of their experiences; indeed, how that making sense was a significant part of their lived experience.

Craig-Atkins: Early twentieth-century osteological research was undertaken largely by medically trained scholars and thus privileged the identification of biological characteristics and diagnosis of diseases categorised in contemporary medicine. Theoretical frameworks which engage explicitly with the material body and experiencing body, and the body as both a biological and cultural object, have since created a more nuanced context within which osteologists have situated their research (Craig-Atkins and Harvey, this volume: introduction). This has manifested in the integration of skeletal remains into archaeologies of gender, disability and care. In a practical sense, biological data obtained from human remains form a strand of evidence used in the interpretation of cultural practice (Gowland and Knüsel, 2006), and conceptually archaeologists theorise material bodies as physical objects which interact reflexively with their cultural contexts (Sofaer, 2005). Bone and tissue are plastic materials, which respond and adapt to both internal and external environments. Thus, the physical body is shaped by lifestyle and behaviour, access to the resources it needs to grow and maintain itself and exposure to disease, all of which result from the choices made (or enforced upon) the living person by their social and physical environment and then influence subsequent choices they make during their lifetimes. For societies who did not document their experiences, or for which only some sectors of society did, one of our main sources of evidence for physical experience will always remain the body itself. To say that the biological is not the sum total of personal experience should not be to deny the reality of physically embodied experiences. Historians, too, emphasise that their actors’ subjective experiences were grounded in their physical bodies (Craig-Atkins and Harvey, this volume: introduction).

While there is much more that both of us could say about the ways in which our disciplinary perspectives intersect and divide on the subject of the body, we have arrived at some shared understandings. Both bones and texts serve as proxies for what we really want to know, which is how people lived in their bodies, experienced their lives through them, and how bodies were created and re-created through contextually contingent understandings. The two disciplines speak eloquently on different things, and each offers insights that the other cannot. When set side by side, they offer up productive tensions and challenges.

The fields of force which shaped the St Hilda's burials

A useful analytic will bring both disciplines to the table in an equal way; here we do that by arguing that three intersecting fields of force shaped the archaeological record at St Hilda's. First, perinatal mortality rates were high; many women experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death; many children did not live beyond their first few weeks. Second, people at all social levels highly valued what they saw as a decent burial, but the costs of burials could be problematic, especially for perinatal loss. Third, in the absence of reliable forms of contraception, and changing patterns in the way that the law dealt with unwed motherhood, unwanted pregnancies must have been fairly frequent, perhaps resulting in the burial of fetal and perinatal remains at St Hilda's.

Sources for this study include newspaper stories about a range of reproductive issues, often linked to criminal cases. The period in which burials took place, estimated to be 1780–1860, was one in which newspapers boomed, aided by new steam-powered printing presses after 1810 and rising literacy rates. Not only were there more stories in more newspapers, but also from the 1840s, England was gripped by a moral panic about infant life. Exposés mushroomed in the press on topics such as baby-farming, infanticide and burial clubs. Baby-farms were, at best, day-care for infants; women working in factories could not combine childcare with work as they had done before in their homes. At worst, baby-farms were passive infanticide, infants so neglected that they died. Burial clubs were insurance for the costs of burial and were common in working-class communities. Middle-class observers argued that clubs were financial incentives to infanticide. While rarely substantiated, such claims made sensational news, fuelled by class prejudice (Hunt, 2006; Thorn, 2003). This panic created a density of primary sources, which may conceal continuities over the longer nineteenth century. Our working assumption is that many practices documented in these mid-century sources were longer-term, more gradual developments, but only became more visible at mid-century in this panic fuelled both by newspaper growth and a new demographic imperative spurred by the advent of the Registrar-General's office (Higgs, 2004).

Similarly, there are interpretive issues with the archaeological data arising from differential survival and preservation in the funerary record. First, the excavations at St Hilda's uncovered only a tiny area of a much larger cemetery and so cannot provide a representative sample of the dead from this population. Given the highly unusual demographic make-up of this cemetery population created by the perinatal burial group, we cannot reliably compare age-specific mortality patterns between St Hilda's and other contemporary cemeteries. Second, the nature of archaeological chronologies is to collapse decades and generations – we cannot reflect on how many of the individuals excavated were alive at any one time, or pinpoint their dates of death, nor match up familial groups of perinates and the women who bore them.

Infant mortality

Infant mortality rates were substantial in pre-modern Britain, often reaching the magnitude of 150–175 per 1000 live births, and, broadly speaking, these rates remained largely unchanged throughout the nineteenth century (Garrett, et al., 2006). In the period of the burials at St Hilda's, mortality in places like South Shields was shaped by conflicting developments. On the one hand, longer-term gradual improvements in health and hygiene, and modest improvements in midwifery training, had a small positive effect on perinatal mortality (Smith and Oeppen, 2006; Woods, 2009). On the other, the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation made these mushrooming cities much less healthy places to live than the towns that preceded them.

Women and children, our focus here, experienced these stresses in multiple ways: poor diets, overcrowding, exposure to industrial pollution, harmful labour practices and other similar factors impinged upon their health. The deterioration of general health in industrial populations is plentifully evidenced in their skeletons (Floud and Harris, 1997; Roberts and Cox, 2003). 5 During the mid-nineteenth century in London, disparities in body size were more pronounced among poorer women than men (Ives and Humphrey, 2017) and in poorer women than wealthier women (Hughes-Morey, 2016). Industrial period infants and children were also small for their age (Hodson and Gowland, 2019; Ives and Humphrey, 2017; Newman et al., 2019). Chronic diseases related to nutrition, immune health and lifestyle also increased; scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis, for example, being identified more frequently in skeletal remains following industrialisation (Brickley et al., 2007; Ives, 2017; Lewis, 2002a; 2002b). Notably, cases of rickets and scurvy among individuals under six months of age at death suggest either early cessation of breastfeeding, to the significant detriment of the infant's metabolic health, or that breastfeeding women were passing their own deficiencies on to their dependent infants (Hodson and Gowland, 2019; Newman, 2019; Satterlee Blake, 2017: 46). While the broader picture of the health implications of these dual developments – urbanisation and industrialisation – has long been known, the remains uncovered at St Hilda's paint a more specific picture of the way that these costs were paid by the very youngest and, by implication, their mothers.

During fetal development, observation and measurement of the formation and fusion of different hard tissues enable us to assign age to a skeleton with an accuracy of a few weeks (Cunningham et al., 2016) and thus generates a foundation of data from which to build a critical understanding of their short lives. This process is particularly accurate when based on formation and eruption of deciduous teeth (Al Qahtani, 2014) or dimensions of the base of the skull (Hodson, 2018). Long bone length is a less accurate proxy for chronological age, being affected by environmental factors to a greater extent than the former methods. As a result, a dental age in advance of age assessed from long bone development is commonly used as a marker of exposure to physiological stress, both during early life and in the womb (Halcrow et al., 2017: 97–8).

The age at death distribution for the fetal and perinatal individuals from the lower burial group at St Hilda's is presented in Figure 2.3. The burials include the remains of several who died at or before 28 weeks gestation. Four have an age at death below 24 weeks, the range classified today as late miscarriage. However, these youngest individuals have been assigned an age based solely on femoral development, and therefore may be older if exposed to physiological stress in utero. An additional five individuals aged 24–28 weeks have age estimates based on the basi occiput (part of the base of the skull), which has been argued to be a reliable marker of chronological age (Hodson, 2018). Notable among this group are skeletons 751.1 and 751.2 who were interred together in the same grave and were likely twins. One of the pair has a dental age significantly in advance of the skeletal ages attributed to both individuals, suggesting the twins were both small for their gestational age as well as born prematurely: like today, not an unlikely outcome of multiple pregnancy (Giorgione et al., 2021). Today, fetuses under 28 weeks gestation would be assigned to the latter half of the second trimester of pregnancy. The end of that trimester is the point at which a modern fetus would be considered viable without extensive medical care. It is highly unlikely that any of these premature individuals survived for long following their births and the group probably includes a number of stillbirths.

Figure 2.3 Age at death distribution of the fetal and perinatal individuals from St Hilda's based on dental development (Al Qahtani et al., 2010), basi occiput dimensions (Scheuer and McLaughlin Black, 1994) and femoral length (Kiserud et al., 2017; Scheuer et al., 1980). Four fetal/perinatal individuals are omitted from this chart as none of the required skeletal elements could be assessed (Sks 703, 796, 842, 1007).

The remaining perinates died between the ages of c.28–37 gestational weeks (fetal) and c.38–45 gestational weeks (perinatal). 6 It is not possible using the available resolution of osteological analysis to make any assumptions about whether the majority were born alive or stillborn, nor how long they lived had they been born alive (Halcrow et al., 2017). 7 It is conceivable that the large group of individuals from St Hilda's aged between c.37–40 weeks are both small-for-gestational-age and full term; however, the parity seen between dental, occipital and femoral age in many cases does not appear to reflect significant exposure to in utero stress.

Prematurity is a key factor in perinatal death today, alongside asphyxia, infection and birth defects (Halcrow et al., 2017; WHO, 2020). More than 90% of extremely preterm babies (less than 28 weeks) born in low-income countries die within the first few days of life (WHO, 2018) and birth between 28–36 GWS also results in increased risk of infant death (Kramer et al., 2000). Premature birth can also indicate poor health and/or nutritional stress in the mother, as can the delivery of small-for-gestational-age babies (Halcrow et al., 2017: 87). Perhaps the women who bore these perinates struggled with poverty, but poor urban maternal health was not restricted to the lowest socioeconomic classes (Hodson, 2018). 8

In modern Western culture, with at-home pregnancy tests and early scans, it can be difficult to imagine just how uncertain pregnancy determination was in earlier times (Bell and Fissell, 2021). Quickening, the moment in pregnancy where women start to notice in utero fetal movements, was often the key indicator, although not fool proof (Gowing, 1997). Crucially, it made the determination of pregnancy a private matter for the woman concerned. Before the 1830s, when the use of the stethoscope was adopted in British obstetrics, no medical practitioner could be certain of a pregnancy before the actual delivery. Today, quickening usually occurs around 18–20 weeks, but women who have already experienced pregnancy may report fetal movements up to four weeks earlier, presumably as a result of familiarity (Engstrom, 1985). As the youngest individual from St Hilda's was unlikely to be less than 20 weeks at death, 9 it is plausible that all the pregnant women had experienced quickening and were aware of their pregnancies. This consideration has implications for the experiences of, and responses to, the deaths of the perinates from St Hilda's, whose remains were buried with care and attention – a topic to which we will return.

From the historical record, maternity care may have been a scarce resource in South Shields, which suggests another kind of contextual explanation for the high proportion of perinatal remains at Coronation Street. South Shields’ infant mortality rates in 1851 were 191, substantially above even the 151 recorded for Tyneside and Wallsend, directly across the river from South Shields; some southern rural districts had rates below 100. 10 South Shields had 4.6 doctors per 10,000 people, half the rate of the neighbouring Westoe district and a quarter of that in wealthy districts like Bath and central London. 11 The most significant medical practitioner, however, is more difficult to locate in the historical record: midwives were well known in their communities but were not usually registered and often did not list themselves in local directories.

Midwifery provision may have improved somewhat in the century from 1750 to these 1851 figures; a number of Newcastle charities and a hospital provided new forms of care. Across the river from South Shields, a Lying-In Charity had provided midwifery care and childbed linens from 1761 onwards to poor women in Newcastle and Gateshead. By 1806, the charity claimed that it had delivered 5883 women and improved the quality of midwifery care (The Newcastle Courant, Saturday 1 March 1806). A charitable lying-in hospital founded in Newcastle in 1761 offered a course of lectures on midwifery in 1824 (Mackenzie, 1827; Newcastle Courant, Saturday 28 August 1824). Such provision of charitable care and new forms of education is characteristic of English midwifery improvement in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Further local research is needed in Tyneside and Durham archives to better illuminate the shape of maternity provision in South Shields, but it is clear that poverty shaped many women's reproductive lives.

Newspaper accounts privileged the exceptional, so must be read with care, but they tell stories about severe deprivation with a lack of adequate obstetric care. In 1843, Margaret Wheatley, a 22-year-old single woman who lived in central Newcastle, died after four days in labour. She had sent for a midwife, but could not afford the 2s 6d fee, so the midwife did not assist. Instead, a neighbour attended her. Wheatley refused to send for the relieving officer (the local Poor Law official), who could have paid for medical attendance. An autopsy concluded that her life might have been saved had she had proper medical care (The Newcastle Courant, Friday 29 December 1843). There's a deeper story here than just the tragic consequences of lacking 2s 6d for the midwife. The 1834 New Poor Law had radically changed the situation of women like Wheatley. Over the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, many English communities tacitly accepted premarital sex, so long as marriage followed if pregnancy ensued (Adair, 1996). Unmarried poor women could expect considerable social pressure to name the father of their child; indeed, midwives had long been expected to interrogate such women whilst they were in labour. Once a father had been identified, the Poor Law authorities chased him for child support; they also covered the cost of a midwife and usually that of a month's lying-in. In other words, there was support for young unmarried women pregnant in a failed lead-up to marriage.

After 1834, this whole structure changed. The so-called ‘Bastardy Clause’ of the New Poor Law absolved the fathers of responsibility and punished mothers by threatening to incarcerate them in the workhouse. Workhouses were seen, with some justification, as prisons for poverty, and Wheatley may have wanted to avoid such incarceration. Working-class activists protested the gender and class politics of the Bastardy Clause. An indignant article in the Newcastle Journal only a day after the report on Wheatley's death bemoaned ‘the folly, wickedness, and depravity’ of the Bastardy Clause (Newcastle Journal, Saturday 30 December 1843). The article's indignation was about both the financial burden of unwed motherhood, and the way the law encouraged men to avoid the consequences of their sexual acts.

Further scholarship is needed on how this law actively re-configured kinship and gender relations, but at minimum we need to note that adequate maternity care might be out of reach for a poor woman, and that the situation of poor unmarried pregnant women became much worse after 1834. It is clear that infant mortality was a problem experienced widely, and this affected the women of South Shields disproportionately. Such experience will have given rise to the need to dispose of the bodies of many perinates in this community, leading to the second field of force: burial practices provided to perinates.

The financial burden of decent burial

It is often assumed that high infant mortality rates meant that infant life was not highly valued in the past. Missing evidence for burial of perinates at some archaeological sites has led to conclusions that ‘it is likely stillbirths and neonates were frequently buried singly outside the normal places of human burial’ (Tarlow, 2010: 52). This observation does not imply that infant life was not valued. However, funerary responses to infant mortality were distinct from those associated with older children and adults, which suggests differences in attitudes surrounding their deaths. In contrast, historical sources are virtually unanimous about the importance placed upon a decent burial across all classes in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain (Gittings, 1998; Litten, 1991; 1998; Strange, 2005). While historical evidence abounds for funerary practices for children, we have much less about their younger counterparts. The St Hilda's site affords us an unusual opportunity to see how the ‘decent burial imperative’ functioned when the deceased was a perinate, in particular regarding the use of grave furnishings such as coffins and the location of burials.

Waterlogged conditions in the lower levels of burial at St Hilda's, which were cut into the silts of the Mill Dam, facilitated the survival of organic materials so that coffins associated with the fetal and perinatal burial group were especially well preserved (Raynor et al., 2011: 84). The best-preserved coffin was that of skeleton 820, an individual of c.21–23 GWS (Sk 819, BG 822). Butt joints secured with nails fixed the various panels into a rectangular container 0.23m long and 0.15m wide, but the timber was very roughly hewn and workmanship was poor – the excavators described the box as ‘crudely hammered together’ (Raynor et al., 2011: 84). Vertical internal grooves suggest that the box was originally subdivided, and therefore served another purpose before being used as a coffin. Indeed, seven of the other coffins used for fetuses and perinates at St Hilda's appear to be reused boxes, as opposed to purpose-built coffins (Raynor et al., 2011: 85). 12

Anecdotal historical evidence suggests that use of box coffins was widespread, an example of what historians call an ‘economy of makeshift’ (Hufton, 1974). In Edwardian Manchester, for example, it was routine to ask shopkeepers for old soapboxes for infant burials. In Baltimore and Lyon, perinatal remains were found in just such repurposed boxes (Hardwick, 2020: 169–200; Hemphill, 2012: 442; Oman, No date: 9; Roberts, 1976: 85). At the same time, the economy of makeshift indicated by the repurposing of commercial boxes as coffins also suggests the economic hardship that decent burial posed for the working classes. Much of the textual evidence for working-class attachment to infants dates from later autobiographies and oral histories, so that the archaeological record here makes it clear that such practices date back to the eighteenth century (Ross, 1993).

A second way that funeral expenses could be curtailed is through reuse of coffins for more than one body. There is evidence for this practice in two of the lower burials at St Hilda's: the burial of possible twins 751.1 and 751.2 in plot 26 and skeletons 673 (25–27 GWS) and 688 (36–38 GWS) in what was probably a single coffin in plot 16 (Raynor et al., 2011: 34). However, in neither case is cost-saving the only explanation. Familial connection might be a compelling reason for the burial of the former in a single coffin, and cannot be ruled out in the latter, which, although unlikely to be twins, may have been born to related women. The reuse of plots is seen in other cases without reusing coffins; for example, in plot 22, skeletons 756 (38–42 GWS) and 761 (27–29 GWS) are buried in the same grave, but in two separate coffins – one a reused box and the other a single-break form. 13

The burials at St Hilda's are contemporary with the heyday of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century elaborate funerary practices, during which the use of coffins and various grave inclusions was common (Hoile, 2018; Litten, 1991; 1998; Swales, 2011). Even among the poor, for whom financial restrictions would have been great, the importance of providing a funeral and decent burial was such that many risked financial hardship to provide the best burial possible (Hurren and King, 2005; Richardson, 2000: 167–9; Strange, 2005). Most adult coffins at Coronation Street were purpose-built containers of the single-break form. Fourteen preterm individuals and nine perinates were also buried in single-break coffins, suggesting there was both desire and availability of small purpose-built coffins (Raynor et al., 2011: 85). The evidence for burials of some perinates in purpose-built coffins suggests that the wider standards of decent burial also applied to such interments, although not all burials were able to meet these standards.

Burial location

Graveyards were sanctified ground in which only those who had been baptised could be buried; at least in theory. Our working hypothesis is that the lower burial group, with its abundance of fetal and perinatal remains, may not have been sanctified ground before the 1816–18 relevelling and expansion of the churchyard (Raynor et al., 2011: 98). We suggest that unwritten custom was to use this area which adjoined sanctified ground as burial space for those perinates who had not been baptised. The gradual accumulation of perinate burials could thus have served as a form of vernacular consecration of this land, its purpose reinforced and legitimised through its use.

There is limited but nonetheless tantalising evidence of such vernacular consecration in post-medieval England beyond St Hilda's. At Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, four burials of ‘stillborn or newly-born infants’ based on their skeletal size and an additional two small, but empty, graves were dug into the demolition layers of the Priory. They were located in an undocumented burial area, interpreted as unbaptised infants excluded from the main cemetery (Whitworth, 1994). At St Oswald's, Gloucester, a group of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century burials made within the ruins of the Priory, beyond the official area of burial, included three perinates (Rogers, 1999: 232). At Jedburgh Abbey, in the Scottish borders, a group of fifteen post-monastic burials included three children, one of whom was less than 1 year, possibly a perinate. Grave-digging in this phase was noticeably haphazard and was interpreted as resulting from being outside official control (Lewis and Ewart, 1995: 129–30, 152). The latter two groups included older children and adults, although they have still been interpreted as excluded from consecrated ground on the basis of factors including baptismal status.

The burials of perinates and, perhaps, stillbirths at Coronation Street can be interpreted as the result of cross-cutting imperatives for working-class families in South Shields. On the one hand, there is evidence that such families sought a decent burial for even the youngest dead. However, such desires were confounded by the relatively high costs of burial, sometimes remedied by an ambiguity about when a newborn attained full personhood; some neonates were buried as stillbirths to save money. Stillbirths seem to have occupied an even more liminal status, neither treated in the same way as neonates nor completely distinct from them. Clear rules about interment in a churchyard – only those who had been baptised were eligible – turn out to be rather more ambiguous in practice.

There is clear anecdotal evidence from the 1870s and 1890s about the desire for churchyard burial for infants and children, even when unaffordable or unsanctioned. In 1876, workmen found the remains of a child in a fish basket that had been deposited in a Liverpool cemetery by dropping it over the boundary wall. In 1889, another workman found a box with infant remains hidden in the same cemetery's shrubbery. Two months later, another unofficial burial of an infant in a wooden box was found (Strange, 2005: 243–4). Working-class families often carried burial insurance on children to help defray the costs of a decent burial. But a newborn who died shortly after birth was unlikely to have been added to a burial policy in time. In 1842, Thomas Wakley had testified to a Select Committee that a poor person could not be buried for less than 10s, a substantial sum for a working family (Burying The Dead In Towns, 1842). In the same year, a Select Committee heard from a surgeon in Leeds about a grave that contained an additional body of a child ‘said to be illegitimate’ buried without a coffin; seemingly not an uncommon finding (Q2510 Select Committee on Interments X PP, 1842). While these families may not have been able to afford a proper burial, they sought an approximation of one by interring the bodies of their infants in a cemetery; we cannot know with what forms of ritual.

Stillbirths were perhaps even more challenging for poor families, and, as we will see, sextons recognised this hardship and tried to ameliorate it. In 1891, three women, somewhat the worse for alcohol, were seen hiding in some shrubbery in a Liverpool cemetery and it was discovered that they had hidden a small cardboard box with the body of a stillborn infant (Strange, 2005: 244). In Newcastle in November 1866, two boys found a cardboard box with the remains of a female infant, buried in a quarry. An inquest was held because of suspicion of infanticide. A stranger and sadder story emerged. The superintendents of two cemeteries – the new form of non-churchyard burial grounds developed mid-century – testified that three women had come to them seeking to bury an infant on the previous Sunday evening. One testified that they had carried the very same box the boys had discovered. However, the women had neither the burial fee nor a certificate backing up their claim that the infant had been stillborn, and so both superintendents turned the women away. By Friday's inquest, the women could not be identified, and the verdict ‘found dead’ was returned (The Newcastle Daily Journal, Saturday 3 November 1866). These new cemeteries often include un-consecrated ground so that Nonconformists could avoid burial in Anglican ground; we know of no research that explores the use of such ground for the interment of stillbirths, but this story suggests such sites may have been used for such. Nor were stillbirths registered until 1927, so the certificate seems to have been one from the midwife or doctor who attended the birth rather than a formal death certificate (The Newcastle Courant etc, Friday 30 September 1859).

This story has haunted our historical imaginations as we worked on the project. The narrative beautifully illustrates the paradoxes of perinatal loss. On the one hand, such loss, to judge by the evidence from St Hilda's, could be sorely felt, and addressed by means of the same funerary rituals as the loss of any other individual. However, stillborn infants were neither insured nor were they eligible for burial in a churchyard as they were not baptised, presenting both issues about personhood (was this an individual who should be given full funerary rites?) and a material problem of how to deal with such fetal remains (Mooney, 1994). In Tynemouth in 1851, for example, a soldier and his comrade were seen digging a small grave in a yard; after investigation an inquest was held. It emerged that the soldier's wife had given birth to a stillborn child and the father was preparing its grave; a midwife testified that the baby had been born dead prematurely, and thus the case was not about concealing an infanticide as authorities had feared (The Newcastle Courant etc, Friday 23 May 1851). Perhaps many other such tiny graves were dug that did not excite concern.

Rich textual evidence shows that midwives were the crucial figures involved in solving the problem of disposing of a perinatal body, often in alliance with sextons or cemetery workers. The latter often helped out by covertly interring perinatal remains in an adult coffin or grave. Thomas Wakley heard testimony in an 1859 inquest that it was commonplace for sextons to inter stillbirths in the coffins of unrelated adults, no one the wiser (The Era, Sunday 25 September 1859). Wakley assumed that this practice concealed countless infanticides, which he characteristically described as ‘hundreds upon hundreds of murdered children lying in the cemeteries and grave-yards of the metropolis’; but from another perspective, it was a way that sextons might help working-class families cope with the high costs of burial (The Newcastle Courant etc, Friday 30 September 1859). The 1840s career of a London midwife and abortion provider suggests that not only stillbirths were interred secretly in churchyards with sextons’ help. This midwife buried aborted fetuses in cardboard boxes, claiming they were stillbirths, with what must have been the connivance of sextons (The Morning Post, Saturday 30 September 1848; Mooney, 1994). The tone of reporting on this detail of the testimony implies that such burial practices for stillbirths were commonplace.

In nineteenth-century cemeteries, differences in burial costs for a stillborn infant versus live-born could be significant, and midwives conspired with families to cut costs. A Staffordshire midwife, for example, testified that she routinely certified infants who had lived for up to four days as ‘stillborn’ to save burial costs. A Birmingham midwife routinely signed stillbirth certificates for newborns and carried their bodies to the sextoness at a local cemetery (Strange, 2005: 240–3). While much of this evidence emerged in a late-century context where doctors were concerned about false certificates disrupting the collection of vital statistics, there is little reason to believe that such practices did not have a longer history.

In other words, it seems that it was common practice for midwives and sextons to attempt to mitigate the high costs of burials for perinates by clandestinely interring them in other coffins and charging the families a fraction of the cost of a burial. This custom may have been centuries old. The antiquary W. J. Thoms recorded a superstition that a stillborn buried clandestinely in a grave meant good luck for the legitimate burial; that individual was believed to ascend straight to heaven (Henderson, 1866: 5–6; Thoms, 1859: 172). Archaeological evidence consistent with this practice is not uncommon, but often challenging to interpret. Burials of women with perinates in their arms were excavated from nineteenth-century graves in Methodist cemeteries at Carver Street, Sheffield and Darwen, Lancashire, and there are six examples of adults buried with perinates at St Martin's-in-the-Bull-Ring in Birmingham (Buteux and Cherrington, 2006: 27; Gibson and Griffiths, 2011: 27; McIntyre and Willmott 2003: 26). These situations are commonly interpreted as women and infants who died in childbirth but may also reflect the practice of avoiding burial fees (either in cases of maternal and infant death or where an infant was buried with someone else) or even hiding infanticides as Wakley had feared (Cherryson et al., 2012: 122).

The complex archaeological record at St Hilda's paints a picture of a community desiring to afford the best burials they could manage for even the youngest dead. Funerary practices in South Shields acknowledged loss and attempted, via ritual, to knit up the community, to re-make it again around the loss of even its youngest members. But burial costs were high, and families employed a range of strategies to contain costs when the loss was perinatal or a stillborn. Some of the evidence of these strategies comes from reading against the grain in cases such as the abortionist interring fetal remains, or the complaints of middle- and upper-class commentators about how economic limitations pushed the poor to circumvent the law by concealing births, committing infanticide or using abortifacients. While such moral concerns cannot be taken at face value, they highlight the very real reproductive pressures felt by many women, which we argue were often in contradiction with the ‘decent burial’ imperatives sketched in this section.

Unwelcome and unwanted pregnancy

The large proportion of Coronation Street burials of remains of less than 28 GWS leads us to the context of unwanted as well as wanted (or at least accepted) pregnancies. The third ‘field of force’ that may structure this assemblage is the lack of effective contraception, made even more problematic by the erosion of older customs that accepted premarital sex in contexts in which pregnancy resulted in community pressure to marry, or at minimum, guarantees of child support from fathers. As mentioned above, with the advent of the so-called Bastardy Clause, women faced substantial reproductive pressures. Nor were unwanted births limited to unmarried women; many a working-class family simply could not feed another child. The historical record suggests that women responded to these pressures with a mix of abortion, passive and active neonaticide, and baby-farming, or outsourcing infant care. Midwives played crucial roles in many aspects of these vexed pregnancies.

Here we bring together evidence, largely taken from newspapers, about problem pregnancies and the various solutions women found to address them. The clandestine nature of solutions to unwanted pregnancy often renders them archaeologically and historically invisible, but on rare occasions, such actions become hyper-visible in the historical record when reported in newspapers or prosecuted in courtrooms. Such evidence provides potential contexts for the assemblage from St Hilda's. This discussion emphasises that the apparent silence on subjects such as contraception, abortion and infanticide in the archaeological record does not mean they were insignificant to the lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century people.

Methodologically, this third field of force moves us in a different direction. In our discussions of perinatal mortality and of the burial imperative, archaeological and historical evidence often seem to line up, to function in what we can call an additive way. For example, the archaeological evidence of coffins integrates well with a large array of textual sources that show that even quite poor people worked hard to avoid the ignominy of a parish burial. However, for the third field of force – unwanted pregnancy – historical and archaeological evidence do not match up well; they seem to speak past each other or even to be in contradiction. Rather than understanding this gap as a problem, we see it as profoundly productive. We argue that this gap can be interpreted as a pointer to the complex situation of young children in early and mid-nineteenth-century working-class English culture. As we will see, in a world in which reliable contraception was largely unknown, many a pregnancy may have been unwelcome. Infants were paradoxically both highly valued and often unwanted.

On the continent, a network of foundling hospitals offered desperate mothers an anonymous way to surrender an infant that they could not keep, but for women in South Shields no such option existed; even the foundling hospital in London was neither anonymous nor simple. Sometimes infants were left at a place where they would be found promptly; in 1867 Mr Pearson, a South Shields butcher, found a carefully wrapped-up baby on his butcher's block (The Leeds Times, Saturday 12 January 1867)! Other infants were neglected or abandoned in ways that led to their deaths. Newspapers frequently reported on the bodies of infants. For example, the body of a five-day-old girl was found by two schoolboys wrapped in a cloth under the parapet of Tyne Bridge. At the inquest the surgeon declared that the child had been delivered by a skilled midwife or medical man, but was unable to determine cause of death (Newcastle Courant, Friday 6 September 1861). In 1857, at Shotley Bridge, southwest of Newcastle, an infant girl's body was found in a stream but on this occasion, keen detective work identified the alleged mother, tracing her train journey in detail. She was charged with infanticide and bound over for trial (Newcastle Guardian, and Tyne Mercury, Saturday 28 February 1857). Subsequently, despite being described as the mother of eight illegitimate children, and thus not a witness likely to be granted much moral authority, 44-year-old Catherine Hemsley was acquitted due to insufficient evidence (Newcastle Guardian, and Tyne Mercury, Saturday 7 March 1857). The newspaper account is too sparse to help us interpret how a jury reached what may seem a surprising verdict.

Undoubtedly, some of the newspaper reporting of such cases was amplified by the mid-century moral panic about infant life, but many a story of an unwanted pregnancy resulting in perinatal mortality is similar in form to those a century or more earlier. Women working as domestic servants were vulnerable to their masters’ sexual advances. As Laura Gowing has illuminated for the seventeenth century, such women were likely to conceal or deny their pregnancies and find themselves accused of infanticide (Gowing, 1997; 2003). Similar cases were frequently reported in nineteenth-century Newcastle newspapers. For example, Ann Anderson, a domestic servant, died in 1842 from a massive dose of arsenic, probably taken to procure an abortion. While the mistress of the house tried to claim that a fellow servant had been the father, testimony at the trial revealed that Anderson had told a friend that it had been the master (Newcastle Journal, Saturday 12 February 1842; see also Newcastle Courant, Friday 18 July 1873; Newcastle Daily Journal, Monday 25 February 1867).

The medical and legal situation for women such as Anderson who wished to avoid pregnancy was dire. Middle-class couples began to practise family limitation from the 1850s, if not earlier, but not so working-class ones (Banks, 1969). At the same time, abortion had become much more perilous legally. From 1803, Lord Ellenborough's Act made abortion or attempted abortion after quickening punishable by death – later modified to transportation, or a prison term if before quickening (Keown, 2002). Despite the legal consequences, abortion continued to be widely used, at least to judge by the many advertisements for abortifacients published in newspapers (Ryan, 1837: 881; Taylor, 1846: 592–4). While the medical profession maintained a studious silence on all aspects of family limitation, newspapers offered a plethora of pills offering abortifacients in barely concealed phrases about restoring female regularity (McLaren, 1978: 78–89). Judging by newspaper accounts, arsenic must have been used frequently by women as an abortifacient, sometimes with fatal results (Whorton, 2010; The Northern Liberator, Saturday 30 March 1839). Where drugs did not work, there were, it seems, an array of midwives, surgeons and other practitioners offering surgical abortions.

Women in the South Shields area were certainly no strangers to abortion. Midwives were often the obvious people to whom women turned when they found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy; while little is known about her, a midwife was hanged in Newcastle in 1781 when a woman died as a result of the abortion she had performed (British Evening Post, 27–29 November 1781; see later references such as The Newcastle Courant, Friday 28 December 1860). In 1862, another young Newcastle woman, described as working as a servant ‘at a spirit bar’, sought help from a midwife with an unwanted pregnancy. First Jane Ann Irving took medicine provided by Ann Milburn. When that did not work, Catherine Grecian, another midwife, came over from Sunderland and performed a surgical abortion. When Irving later sickened, her mother taxed her with her suspicions, and the story was out (The Newcastle Courant, Friday 12 December 1862).

An extraordinary series of advertisements placed in Newcastle newspapers for over 30 years reveal an Edinburgh midwife who offered Newcastle women solutions to unwanted pregnancies. In 1803 Mrs Laidlaw told readers that she would ‘receive lying-in Women who wish Concealment’ – italicising the phrase for emphasis. Laidlaw offered a range of services: milk, night nurses and even the promise ‘to relieve the Parents altogether’ for a ‘Sum of Money’. Decades later, she claimed 42-years’ experience, although her advertisement had become a little more discreet (The Newcastle Courant, Saturday 9 July 1803; The Newcastle Courant etc., Saturday 5 August 1820; The Newcastle Courant etc., Saturday 12 May 1827). Mrs Laidlaw advertised in Newcastle newspapers for over three decades, suggesting that her services were in local demand, although probably beyond the means of most women. Nor was any woman likely to travel to her from Newcastle merely for a routine delivery.

Textual evidence from the Newcastle region suggests a huge, submerged number of women seeking to end a pregnancy or rid themselves of an unwanted infant. Disposal of the remains of terminated pregnancies was highly varied, from disposal with refuse to attempts to provide a decent burial, sometimes clandestinely. Traces of these practices may appear in the archaeological record, albeit in a form indistinguishable from the burials of neonates or stillbirths. In other cases, the sites chosen prevented survival of evidence, and/or may yet remain concealed. Therefore, this topic is both significant and highly charged in archaeology; it is both highly emotive and characterised by tenuous evidence (Scott, 1997). Indeed, only in extremely rare cases can the osteological record speak on the issue of unwanted children: where physical abuse left severe injury, which is difficult to evidence conclusively (Wheeler et al., 2013) or where suggestive excavated evidence can be combined with historical context. For example, the excavation of a nineteenth-century privy shaft in the Five Points district of New York City revealed three perinates – two aged around 40 weeks at death and the third 20–22 weeks (Crist, 2005). The context implies clandestine, perhaps casual, disposal, and their ages at death implicate miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion or infanticide. Five Points was associated with prostitution, so that combining the historical and archaeological records offered rare evidence to explore reproductive choices faced by nineteenth-century working women.

Given the potentially dire legal consequences of abortion or infanticide, we will never be able to determine the full extent of incidence, but documentary evidence suggests it was substantial. Such evidence is subtractive; that is, it cannot simply be added to the archaeological evidence to make a unitary analysis. Rather, it serves as a powerful counterpoint to the churchyard at St Hilda's, making those burials – and the care with which they were performed – stand out against a tapestry of reproductive crisis. In the largely patriarchal culture of early nineteenth-century England, working men achieved full maturity only upon becoming fathers and heads of their own households, but in such an economically tempestuous period, sustaining fatherhood could be precarious. Female domestic servants were sexually preyed upon by masters, or sought to pressure them into marriage, while many young women continued to engage in what they thought were premarital sexual relations, only to be abandoned by their partners when they fell pregnant. It was, in sum, a reproductive economy full of peril. What may not be visible in St Hilda's churchyard are the testimonies to that peril.

Conclusions

In this project we have attempted to integrate historical and archaeological evidence to consider multiple pathways that might have led to the burial of a group of fetuses and perinates in one northern industrial community and illuminate, through this, the reproductive experiences of women whose children did not survive beyond birth. We have also reflected upon the process of collaborative working across disciplines, devising a new way of understanding and harnessing our complementary expertise as a historian and an archaeologist as we collaborated on researching and writing this chapter. In so doing we have identified what we call the ‘handmaiden problem’ and sought to avoid it. We have glimpsed a world where reproduction was a risky and dangerous process. While medical care was available, it was often insufficient and inaccessible. Nevertheless, considerable effort and expense were expended to afford decency and respect in response to infant death, sometimes with compromises involving ‘economies of makeshift’. We have also identified examples of concealment, unwanted pregnancies and means of ending them accessible to many but increasingly viewed with disapprobation by lawmakers, which often remain largely invisible in historical and archaeological records.

At times, our evidence has been contradictory, much like the issues we have been investigating. It is clear from the archaeological record that the ‘decent burial imperative’ extended to the very youngest members of the community. At the same time, historical evidence suggests that the ability to provide such burials was limited; women carrying a small box from site to site, frustrated at every turn, or sneaking into a churchyard at night to perform a clandestine burial. Equally, such imperatives – and the emotional attachments we infer from them – were clearly not afforded every pregnancy or perinate. For many women, pregnancy was crisis; the reproductive landscape of late-eighteenth through mid-nineteenth-century England was perilous. Lacking contraceptive means, stigmatised and punished by the ‘Bastardy Clause’ of the New Poor Law, some women used desperate means to ensure they did not become mothers. Combining historical and archaeological evidence has highlighted this paradox, where pregnancy and infant life was highly valued in some settings and the source of desperation in others.

The integration of our disciplinary evidence and perspectives has thus opened up new avenues of inquiry and illuminated aspects of past lived experience that might otherwise be invisible. It has enabled us to offer a deeper insight into the circumstances that resulted in archaeologically unprecedented evidence for the burial of a cluster of fetuses and perinates beyond the boundary of the late-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century burial ground at St Hilda's church, South Shields. These graves, which we argue represent a focus of vernacular consecration, have been explored through intersecting fields of force shaped by high infant mortality, the moral imperative of decent burial and women's experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, and a new layer of complexity and nuance has been introduced to the reproductive experiences of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to collections managers at the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield (Sophie Newman, Tegid Watkins and Nina Maaranen) for access to the skeletal remains from St Hilda's and to Diana Swales, Sophie Newman and Delaney Mitchell for their archive osteological data which facilitated identification of fetal and infant individuals. Thanks are also due to John Bennet for comments on a draft of this chapter. The authors are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to meet and work together provided by the British Academy-funded ‘The Material Body: An Interdisciplinary Study in History and Archaeology’ (British Academy Small Grant SG151375; 2015–2018).

Notes

1 Examples contemporary with St Hilda's include Chelsea Old Church, London where two fetal and one perinatal individual were excavated in total. Two of these were located within the pelvic cavities of women (Cowie et al., 2008). At St Martin's-in-the-Bull-Ring there were nine fetal individuals, five of whom were recovered from the pelvic area of females (Brickley, 2006). There can be some doubt whether burials where fetal and perinatal remains are found in the pelvic cavity represent death during pregnancy and childbirth or result from the fall of the remains of the smaller individual into the pelvic cavity of the female during decomposition, which would be possible had the fetal/perinatal remains been laid above the adult in the grave.
2 Critical scholarship of archaeology's contributions to the study of the past has described the subject as ‘handmaiden to history’ (Perry, 2007), reflecting the tendency for historical narratives to be seen as more legitimate, truthful and complete than those obtained from physical evidence, including the human skeleton.
3 Mother/infant pairs can be identified in the archaeological record using ancient DNA evidence, which remains prohibitively expensive for many research projects, coffin plate evidence, which is rare for perinates or mother/perinate pairs (Hoile, 2020: 66, 79), or, considerably more tenuously, when a female and infant are buried in the same grave.
4 Assigning chronological age is complicated by the fact that archaeological data provide only proxies for this variable: biological age, the stage of physiological development of the skeleton; and social age in the form of evidence of how an individuals’ maturity was interpreted within their social and cultural context. A lack of agreed standards for age thresholds across different archaeological projects has made explicitly defining age categories in each new scholarly work a necessity. In this chapter, fetus = conception to c.37 gestational weeks (GWS), perinate = c.38–45 GWS, infant = c.45 GWS–1 year of age (Halcrow et al., 2017), but specific age ranges in gestational weeks are always used where possible to avoid ambiguous generalisation.
5 However, see Gowland and colleagues (2018) for evidence that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rural populations were not necessarily ‘healthier’.
6 Not discussed here are a further five individuals from the lower burial group aged over 46 weeks at death. These are Sk 756 6 months, Sk 590 6–12 months, Sk 586 7 months–1 year and Sk 678 11–12 years, and Sk 593 over 12 years. Three adults were also buried in this area of the cemetery, one at the south-western and two at the north-eastern extent of the perinate group. The adults are not discussed here, but if this site is analogous to the Irish cilliní, they may be individuals who had not been baptised, or whose baptismal status was unknown.
7 However, there are techniques that can help distinguish stillborn infants from live births based on the absence or presence, respectively, of gut bacteria which then affects the process of decomposition in archaeologically visible ways (Booth, 2016). This technique is destructive, requiring sectioning of bones to create histological sections and has not yet been undertaken at St Hilda's.
8 Hodson noted that the middling sort in London experienced higher rates of growth disruption during childhood than the poorest individuals in addition to high rates of pathological lesions.
9 Our reassessment revised that presented in the site report, where skeleton 862 is assessed as 16–18 GWS (Raynor et al., 2011: 105) to c.21–23 GWS.
10 ‘Infant Mortality’ CAMPOP, Populations Past – Atlas of Victorian and Edwardian Population www.populationspast.org/imr/1851/#10/54.9409/-1.6342 (accessed 24 May 2018).
11 ‘Doctors’ CAMPOP, Populations Past -Atlas of Victorian and Edwardian Population www.populationspast.org/doc/1851/#9/51.4437/-0.8913 (accessed 24 May 2018).
12 Four are from the lower burials, associated with skeletons 820 (21–23 GWS), 862 (21–23 GWS), 825 (36–40 GWS) and 761 (27–28 GWS) and three are from the later burials among the upper levels, i.e. not from the fetal and perinatal burial group.
13 Single-break coffins are an elongated kite shape with flattened top and bottom points – the classic six-sided shape of many modern coffins.

References

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The material body

Embodiment, history and archaeology in industrialising England, 1700–1850

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