Infant Mortality: A Surprising View


A Georgian Mourning Locket

There are occasions when you come upon something from the 18th century that overturns our modern assumptions about people’s outlook on life at that time. Such an event occurred to me this week when I lit on this entry in Matthew Flinders’ diary for November, 1776. Flinders was a surgeon-apothecary and man-midwife in Lincolnshire, who was active in business between about 1775 and his death in 1802. His book is not a diary in the modern sense of the word. It does not have daily entries. It’s closer to being a cash ledger with a series of comments added, some of them quite lengthy. If I continue to refer to it as his diary, that is simply the most convenient term. At the beginning, it also included medical notes on interesting cases. Gradually these disappear as he kept his medical observations elsewhere. All the spelling and punctuation are original.

On Wed. Nov. 13th at 4 in the Morn, Death made his first approach in our little family, by taking from us our second son—Jackey. He was very poorley for at least above a Month before and though an exceedingly fine child born, gradually lost his flesh, and seldom retained his food. We ought to account of this a mercifull Dispensation in that Providence made choice of the Youngest; to have parted with either of the other two woud have afflicted us much more; and as we have nought in a natural sense, but my industry in Business to depend on, we ought to think the non increase of our Family a blessing.

Death as ‘Contraception’?

It’s clear that Flinders is in some way relieved that he will have one less mouth to feed. Is this a genuine thought, or merely trying to find something ‘good’ in an awful situation? ‘Jackey’ had been born in September of that year, so he was barely two months old.

The rest of the diary proves that Flinders was a deeply religious man, so he may have been trying to deal in his own mind with ‘the problem of evil’: how a loving God can allow dreadful, painful things to happen in the world. There’s no way of knowing, but it seems to me that there is at least one reason why what he writes is probably his genuine view. These words are taken from his private journal, so were never intended for publication or sharing. You might dissemble to present a stoical face to the world, but why lie to yourself—at least beyond what might help you feel better.

More Child Deaths

A further indication that relief at lowering the size of his family was genuine is this second entry from August, 1777. His poor wife seemed constantly to be pregnant.

My Wife’s Fourth Labour

I have great reason to acknowledge the unmerited goodness of the Supreme, that my wife was safely delivered of two Daughters on Saturday July 19 1777. They are both dead, being two months before due time. The particulars of the Labour I have noted in my Midwifry Cases [1]. How kind is the Providence of God thus to free us from the expence and care of a numerous family, for had all our young ones lived with us, we should scarce [have] known what to have done with them. The two we have living, if agreable to divine Wisdom, I would gladly keep, but by no means wish an increase. However let that happen as it may; I hope we shall always acquiesce to the good will of God. I praise God my wife is well recovered.

It’s probably fair to say that Flinders’ religious outlook maybe even hampered him in dealing with the whole matter of bearing ‘excess’ children. On the one hand, he clearly thinks he cannot afford to deal with more. Yet any kind of actual contraception [2], even abstinence, would probably have violated his desire to ”… acquiesce to the good will of God.”

In March, 1783, his first wife died. She had produced another set of still-born twins in May, 1778, and three more children after that, all of whom lived. Flinders’ family at her death therefore stood at five surviving children out of ten actually born. This rate of 50% infant mortality was not at all unusual for the time, even in middle-class households. Amongst the poor, it would have been higher.

Source: Flinders, M. Gratefull to providence: The diary and accounts of Matthew Flinders, surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife, 1775–1802: Vol. 1: 1775–1784. Ed. Martyn Beardsley and Nicholas Bennett. Lincoln Record Society, United Kingdom, 2008.

  1. This must have been a separate book.  ↩
  2. Not that there were many viable options in the 18th century. However, as an apothecary, he must have known of potential remedies, from actual contraception to early termination. He would also have had access to any drugs or herbs needed.  ↩

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3 Responses to Infant Mortality: A Surprising View

  1. There are stories like this from the highest levels of society as well. Despite the number of modern romances where the hero uses a French letter for contraception, that really was not in the typical Regency man’s mind. The only option was abstinence, which led many men to buy sex.


  2. noelleg44 says:

    It’s hard to imagine what life was like for women before the birth control pill! They were just vassals (vessels?) to bear children with no choice in the matter. Worse would be the mother-child bond so often broken by infant mortality.
    I’ve been watching Call the Midwife, which brought it home.


    • Yes. Very tough times, I’m sure. The death of a child is not something anyone is likely to cope with easily, however much they knew it was likely to happen to them as it did to others in their community.


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