The Pitter Patter of Ghostly Feet

You walk into the scan room thinking that you’re a happy mum in her second trimester. A fortnight later you find yourself standing in the unmarked section of a silent cemetery, staring at a little wooded glade where your baby’s ashes have been scattered. The shift is so abrupt, so unheralded, that you can spend years trying to catch up with it all. I don’t think any words could capture the desolation of what I felt back then: once you’ve been shattered into countless shards, it takes a while before you learn how to put yourself back together as a functional human being.

Missed miscarriage is such a horrible phrase. To me it conjures up the notion of a trivial moment of forgetfulness, as if you’ve casually locked your keys in the house or neglected to pick up a loaf of bread at the shop on the way home. Not that your baby’s heart has stopped. The term completely fails to capture the enormity of the situation, and – other than some brief notes in the medical records – there’s next to no trace in official documents where anyone else might recognise what’s happened.

As genealogists, we’re used to dealing with the concrete. But what of the pregnancies which didn’t go to term? Image: Mother & Child, c/o National Science & Media Museum.

Part of the difficulty is that the human condition has a tendency to define things by the concrete; by the babies that made it as far as drawing breath. And so to the outside world, I find myself a mother of one; yet my inner reality is far more complex than that, reconciling to unspoken stories of loss. If my descendants were to research me two hundred years from now, that outer identity is all they’d have to go on.

It’s precisely that separation between the inner and outer maternal identities which I want to explore today – in particular, how we can hold in mind the reproductive stories of our female ancestors.

Inner Maternal Identity vs. Outward Appearance

When we study our ancestors, the rigours of research mean that we have to focus on the existing evidence: the birth certificates, the children’s entries on the census, the lists of dependents on military records. Fanciful musings over other possibilities can’t ever extend the family tree in a concrete way, and so there’s a general tendency to avoid speculation.

Although I wouldn’t ever condone adopting fanciful guesswork as truth and adding it to your family tree, I believe we’re missing a lot of the story if we don’t at least take the time to consider the range of possibilities which lie in between each live birth on our pedigree charts. It’s been said that our blindness to historical pregnancy losses “perpetuates the isolation and silencing of women, and the erasure of their lived experience from the historical record and cultural memory[7], so I think it’s time we gave this due attention in our family history research. If we are to gain a more balanced understanding of our female ancestors, then we need to consider what their reality might have been – whether by studying their personal writings, by exploring their maternal timelines, or by educating ourselves about the realities of pregnancy, stillbirth and miscarriage in earlier eras in order to step into their world.

Mothers & babies at the Baptist Chapel, Lord Roberts Road, Beverley, Yorkshire, 1908. Although some births can confound us when we’re trying to locate them in parish baptismal registers or records of civil registration, we at least have a range of documentary sources available to us. Pregnancy losses are more difficult to uncover. Image courtesy of the East Riding Archives, ref. PH-4-7.

How did our ancestors experience pregnancy loss?

Just as modern day parents experience a range of emotions following pregnancy loss, so must we account for a variation in our forebears’ responses to miscarriage or stillbirth. Historical studies of writings from nineteenth-century women in North America have shown that “women expressed ‘grief, frustration, resignation, relief, and joy. Miscarriage could lead to death and it could be a minor inconvenience‘”[2].

Within a genealogical context, pregnancy loss can be a challenging subject to research due to scant written evidence, especially if you wish to focus on a specific ancestor. Much of our awareness of the maternal emotional response to miscarriage and stillbirth comes from personal writings such as diaries and letters, but surviving examples from before the twentieth century are uncommon and largely skewed towards the middle classes. Additionally, studies of nineteenth-century writings suggest that where miscarriage is mentioned, it is frequently clouded by the use of terms such as ‘indisposed‘, ”unwell‘ or ‘sick‘, making it difficult to distinguish from other medical issues [1].

Letter to Sanger detailing twelve years of marriage with 9 pregnancies, five living children, 2 stillbirths and two miscarriages.
Extract from Motherhood in Bondage [8], a collection of letters written to birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger in the USA of the 1920s. In this case, nine known pregnancies resulted in 5 living children, 2 stillbirths and 2 miscarriages.

If you’re ready for some truly heartbreaking reading, the combined fears of maternal mortality and pregnancy loss are brought to light in Margaret Sanger’s book Motherhood in Bondage [8], originally published in 1928. This curated collection of letters offers a working class perspective on pregnancy, birth, and large families, and provided evidence in support of Sanger’s birth control movement. These are candid appeals of distress from women – and sometimes men – faced with the choice between sexual abstinence or the prospect of having a large family which they could not support. The example above, detailing the maternal history of a woman whose nine pregnancies in twelve years had resulted in two stillbirths and two miscarriages, demonstrates the extent of omission we experience in our genealogy research when we fail to consider instances of pregnancy loss. To the outside world, this woman was a ‘mother of five’, but her actual narrative involved nine pregnancies.

The letters in Sanger’s collection demonstrate that annual pregnancies were a common experience prior to birth control becoming freely available, although this was not true for everyone. By contrast, Felicity Jensz’s study of 19th century writings from missionary wives suggests that fertile couples might have an average spacing of two years between children, but that longer gaps were typically associated with some form of pregnancy loss (whether miscarriage or stillbirth) [1]. Although this spacing cannot be assumed to hold true in all cases, it provides a useful point of comparison based upon written evidence of pregnancy loss. Evidence from a study of English parish registers over the period 1538-1830 suggests that the average 19th century couple had a gap of 30 months between live births [9].

Letter to Margaret Sanger from a 40 year old mother with ten children who has just had a miscarriage.
Letter to Margaret Sanger, taken from her 1928 collection Motherhood in Bondage.

Pregnancy loss and parental bereavement might have been more common in times gone by, but this doesn’t mean that parents were any less distressed by such events, or that the children lost were quickly forgotten. A recent talk for the Oxford Centre for Life Writing entitled Writing Lost Lives, by historian Dr. Lucy Allen-Goss, discusses evidence for formal remembrance of stillbirth, including the 16th century will of one Robert Duckett of Sussex, who left money to pay for a memorial in his parish church to his stillborn son (although it seems that this request was never carried out). Although it’s quite a long shot, you may wish to investigate wills and local churches to see if your ancestors left any evidence of their stillborn children.

Understanding Stillbirth

Nowadays, stillbirth is defined in the UK as a pregnancy loss beyond 24 weeks’ gestation, although the 1926 Births & Deaths Registration Act determined it to be any loss beyond the 28th week. Historical stillbirth rates are typically difficult to estimate; officially speaking, stillbirths generally represent a partial blind spot in the official record until we reach 1927 in England and Wales, when the civil registration of stillborn children was legally enacted. Scotland’s stillbirth registration system came even later, not appearing until 1939 (by contrast, Swedish stillbirth registration started in the 1750s, whilst Norwegian records date from 1801). Unfortunately you can’t order copies of stillbirth registration certificates in England and Wales unless you are the parent or sibling of the child in question, so this isn’t usually a viable research route for family historians.

Despite the lack of formal stillbirth registration in England, Scotland and Wales until relatively recently, you may find traces within parish registers, although there was no consistent system for how these were recorded [9]. Parish register entries employ a variety of terms, including ‘still born‘, ‘abortive child‘, ‘born dead‘ or – in examples from Sutton-in-Ashfield in 1948 as detailed on the Historic Stillbirth Register – ‘non-viable child‘. Typical entries only list a surname along with the name of the child’s father; some indicate whether the child was male or female. If you discover a significant gap in between two births in your family tree, it’s worth checking the relevant parish registers to see if a stillbirth burial is recorded under the family surname. You can see an example from Oxfordshire in 1692 in the image below.

Entry from the parish burial registers of Deddington, Oxfordshire, dated 7 August 1692. “A still born male child of Edward Turner was buried August ye 7 and Sarah Wast made oath yt it was buried in woollen according to ye act of parliament.” Image c/o Ancestry.co.uk, from Oxfordshire, England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1538-1812.

Traditionally, a lack of baptism meant that stillborn babies were not meant to be buried in consecrated ground, although there is evidence to suggest that this rule wasn’t always heeded. A number of entries within parish burial registers indicate burials of stillborns inside the church, sometimes under the family pew. The registers of All Hallows, Bread Street, London list many such events, such as an entry for the Worthy family in January 1617/18: ‘A childe of Mr William Worthy that was Stilborne & not christned ; the grave is at the end of the 17th pue in the Ile next the Streete [11]. Nonetheless, many churchyards retained an unconsecrated area where stillborn children were buried.

I’d always recommend getting out to the archives to view original documents where possible, although nowadays archives may request that you refer to digital surrogates of parish registers available on commercial sites such as Ancestry or FindMyPast. The commercially-maintained Historic Stillbirth Register also provides a list of stillbirth entries from parish records [11], though this is a secondary source and at time of writing only covers a small number of parishes; however it can act as a pointer for following up leads yourself.

Wellhouse Methodist New Connexion Burial Ground register from the late 1800s, detailing valut interments for the Armitage family, including a Male Child Still Born
Interment register for the vaults of the Wellhouse Methodist New Connexion church, detailing individuals put into the Armitage vault. The entry for May 15th, 1877 lists only “Male Child, still born“.

Local newspapers sometimes included stillborn children within their birth announcements, and you’ll find many such entries throughout the 1800s, offering a very public recognition of a child’s existence despite the parents’ bereavement. The example below from the York Herald is a good example of this: its first entry details the birth of a still-born son to the Maxwell family of Richmond, whilst the second entry acknowledges the birth of a child who lived ‘for only a few hours‘.

Birth announcements in the York Herald, 5th April 1845; image via the British Newspaper Archive collection at FindMyPast.

If you’re building on the work of other genealogists, you may notice a combination of the dagger and asterisk symbols ✝︎* to denote a stillbirth. The GEDCOM file standard for family trees also admits stillborn entries, by using an event descriptor of “Stillborn” alongside the birth listing (so the Birth field in your GEDCOM file will carry the tag STIL).

So now that we’ve thought about the historical patterns of fertility and pregnancy loss and how they might appear within records, how can you start to apply this to your own research? Let’s jump in with a practical method now, visualising the maternal experience through fertility timelines. This approach involves scrutiny of the gaps in between births, so is a more specific version of the negative space perspective which I’ve talked about previously.

Bumps in the Road – Using Fertility Timelines

List of ALDERSEY family births based solely upon the censuses from 1881 to 1911. List has 8 children born 1876, 1877, 1880, 1886, 1890, 1893, 1896, 1905
List of ALDERSEY family births, based on information provided in the censuses from 1881-1911. What can we make of the apparent spacings between these births?

Making our research visual is one of the best ways of spotting patterns, omissions, errors or oversights: so that’s exactly what we’re going to do now. It’s time to meet the ALDERSEY family of Carlisle, Cumberland. Mary Sophia BAKER married John ALDERSEY in 1875 and the couple went on to have a large family. The names and ages as declared on the England & Wales Censuses from 1881 to 1911 suggest the following list of children, as shown in the list to the right. On the 1911 census, Mary Sophia stated that she had given birth to eight children, six of whom were still living.

Critical appraisal of these birth data can help us to explore Mary Sophia’s childbearing years. Our main concern is trying to understand her maternal identity and to appreciate as much as possible of her life during her childbearing years. So when we visualise these data on a timeline, we’re not going to put year numbers along the axis: instead we write it all in terms of maternal age. This helps to focus our attention squarely on Mary Sophia’s experience in relation to her growing family.

The fertility timeline shown below focuses our attention on the 15 to 45 year age range of “peak fertility” and shades out everything outside of this. Although we can’t make precise assertions about any woman’s fertility window, this is a reasonable guess. Births falling close to the boundaries of the white region are still feasible (though less likely), but those appearing well into the grey zone definitely require closer inspection.

Fertility timeline for Mary Sophia BAKER, based upon her age at the birth of each of her children. Grey shaded areas below the age of 15 and above the age of 45 indicate time periods outside of her likely childbearing years.

For the time period when these children were born, contraception was not widely available and large families were a common occurrence. From our earlier discussion of family spacing, we might expect children to be spaced around 1 to 2 years apart if the couple weren’t taking steps to avoid pregnancy; perhaps 2.5 years at the most. Yet the fertility timeline above features eight children, apparently born to Mary Sophia between the ages of 23 and 52 with gaps of up to nine years between live births. What can this tell us about her maternal experience, and the timeline of the family as a whole?

Insights from the Fertility Timeline

The fertility timeline highlights two main clusters of births in close succession: the 1st to 3rd children, and the 5th to 7th. Once the births are made visual, we quickly notice three features of interest:

  • a six year gap between the 3rd and 4th children;
  • a four year gap between the 4th and 5th children;
  • the apparent youngest child is born after a nine year gap, well into the shaded zone when we might expect Mary Sophia to be beyond her childbearing years.

All three observations bear further investigation. The pattern of regular births suggests the couple didn’t have trouble conceiving, yet this makes the large gaps between birth clusters surprising. What could be the cause?

  • Additional live births, followed by deaths, have occurred in between census years;
  • Loss of a pregnancy due to miscarriage;
  • Stillbirth events;
  • Lack of conception due to a husband travelling away from home (possibly for work), or sexual abstinence to control family size.

One major thing to emerge from this example is the perils of relying solely on the census to understand a family. Rounded research needs a balanced diet of sources, used in conjunction with each other! Now that we’ve identified possible explanations for those birth gaps, we need to consider how to pursue these lines of enquiry.

How can I explore apparent fertility gaps?

The census is a fantastic resource but needs to be supported by a range of other documents to corroborate facts and reveal information that’s beyond the reach of the census – which, after all, is only a decennial snapshot of a family at a point in time. We could follow up the potential fertility gaps by:

  • Searching for the family in civil registration records of birth and death, to determine if any live births have occurred in the intervening years characterised by the three gaps in our timeline;
  • Understanding that the ages given on the census may not be accurate. Corroborate the birth years for each of the children in the family using the GRO search facility and/or FreeBMD;
  • Check the relevant parish baptism registers for the baptism of living children;
  • Search for the family in parish burial registers ,whether for burials of older children who were born and died in between census years, or burial entries for stillborn babies;
  • Consult the Historic Stillbirth Register as a cross-check to identify parish registers for further inspection.
Revised list of Aldersey family births based on further research: 9 children born 1875, 1877, 1880, 1883, 1886, 1889, 1893, 1896 and 1905. The last possibly illegitimate.
Revised list of birth years for the ALDERSEY children, including an additional child, Robert, who died aged 1, and Martha Jane‘s death aged 6. Mary Isabella may be illegitimate and not the daughter of Mary Sophia.

Performing these checks for the ALDERSEY family brings a number of interesting observations to light, as you can see from the revised list of names and birth years to the left. Closer scrutiny of the civil registration birth indexes allows some adjustment of birth years, and we also discover another child, Robert, who was born in 1883 and died the following year.

The birth registration of Mary Isabella ALDERSEY, born in 1904, yields another interesting find. Unlike her apparent “siblings” whose births were all recorded with a mother’s maiden name of BAKER, Mary Isabella’s birth does not list a mother’s maiden name, thus hinting at illegitimacy. Her appearance well into the grey zone of Mary Sophia’s maternal timeline becomes clear – she may be Mary Sophia’s granddaughter, not her daughter. We can now order her birth certificate to determine whether she is the biological daughter of one of the older children listed in the family group – possibly Elizabeth Ann?

Entry for Mary Isabella ALDERSEY within the civil registration birth indexes. Unlike the rest of the children in the ALDERSEY family, no surname is listed, so she is probably illegitimate.

Although we might have discovered the story of Mary Isabella’s birth without the use of fertility timelines, this method is a great way of highlighting ancestral fertility patterns quickly and clearly. If we had taken at face value Mary Sophia’s 1911 census statement of having had 8 children, 6 of whom (including Mary Isabella, listed as her daughter) were still living, we might never have been prompted to discover Robert in the birth and death indexes. Redrawing our fertility timeline for Mary Sophia BAKER, we obtain the following plot:

Revised maternity timeline following further research and critical inspection of gaps. First birth moved back a year, one new birth discovered (died aged 1), final live birth aged 43 and final child suspected illegitimate
A revised fertility timeline for Mary Sophia ALDERSEY. Cross-checks on the birth dates have updated our knowledge in three cases and uncovered the birth of another child when she was 30 years of age, thus closing the previous six-year gap. Some unexplained gaps still remain in the timeline, which raises the possibility of miscarriages or stillbirths.

By uncovering Robert’s birth, we no longer have a 6 year gap in the timeline. Nonetheless, there are still gaps of 3-4 years between most of the children. This may have been the normal pattern for the ALDERSEYs (particularly as breastfeeding might reduce the frequency of pregnancies somewhat), but it is highly likely that such an obviously fertile couple would have conceived within this time period. Although we are never likely to know the reality, we might expect Mary Sophia ALDERSEY (née BAKER) to have experienced some miscarriages over her reproductive lifetime during these gaps, and we should bear this in mind when acknowledging her maternal identity. She is certainly the mother to eight children born alive, and the apparent social mother to Mary Isabella, but may also have experienced pregnancy loss – although this can only ever be speculation.

An Action Plan for Exploring Maternal Identities

So what have we learned from all this? Although there are few sources to help us understand pregnancy losses, it’s worth exploring the following (even though some are long shots):

  • Memorial plaques or monuments in your ancestor’s church to remember a stillborn child;
  • Mentions of stillborn burials within church burial registers, or interments in church vaults;
  • Newspaper entries for the family in the birth and/or death announcements;
  • Personal writings, diaries and letters;
  • Careful attention to fertility timelines, keeping an open mind as to the possible reasons for longer gaps between recorded births.

As with many other aspects of genealogy research, this is rarely a game of complete certainty. If you’re researching pregnancy loss in your family tree, be prepared for a lack of conclusive evidence to confirm or refute your theories!

Holding Space in the Narrative

Admitting to uncertainty in our genealogical narrative is always going to be a tentative, unsatisfying experience. The blend of social taboos which block discourse, along with a lack of documentary proof, sadly proves too great an obstacle to us identifying the majority of ancestral pregnancy losses. Most will remain forever a mystery to us. Without documentary proof, we can only ever speculate; it’s important not to lose sight of this, or else we risk compromising the integrity of our research.

Nonetheless, I believe there is great value in acknowledging and confronting these unknowns. Although they don’t give us new people to add to the tree, they shape our understanding of our ancestors.

Taking time to acknowledge that our forebears’ maternal identities were broader than we can ever truly demonstrate is a less reductive approach than simply accepting the outer maternal identity we perceive from the records. It offers us a chance to sit with our female ancestors, holding them in mind with compassion; to avoid ignoring their hidden struggles; and to acknowledge their childbearing burdens as the lifeblood of our very pursuit of genealogy.

Perhaps a couple of centuries from now, my descendants will look at the records and describe me as a mother of one. But I genuinely hope that they won’t be that reductive. Because if they are, they’ll be missing a huge part of my story.

Recording the footprints of a new arrival: future generations may have far more baby mementoes to rely on when contructing a picture of the maternal experience. Image c/o Joanna Orpia via flickr, CC-BY-2.0.

Further Reading

I’ve curated a selection of articles for you from the academic literature and blogosphere. Most are free to access, although you may need to sign up for a free JSTOR account to read some of them.

[1] Felicity Jensz, Miscarriage and Coping in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Private Notes from Distant Places
Gender & History (2020) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1468-0424.12478

[2] Lynne Vallone, Fertility, Childhood, and Death in the Victorian Family (Review). Victorian Literature & Culture (2000) https://www.jstor.org/stable/25058500

[3] Robert Woods, Late-Fetal Mortality: Historical Perspectives on Continuing Problems of Estimation and Interpretation. Population (2008) https://www.jstor.org/stable/27736123

[4] Daniela Blei, The History of Talking About Miscarriage. The Cut (2018) https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/the-history-of-talking-about-miscarriage.html

[5] London Pulse Project. Infant and Child Mortality (2016) https://londonspulse.org/2016/05/02/infantandchildmortality/

[6] Jennifer Evans & Sara Reid, ‘Before Midnight She Had Miscarried’: Women, Men, and Miscarriage in Early Modern England. Journal of Family History (2014) https://tinyurl.com/k36ja8f (PDF download)

[7] Lucy Allen-Goss, Women’s Reproductive Dysfunctions: Miscarriage, Abortion, Stillbirth and Infertility in Medieval England. https://readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com/womens-reproductive-dysfunctions-miscarriage-abortion-stillbirth-and-infertility-in-medieval-england/

[8] Margaret Sanger, Motherhood in Bondage (1928). Available on the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/isbn_9781881780243

[9] E. A. Wrigley, Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century (1981). https://www.jstor.org/stable/2598944

[10] Lucy Allen-Goss, Writing Lost Lives (2021) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWvVKe2lsSI

[11] Anguline Research Archives, The Historic Stillbirth Register. http://anguline.co.uk/stillbirths.html

And finally…

As you have probably realised, this was a deeply personal post for me to write, so on this occasion I’d like to highlight a wonderful UK charity which helped me some years ago and which would really benefit from donations. The Miscarriage Association and its team offer amazing support to parents going through pregnancy loss: if you’d like to support their work, you can find out about how to donate here. Thanks so much.

8 thoughts on “The Pitter Patter of Ghostly Feet

    1. You’re very welcome Marian, and I’m glad you liked my suggestions too. Even in modern day, there’s such a cloud of silence over pregnancy loss that writing this article is actually the only time I’ve ever shared my own story publicly. It’s what particularly inspires me to recognise that divide between inner world and outer identity within family history research…even when I know it’s usually not something we can ever resolve conclusively!

  1. It doesn’t apply to this family, but another reason for gaps in births is venereal disease. This was very common in Victorian times and can affect either partner. It’s even more of a taboo subject.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. My husband’s first wife experienced a miscarriage and they never had any more children together and even though it was 44 years ago he still talks about the heartbreak he feels to this day. I cannot imagine living a long time ago, knowing I was going to have many children and lose some of them, and possibly lose my own life, too.

  3. What a moving, thought-provoking piece. Thank you! As the mother of two living children who was pregnant four times, this is close to home for me. I know my paternal grandmother had at least one miscarriage, and my maternal grandmother lost a son to what was then known as “crib death.” These losses are powerful. Thank you for providing a framework for looking more carefully at our ancestors’ experiences.

  4. Brilliant article Sophie. Thoughtful, personal, moving and yet including solid analytical techniques.

  5. Thank you for highlighting such an important issue. My great-grandfather kept a notebook that included the details of his children’s births and baptisms, including a daughter, who “only lived to be baptized privately by myself” (giving her name). There is no official trace of her existence – no formal birth, baptism or burial records. Before I found his notebook, no-one in the family was even aware of her. For me personally, it is one of the most meaningful discoveries I have made in researching my family tree – it is an honour to be able to give her her due recognition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *