When men and women married in 1830s Britain they generally assumed that children would follow promptly and regularly.
The prevailing sense was that children just ‘came’ and that there was little to be done about it. Women were encouraged to see motherhood as both destiny and duty, and letters and diaries from the time suggest that many tried earnestly to do so.
Families were large, with an average of about six children, but averages can be misleading.
Families with many more children were common. The main determinants of family size at this time were age at marriage and age at menopause.
Women who married in their early to mid-twenties in other words, could expect to bear children continuously into their early to middle forties, and while the intervals between children varied between women, most could expect to have a new baby every two to three years throughout these years.
The first child commonly arrived within one, or at most two years of marriage.
In the 1830s childbirth was both painful and dangerous.
The only pain relief available was opium, usually sold as a sleeping draught known as laudenum, but this was almost never used.
It was widely believed that women were destined to suffer during childbirth, as the Bible had decreed.
Almost all babies were born at home, usually with the assistance of family and friends.
There were also women who practised as midwives, although there was no formal training, and most midwives were experienced women who had borne several children themselves.
Doctors were generally only called when births were prolonged and it was feared that the mother might die, but their intervention brought grave risks.
There were instruments for use in childbirth, but no anaesthetics or understanding of antisepsis, which meant that the danger of infection from medical intervention was very high.
Training in obstetrics was rudimentary at best and was not compulsory for doctors until much later.
In fact doctors were often the unwitting sources of infection for women in childbed, transmitting contagion from previous patients.
Hospitals were places of last resort, sought only by the very poor and the desperate. The death rates in hospitals were known to be extremely high.