At the heart of the Victorian surplus-women-problem debate was the 1851 British census. In this mighty document lay the seemingly irrefutable proof that Britain was plagued with an over-abundance of women. The reason for this sudden realisation, according to scholars such as Worsnop, was that this demographic survey was the first to publish figures on the ‘age, sex, and “conjugal condition” of the population.’ By recording the precise number of unmarried maids residing in the Britain, the nation finally understood the true nature of its gender imbalance, and a fierce, often inflammatory, debate ensued.
While this was, indeed, the first national census to record the kingdom’s vital statistics in such detail, it was not the first enumeration to provoke debate on gender ratios; the reallocation of women was often discussed by the late-Georgian press. Yet, as discussions of single-female migration were often stripped of any significant personal details, these life-altering changes were more or less reduced to simple statistical statements.
This does not, however, divest them of their cultural value. Despite their shallow nature, demographic details and census schedules were staples of the Scottish newspapers and were surprisingly fertile ground for satirical displays of mathematical prowess. Throughout the period, accounts of extraordinary longevity (and fecundity) were often reported for the amazement, or amusement, of newspaper readers. For example:
A very industrious man, who works at Messrs. Hare and Son’s floor-cloth manufactory, Bristol, was married Jan. 20, 1801, to Hannah Taylor, by whom he has had fourteen children in little more than six years with a speedy prospect of a farther increase to his family. The children consist of three boys, born Oct. 1, 1801; two boys, Oct. 3, 1802; one boy and a girl, July 16, 1803; two boys, May 13, 1804; one boy and a girl, Feb. 19, 1805; one boy and a girl, Jan. 15, 1806; one boy, Nov. 16, 1807.
It was in the same semi-astonished toned that urban sex ratios were pondered by the editors of Britain’s provincial press. In 1831, the editor of the Scotsman, who seems to have taken a particular interest in Britain’s feminine surplus, reprinted the abominable sex ratio of the borough of Liverpool, along with the original remarks of the English commentator:
The comfort and the happiness of the males are, doubtless, greatly increased by the overplus of the softer sex; but, when we view that overplus in its effects on the comfort and the happiness of the ladies themselves, we are filled with alarm for our fair friends. “‘This true, and, pity ’tis ’tis true.” That they cannot all get husbands, unless the men, some of whom deem one wife more than enough for one man, should be compelled to support the surplus female population.
Rather than suggest the exportation of Liverpudlian ladies, however, the Albion saw the solution in ‘an immigration of males’, though from where it does not state. Thus, the idea of a sex imbalance is well ingrained in the public sphere by the 1830s, but the Georgian response is not the same as the Victorian. Rather than a fierce battle in a political or ideological war, it is viewed as merely an unfortunate demographic misalignment and thus proves ripe for light-hearted satirical comment.
The idea of a feminine surplus at home, of course, was not wholly uncontested. Victorianists have convincingly demonstrated that their surplus referred specifically to unmarried, unemployed and seemingly overeducated women of the middle class, who contributed nothing to the home economy and were equally burdensome to the colonies. Conversely, notices in the late-Georgian press toyed with the notion that the colonists were attempting to steal the best Britain had to offer. Liverpool, despite it documented imbalance, was reluctant for its ‘softer sex’ to depart and the same was evidently true further south. One account, almost certainly apocryphal, recounted the whirlwind marriage of James Stubbs, a young mariner, to Charlotte Savage, his shipmate’s sister.
The young woman had recently departed for Australia, in search of a husband, when the young sailor, recently arrived from China, met up with her parents in Portsmouth. The mariner, upon hearing of Charlotte’s impending voyage, declared ‘that she shouldn’t go there for a husband; he would have her himself.’ The three then set off for Bristol and, despite finding her already ‘in the roads’, managed to board the emigrant ship, arrange the marriage with the young lady and depart for Rownham Ferry. The next morning they were ‘married (by license) to the satisfaction of all concerned, little more than twelve hours after the parties had first seen each other.’ Unlike accounts of actual emigration, Miss Savage’s marriage is conspicuously detailed, making it much more akin to the corpus of domestic anecdotes, such as our Bristol cloth-maker, than semi-serious commentaries on emigration to the Antipodes.
The latter are only semi-serious owing to the indulgent flourishes of the Scottish editors included, seemingly to pad out otherwise slim statistical data. For example, in 1837, the Scotsman related a census report from Sydney, noting that while the current generation of Australian men quite outnumbered their female counterparts, there was ‘comfort for the rising generation; of free males under twelve years of age, there are 7164—of free females, 7007—so that, with few exceptions, every Jack may have his Jill.’ This optimism was evidently short lived as by 1843 the same editor offered, under the impressive heading of ‘IMPORTANT TO UNMARRIED LADIES’, the following calculation:
Suppose the whole population of Australia were now grown up and wished to be married, out of every hundred bachelors only forty-nine could find wives. Supposing all the unmarried males now of age wished to be married, out of every hundred only eleven could find wives. Supposing all the free bachelors now in the colony wished to be married, out of every hundred only eight could find wives. As there are at present in Australia 66,366 unmarried males, and only 26,007 unmarried females, it follows that before every son of Adam could be provided with a daughter of Eve there must be introduced into the colony no fewer than 40,359 unmarried daughters!
These computational feats are notable for their relative paucity in the migration debate. Although significant numbers of men and families departed Scotland for North America and the Antipodes before 1840, and statistics of their departure were a frequent addition to local and metropolitan papers, it was only single-female migration that prompted these flights of numerical fancy. No such hypotheses were posited when discussing the proportion of free to convict labour in New South Wales, nor were there statistical debates of religious diversity in the Canadas. The semi-satirical treatment of these statistics was wholly unique.
Thus, the Georgian surplus women’s problem was not an ideological battle over employment rights or marital duties. In the end, it seemed to be nothing more than a simple numbers game.
To be continued next week with ‘Cargoes of Women: Ill-Repute’
Questions to explore…can you help?
- Where do similarly light-hearted statistics appear in other debates within the periodical press?
- Are the references to ‘Jack and Jill’ and ‘Adam and Eve’ allusions to the language of ongoing debates or merely standard gender archetypes?
- Many of these pieces refer to ‘the recent census’ but do not align chronologically to any national enumeration. Were there local Scottish or English censuses that would have been common knowledge to the readers?