Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940
Simon Szreter, Cambridge University Press, 1996
In the early part of the 20th century there was a growing awareness of a declining birthrate in the industrialized nations. In Austro-Hungary and France the birth rate in some rural areas had begun to decline substantially during the 18th century, with similar declines taking place among the aristocratic and bourgeois groups as early as the 17th century. In 1945 a theory of demographic transition was published. It proposed three stages of demographic development: an initial pre-industrial stage of high birth rates and high death rates, an industrial phase of high birth rates and declining death rates (leading to substantial population growth) and a post-industrial phase of low birth rates and low death rates.
This theory was based upon a single case, that of Britain. It utilized the findings of the 1911 census, which analyzed the fertility patterns of the British population from 1851-1911 and the newly released study conducted for the Royal Commission on Population that covered the period 1901-1946. The 1911 census used what has become known as the professional model of social classification in which all male occupations are assigned to one of five grades (professional upper and middle class, intermediate, skilled workers, intermediate, unskilled workers). The 1911 census analysis found that the higher the social class, the earlier and more rigorously it controlled its fertility.
This classification scheme was based upon three assumptions: 1) the occupation of the male head of household was the best way to classify families; 2) a primary division existed between the higher-status non-manual occupations (they were more professional) and the lower-status manual occupations (assessed according to skill) and 3) the fact that a single hierarchical social grading system was a valid classification scheme. It should be noted that this scheme excludes women and their labor, both paid and unpaid. It should also be noted that those living off private means, and thus listing no personal occupation, were classified alongside paupers in a residual category, labeled the unproductive class.
In 1869 Francis Galton published Heredity Genius in which he examined the families of ‘eminent men’ in England in an effort to determine the heritability of both mental and physical qualities. He went on to coin the term eugenics in 1884. By the end of the 19th century there was widespread concern that modern society was reversing evolution, leading to the degeneration of the English people. This was partly driven by an increase in the recorded rates of lunacy from 2.26/10,000 in 1807 to 29.26/10,000 in 1890, (Mathew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain c. 1870-1959). By the first decade of the 20th century mental defectives became defined as the central eugenic threat facing the nation. Greater social awareness plus universal education led to the growing realization of the presence of mentally deficient people in the population. This heightened awareness coincided with growing fears about the fitness of the population. In 1907 the Eugenics Education Society was formed.
During the period 1875-1883, the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science provided an hereditary basis for the professional model. The professional model thus acquired the status of an empirically tested theory. Despite the fact that it was based upon unexamined social conventions it had been turned into a naturalistic theory of British society’s essential structure.
In the beginning of the 20th century an environmentalist counter movement emerged opposing the ideas of the eugenicists that the poor were poor because of the way they were, rather than because of social or environmental factors. At the forefront of this movement were the Fabians who, although they shared a nationalistic interpretation of social Darwinism with the hereditarian biometricians, did not agree with them as to the causes or the appropriate political means to achieve the optimal nation. They held that poverty was not the manifestation of inherited biological deficiencies but rather that the environment was responsible for the moral and material degradation of the working man.