Illegitimacy in the 1850s was at least as high as it was in the early 1970s, according to a computer database that has enabled researchers at Staffordshire University to come up with a league table of illegitimate births in the mid-19th century.
The database, which has been compiled by David Gatley, a researcher in the school of social sciences at Staffordshire University, shows that in the 1850s more than 6 per cent of children were born out of wedlock - although the true proportion could have been even higher.
Dr Gatley has developed a computerised version of the 1851 and 1861 censuses. In addition to data on births, marriages and deaths, statistics relating to ages, population growth, occupations, birthplaces, workhouse populations, education, religious affiliations and causes of death are also being keyed onto the computer for each of the 635 registration districts or Poor Law unions into which England and Wales was divided.
The database reveals marked regional variations. In the Scilly Isles, for example, there were no illegitimate births in 1861, but in Wigan one in 20 of the single women in the town gave birth to an illegitimate child.
The statistics also reveal that illegitimacy was at its lowest in areas where employment in domestic service was most common, such as Kensington, Chelsea and Bath. Dr Gatley says: "One interpretation of this finding is that far from domestic servants being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, domestic service may have offered many young women an escape from sexual abuse in overcrowded homes where they would often have had to share bedrooms, if not beds, with fathers, stepfathers and brothers."
The most surprising result is that army towns tended to have very low rates of illegitimacy. Eltham, Kent, for example, had the largest proportion of soldiers among the male population (43 per cent) but an illegitimacy rate of only 14 per 1,000 unattached women aged 15-44, compared to the national figure of 19 per 1,000.
The illegitimacy rate halved by the year 1900, in part due to harsh measures such as the ostracism of single mothers; the exclusion of women by both Government and trade unions from many places of work; and the removal of rights under the poor law for unmarried mothers.