The late nineteenth century marked the beginning of a downward trend in the size of families across many parts of Europe. Historians and demographers have not yet reached consensus on the causes of what’s known as the “fertility revolution”.
Some theories suggest that the declining fertility rates were the result of new knowledge (about contraception, for example) or changes in culture or attitudes that made fertility control acceptable on moral grounds. Other theories suggest the drop in family size was the result of a reaction by couples to economic and social circumstances and to the gradual decline in child mortality from the 1890s. That mortality decline meant there was less need for large numbers of births (since more of the children would survive to adulthood).
In England, the average family size fell from about 6.2 children in the 1860s, to 4.1 for those marrying in the 1890s and to 2.8 for those marrying in the first decade of the twentieth century. One third of married women born between 1851 and 1855 had at least seven live births and as many as 15% had ten or more confinements.
Heenan family sizes
There are 58 married Heenan women recorded in the 1911 as having given birth, and a further four who have no children. This doesn’t give enough basis for a robust analysis but there are some interesting statistics that show how the family size changed.
Of the women who were born between 1840 and 1849, the average number of confinements was nine. For the women born in the 1870s the average fell to four and fell further to 3 in the 1880s. Markedly, the 1870s saw far fewer women have more than seven children.
The largest Heenan family I’ve encountered during my research into the census for England and Wales consisted of fourteen families. There were two of them recorded in the 1911 census – the first to ask a question of married women specifically about the number of children born in their marriage and how many were still alive. #000080
Heenans of Jarrow, County Durham
Mary Heenan and her husband Michael, a blast furnace labourer, had been married for 37 years by the time of the 1911 census. She had given birth to 14 children, seven of whom had died.
According to this census she was born about 1855 at Hamilton Ban, Arnston (I haven’t been able to discover where that place is) although in previous census returns she is said to have come from County Down in Ireland. Her husband came Ballkinley, County Down in Ireland where he was born about 1852.
By tracing the family through earlier census reports I’ve been able to identify some – though not all – of their children.
At the time of the 1911 census the couple had four of their children still living in the family home at 9 Chapel Road in Jarrow, County Durham:
Patrick born in West Cornforth, Durham approx 1875
Ann born in Tow Low, Durham approx 1886
Frank born in Jarrow approx 1895. (In the 1901 census he is recorded as Francis)
Theresa born in Jarrow approx 1898
The 1901 census when Mary and Michael Heenan are living at 17 Chapel Row, Jarrow, gives us two more children:
Margaret born in Cornforth, Durham approx 1877
Alicia born in Tow Low, Durham approx 1880
Going back a further 10 years to the 1891 census for Marmaduke Street, Spennymore, Tudhoe in County Durhamreveals the identity of two further children:
Ellen, born in Tow Low, Durham around 1882
Sarah E born in Durham, 1891
Another 10 year leap back to the 1881 census when Michael and Mary Heenan were living at Thornley Rd in Wolsingham, Durham, and Michael was working as a coke drawer, there are three children’s names recorded. In addition to the son Patrick and daughter Margaret (both of whom are noted in later census year) there is a one year old daughter Celesta Mary.
So that gives us the names of ten of the children
However, I’m wondering whether Alicia and Celesta are the same girls since both of them are said to have been born in the same year. Maybe the census enumerator in 1881 misunderstood what he was told and wrote Celesta?
They never appear in the same census record: Alicia is missing from the 1881 one when you would expect her to be present, and Celesta is not in any of the subsequent years. There is no record of any birth of baptism of a Celesta Heenan in the county of Durham, and no births, marriages, deaths of any Celesta with a surname that could possibly be mistaken for Heenan.
Unfortunately the couple don’t seem to have registered the births of any of their other children either, nor have I have found any baptism records.
Given the common usage of their first names, tracing these children further is going to be rather tricky. Without any birth records indicating a mother’s maiden name it will also be hard to identify the couple’s other children.
Heenans of Handsworth, Yorkshire
John Heenan, a coal miner, and his wife Mary (nee Murphy) were another large family.
In the 1911 census John Heenan is an out of work coal miner living in 28 Bernard Road, Handsworth, Yorkshire with his son James, daughter in law Marie and their two children.
John describes himself as the head of the household, aged 69, from Westmeath in Ireland. He’s been married for 49 years, had 14 children of who five are alive. There is no wife recorded on the 1911 census but in the 1901 census she is shown as Mary, born in Ireland around 1848. I know from civil registration and parish marriage records that the couple married in Chesterfield in 1863 and were of the Roman Catholic faith.
Previous census returns show the family had lived in several locations, first in the Chesterfield area of Derbyshire and then Yorkshire, all districts where coal mining provided opportunities for work: Sharlston in 1881, to Attercliffe cum Darnall, near Sheffield, in 1891 and then to Handsworth by 1901. Their children identified from those returns are as follows:
Margaret, born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire about 1866
Annie born in Sheffield, Yorkshire 1871
James born Sheffield about 1874
Patrick, born Sheffield about 1876
Winnifred born Sharlston, Yorkshire 1879
Rosa, born in Sharlston about 1881
William born Sheffield, Yorkshire about 1887
Fortunately this couple proved more diligent in registering the births of their children. The General Records Office database shows that the mother’s maiden name was Murphy.
Mary Ellen, birth registered in Chesterfield in 1863
John, birth registered in Chesterfield in 1867
Mary Elizabeth, registered in Chesterfield in 1869
Thomas registered in Sheffield in 1873
Ellen, birth registered in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1881
That provides names for 12 of the 14 children. I can’t say for sure, until I get copies of the death certificates, but I suspect that three of the children listed above who didn’t make it to adulthood were Mary Elizabeth, Winnifred and Rosa.
There’s clearly more work to be done on both these families. I’ll post updates as I make progress.
- Census of England: 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911. The National Archives accessed via Find My Past
- Fertility: Article on Looking at History