View Full Version : Female Literacy in the 18th Century

12-05-2012, 12:39 PM
I am curious as to whether it would have been unusual for a woman to sign her name in the marriage register if her husband did not. Would this suggest she was a higher class than her husband, or just willfull. I was under the impression that women were expected to make their mark, especially if their husband made their mark instead of signing!

Unfortunately I have no other documentation to shed light on how literate the couple were, but I know the husband was working class as he was a wood sawyer in the early 1800s

12-05-2012, 3:31 PM
Hi, Michelle.

What information do you have about the woman's parents. Her father's profession or social standing might suggest a child's level of education.

I don't know the answer to the more general question about whether a bride would be expected to "dumb down" her signature or not.


12-05-2012, 9:07 PM
Thanks for the reply Barb.

I was hoping that if her being able to sign her name indicated a higher class, then it might help identify her parents. However, the two possible baptisms in 1779 and 1781 don't give father's occupation, and her marriage in 1802 didn't give occupations, so I am going to have to look for other records if they exist.

Basically Sarah Ann Simpson was 2-3 months pregnant when she married. She signed her name, her husband James Curnick didn't. She was born Lambeth or Battersea (depending on which census you look at!) and anywhere between 1775 and 1781. Supposedly 100 when she died in 1876, and 95 in 1871. However, I think her age of 70 in 1851 is most likely to be accurate, giving her a year of birth of 1780-1781.

There are two baptisms at lambeth, one to George & Sarah in 1779, and one to John & Mary in 1781. I suspect her to be the daughter of John & Mary as Mary Ann didn't name any of her children Sarah (and she had loads! 9 children in total)
I'm going to just build up the Simpson families in the Lambeth areas and see what other documentation I can find for that time frame.


13-05-2012, 11:06 AM
The accounts at Lytham Hall in Lancashire include the laundrymaid, Ellen Benson who went there to work 3 jan 1749 and made her mark each year as a receipt until 9 Mar 1756 when she signed "Elene benson" in an uncertain hand. Beneath is the yearly wage for her father, Nicholas Benson and he made his mark. Both he and his wife left wills but both made their mark on their wills. At Dunkenhalgh Hall in Lancashire in the mid 1700s Isabell Tootle was paid for "teaching poor children about Dunkenhalgh". All these people were Catholic. I don't know if that makes any difference. Reading and writing were separate accomplishments, not like now and signing your own name is probably at the bottom of the literacy scale. When I read the Dunkenhalgh accounts it did seem to me there was a change between the 17th and 18th century attitude of the lords of the manor to their tenants. Perhaps they realized that tenants with a certain amount of education were more valuable. Many priests in the penal times seem to have been Jesuits and they were very keen on education. But whether any of this is relevant to your case I am not sure, cicilysmith

13-05-2012, 2:33 PM
Literacy may have been influenced by politics and religion, as well as class: Sunday schools taught children to read so they could read their bibles. Non-conformists were mostly very keen on people reading the bible for themselves rather than relying on readings in Church, and children might read to their parents while the parents were doing useful stuff - sewing, or mending shoes or furniture on a winter evening. They might also read newspapers to their parents, and even a poor family might have newspapers that had been passed down from someone richer.

Many people could read, without being able to write, so it wasn't a question of being completely illiterate if you signed with a cross, and to add to the difficulty of assessing their station in life, many people who signed their name would be unable to write anything else.

I never heard of brides being expected to pretend they couldn't write if their husbands couldn't: of course some husbands might object, but most would be proud of marrying a girl who could write.