Home & Family

Home & Family

Families and households got smaller throughout the 20th century. Women in the late 19th century gave birth, on average, to 4.6 children during their lifetime. Having ten or more children was not uncommon. By the 1950s the average had fallen to 2.19 children per woman and by the end of the century London's 'fertility rate' was 1.76 children per woman. London's 'crude birth rate', a measure of population growth, also fell dramatically over the century. By the end of the century, London's birth rate was 14.8 live births for every 1,000 people, nearly half the 26.3 that it had been at the start.

Shrinking family sizes was partly a consequence of the changing status of women. The 20th century saw women enter the workforce and enjoy more choices about their lives, including the choice not to marry and have children. Divorce, unusual in 1900, was made legally easier and divorce rates increased a thousand fold over the century.

Contraception was another factor. The issue of birth control was brought out into the open early on in the 20th century by Marie Stopes, a scientist who believed that restricting child-birth for poor families was in the national interest. She opened her first birth-control clinic in Holloway, north London, in 1921. Marie Stopes' work dispelled some of the taboos surrounding birth-control, but the real revolution occurred in the 1960s with the arrival of the oral contraceptive pill.

Smaller families, higher divorce rates and more choices for women also meant smaller households, more people living alone, more single parents and more variation in what constitutes a 'family'. By the 1990s a third of all households in London were single person households, a higher proportion than elsewhere in Britain. The proportion of London babies born outside of marriage also rose over the century, from 4% in the 1920s to 13% in the 1960s and 35% in the 1990s.

As households and families shrank, so standards of living rose hugely throughout the century. In 1900 London had some of the worst housing conditions in Britain. For families living in London's overcrowded inner-city areas, dirt, vermin and disease were part of everyday life. Even for reasonably well-off working families electricity and indoor plumbing were novelties. In 1910, Cecil Rolph, whose father was a policeman, moved into a respectable Victorian terrace in Fulham which was rented for 16 shillings a week. It had no internal hot water system and no electricity: hot- water for washing had to be heated on the gas burner downstairs and carried upstairs in a bucket. According to Cecil, 'I can't remember that any of this was regarded as in any conceivable sense a hardship'. By the end of the century such conditions were rare, but not unknown.

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