Today, we think of the recording of a birth as automatic. At most hospitals, the staff record such details ,and they are passed on to the proper authorities. The birth announcement appears in the local newspaper usually within a week of the actual birth. This was not so for the Regency. Birth announcements were not recorded during the Regency Era. Births were not always recorded in the parish registers. Generally, only the Baptism was recorded. Some clergymen listed the child’s age or birth date when recording the baptism, but most did not. Usually the child had to be breathing to be baptised and given a name for the parish records, but that was not an “absolute” in the practice of recording births.
According to Nancy Mayer Regency Researcher, “Most of the evidence upon which today’s perceptions of the era are founded is faulty. St Martin-in-the-Fields was probably the most fastidious of the parishes in those days, with the sextons recording in minute detail, everything about those they buried – and that included stillborns, abortives, infants (those who’d lived to draw breath), etc., etc. Name, date of birth, date of death, address, sex, etc., etc. No detail was missed. But even in this parish there were anomalies based on the structure of burial fees – abortives were the cheapest burials. Chrisom’s came next. Stillborns were the third cheapest, and from there, the fees increased the longer the individua lived. So many infants who had lived through the first crucial week only to succumb to the infections that so beset newborns, were buried as stillborns because the family could not or did not want to pay the higher fees. But even with the stillborns and the Chrisoms, the father’s name was recorded by the sextons. It was not until well after the Regency that the mother’s name was included.”
No ecclesiastical law forbid the baptism of a stillborn child. It was the expense of doing so that prevented many from recognizing their child’s existence.
I understand the confusion and grief following the lost of a child for I lost two children before I had my son. It bothered me deeply not to have access to the one I lost early on. I could not shake the idea that it would never have a name or a place in our family’s recorded history. However, many in the early 19th Century were developing what we now associate with the British public as a whole: the stiff upper lip. Grief was not shown in public.
Other parishes were not as meticulous as St Martin-in-the-Fields. Generally, the person requesting the recording of the birth was at the “mercy” of the clergyman overseeing the parish. The clergyman’s opinions or those of the aristocrat providing his living could differ greatly from parish to parish. Some clergy would look poorly upon an abortive situation. An aristocrat might privately have a stillborn child baptised, but a public announcement of such would not occur. The recording of a child’s birth, or the lack thereof, is a major plot plot point in Book 2 of my Twins’ Trilogy, The Earl Claims His Comfort. Any “public” records, such as Debrett’s The New Peerage, would simply include the line stillborn daughter or stillborn son.
We find an example of such in Chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot picks up the Baronetage to read of his family history, “”ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL.
“Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791.”
Many times the private family records, such as the family Bible, contained the name of the stillborn child. Parish records and private records did not always hold the same details. Often, especially in the male line, one might find two male offsprings with the same name in a private record, but the names of the children were listed as several years apart – the first one died at birth or shortly thereafter.
As with everything else, there were those members of the clergy who accepted payment to record stillborns. Parents might, for example, argue that the Bible does not speak to forbidding the naming of stillborns. Babies could be baptised at home by any member of the household as long as water was used and the child was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This was a valid baptism in most cases.
Anciently, a chrisom, or “chrisom-cloth,” was the face-cloth, or piece of linen laid over a child’s head when he or she was baptised or christened. Originally, the purpose of the chrisom-cloth was to keep the chrism, a consecrated oil, from accidentally rubbing off. With time, the word’s meaning changed, to that of a white mantle thrown over the whole infant at the time of baptism. The term has come to refer to a child who died within a month after its baptism—so called for the chrisom cloth that was used as a shroud for it. Additionally, in London’s Bills of Mortality, the term chrisom was used to refer to infants who died within a month after being born. (Chrisom)
In A Touch of Honor, Book 8 of the Realm Series, I used a different plot point associated with the recording of births and deaths. In that book, Lady Satiné Swenton dies in a terrible accident and the child she carried is also lost. The surgeon tending the body asks Lord Swenton if he wishes to have the stillborn buried with his mother. The mother and stillborn infant could be buried together as was Princess Charlotte’s child. In that case the child was not named. However, in this time, the father could insist on having the child listed in the death register and could have a name etched in the grave marker to publicly recognize the birth. Her husband could have his wife and child buried in a private cemetery and act as he thought best for his family.