Missing Men

One of the abiding notions from Jane Austen’s novels is that women of the period seemed desperate for husbands. They all seemed to be chasing money, so were will ing to accept any male with a pulse.

This covers the sad fact that for centuries Britain had more women than men, and given how little employment there was for women, and how lowly it paid, this was a huge problem, not just for them, but for society as a whole. Estimates for the 18th century suggest that for every two men there were at least three women, so the competition for an eligible male was often intense.

Why was this so? Britain is an archipelago, defended by ‘wooden walls’ which meant that shipping took its toll on male numbers. In wartime, these numbers soared. It is estimated that about 10,000 ships were wrecked round Britain in the 18th century. Add to the numbers lost in the rest of the world, in war and in peace, and this adds up to a lot of dead men.

Many young men went to sea for a career; this is often assumed that they were seeking adventure, but in many cases it seems they had no money to marry, so went abroad hoping to make money to settle down. I have found accounts of young men ruined by the South Sea Bubble who went to sea out of shame and in hope of wealth. But the 18th century also saw rising levels of rural poverty which drove men to seek new lives abroad. Others were transported to the Americas under the infamous Waltham Black Acts which made hundreds of misdemeanours into capital offences. When the American War of Independence broke out, prisoners were housed in old naval ships – hulks – on The Thames, on the assumption that when peace came, transportation would be resumed. Instead, the numbers continued to rise and the sight of Britons working in chains became offensive to the public, resulting in the founding of the colony of New South Wales.

Rural poverty in the 18th and 19th century drove many young people off the land, and young men in particular decided there was no future for them in Britain, so emigrated to the Americas, Australia and South Africa. England’s eastern counties were especially affected, and the agricultural labourer’s union helped subsidise their departure in hope of a new life, which left behind an ageing and increasingly impoverished rural population. Gold rushes across the globe added to these problems, with thousands of men seeking their fortunes, never to return.

In H.Rider Haggard’s book A Farmer’s Year, which described events of 1898 he bemoaned the lack of yeomen farmers, noting large numbers of empty rural cottages, and few trained labourers under the age of fifty. He described the appeal of emigration to Queensland for younger sons of the gentry whose:

daughters will marry and help to build up some great empire of the future, instead of dying single in a land where women are too many and marriage is becoming more and more a luxury of the rich.

The flight of young men continued into the 20th century, with the horrific statistics of World War I being equal to the numbers of emigrants of previous years, which were again mostly young men. This in turn may help explain why so many soldiers called up were in such poor health. It seems those with get up and go had already gone.

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