The truth about fathers


19 June 2016
pic-1-Father-Comes-Home2-47623.jpg My heart belongs to daddy. Girls’ Own Paper, Vol vi, No 279, 2 May 1885.
In celebration of Father’s Day, Ruth A Symes asks what fatherhood meant to our ancestors

In celebration of Father’s Day, Ruth A Symes asks what fatherhood meant to our ancestors.

If you have an old photograph of your Victorian or Edwardian family, it’s likely it will include the head of the household – the father. Family photographs tended to be taken on special occasions – anniversaries, special birthdays, baptisms and weddings – events in which the father’s financial input and attendance was pivotal. Even if fathers worked long hours or were away from home for long periods, their presence was expected on these occasions and gave a kind of validation to the proceedings. 

Identifying fathers in photos

Fathers in photographs are usually identifiable from their position and pose, their clothing and other props. Your ‘head of household’ will probably be looking straight out of the photograph in the noble and dignified manner encouraged of adult males by studio photographers. From the mid-Victorian era, adult males in your family may have worn beards and whiskers to denote their age and position or more specifically their military or administrative service overseas. Middle-class fathers often carried tall hats and canes and sported impressive timepieces to distinguish them from elder sons or other younger male relatives. The Victorian father in your photograph may seem unsmiling and distant. 

From the second half of the 19th century, a particular ideal of manliness – religious, mannerly and business-like (as well as athletic, patriotic and, to some degree, scientific) was emerging in advice books and in the press. Men’s clothing reflected these ideas with straight cut suits in dark colours and stiff materials being standard. Your ancestor needed to look as though he was successful. In photographs of working-class families, fathers copied their bourgeois counterparts, adopting similar poses and changing out of their work-clothes into their best suits – outfits which were cut along the same lines as those worn by middle-class men but made from cheaper materials. 

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Fathers’ roles

The experience of fatherhood differed according to social class and the number of children the family had, as well as the region they came from, their working life and religious beliefs. Nevertheless Victorian and Edwardian fathers shared characteristics regardless of the factors that divided them. The family and the home were idealised in Victorian culture. Fathers had legal and economic control of their wives and children. Middle class men needed children, especially sons, to inherit their businesses. A mother’s duties were to feed, clean, maintain the health of and educate their children, or to manage the servants who did so. So ingrained have these ideas about Victorian families become that it is difficult to remember that they were once quite new. Until the mid-18th century, fathers were actively involved in nurturing and training their children. The Industrial Revolution (generally dated 1780-1850) changed everything, including within the working and domestic worlds. Many fathers moved from working within or near the home in craft-based occupations, to working far away in factories or offices. Women who ran businesses alongside their husbands in earlier generations now acquired middle-class status only if they did not work.

In working-class families, the dynamic was slightly different. Mothers might work but father was still the most likely breadwinner. Working-class men could sometimes be stereotyped in the press as abusive drunks, but radicals (and later Labour politicians) who campaigned on their behalf challenged this perception, casting the working-class father as a figure of respectability. It was by describing working-class men as bourgeois-fathers-in-the-making that politicians were able to convince Parliament to extend the vote to them. 

As fathers lost direct and continuous contact with their children, there developed a greater emphasis on the role of the mother as ‘angel of the home’ – the chief nurturer and guide of the children. Nevertheless, fathers remained top dog within their own four walls; their role was to provide and protect. The nightly or weekly reunion of a father after work with his wife and children continued to make it clear that Dad ruled the roost.  

Fathers: stern or emotional?

Upper-class Victorian and Edwardian fathers were reputedly strict and censorious, perhaps because of the way they were depicted in their children’s autobiographies as they took advantage of the freedoms of the 20th century: the difficult relationship between Virginia Woolf and her father Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) is a case in point. We are told that these fathers ruled their homes with an iron will; they inhabited the public world of business and left the care of the home and children entirely to their wives and domestic staff. Examples abound: Edward Barrett (1785-1857), father of 12, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, kept his invalid daughter in the house and tried to prevent her forming romantic attachments. He later disowned her and all of his other children who married. Patrick Brontë (1777-1861), father of Charlotte, Anne and Emily, was reputedly another stern father figure who was easily enraged. The authority of these fathers seemed to be backed up by religion (which saw the father as God’s representative in the home), and by employment (which saw bosses of factories as the fathers of their employees).

But in a changing world these attitudes modified. New laws diminished the legal powers of fathers. Acts of Parliament worth noting in your research concerned three different areas of family law: The Married Women’s Property Acts 1870, 1882 and 1893; The Custody of Infants’ Acts 1839 and 1873 and Guardianship of Infants Act 1886, and numerous Matrimonial Causes Acts between 1857 and 1937. To find out more about how they might have affected your ancestors look up individual Acts at, or see But in general, by the 1890s women were in a slightly better legal position than they had been in 1800. They could keep their earnings, property and inheritance, had some custody rights and, in theory at least, easier access to divorce. As a result, Victorian fathers were in a rather unsettled situation. Their authority was no longer unchallengeable and no doubt many agonised over family crises in much the same way as fathers do today. Many men had even greater worries: with high maternal mortality rates, thousands of Victorian fathers found themselves widowers left to bring up young children. One such man was the Liberal statesman, Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904), whose wife died a day after the birth of their son Lewis in 1863. Harcourt’s relationship with ‘Loulou’ was one of affection and indulgence to the extent that when the boy started at Eton, his father visited him every night for the first week, so upset were they both. 

Paternal affection and fatherly grief were certainly in evidence in the past – it is just a pity that we have so few examples of these emotional highs and lows written or otherwise recorded – the need to maintain a stiff upper lip often held sway.

Games & gifts: fathers at home

Though Victorian and Edwardian fathers could work away from home for long periods and might have been at home only at certain times of day, they played an important role in the domestic set-up. The time that a father spent at home was probably more precious and important than ever before. It is, of course, debatable how much Victorian and Edwardian men were actually involved in the upbringing of their children, but the answer is probably more than we think; even father-of-nine Prince Albert, it was reported, removed the wobbly tooth of one of his daughters when it was bothering her on a Scottish holiday. Fathers were sometimes seen as the source of fun within a family. Victorian parlour games such as ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ and ‘Hunt the Slipper’ invariably involved items of Daddy’s property and required his participation. 

Another important fatherly role was as gift-giver. Coincidentally, the most popular father of all – Father Christmas – changed during the 1870s from a character who simply brought festive cheer to one who brought gifts. Since most women in the middle and upper classes did not work away from home and did not have their own income, gift-giving was almost entirely the father’s provenance. Look out for examples of fatherly gifts among your inherited possessions. 

All in all, fathers were crucially important to the healthy life of the home and home life was important to them. It was the one place where a father’s emotional and physical needs could be met. In theory, when at home with his family, a father could be periodically rejuvenated before going back into a public world that could sometimes be problematic and harsh. Many of our old family photographs aim to put just this story across.

Ruth A Symes has been interested in family history since childhood when she spent hours at her grandmother’s knee listening to tales of past relatives. She studied English Literature at Cambridge University and then completed a PhD in women’s history at the University of York. Ruth blogs at and her latest book is Unearthing Family Tree Mysteries (Pen & Sword).

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