• Debbie Challis

A Eugenicist Up North: The North

Ethel Elderton’s Report on the English Birthrate was Part One of an envisaged series of reports from across England, Wales and Scotland. It’s publication in 1914, weeks after the First World War broke out, meant it would be the only part completed. The changes made to society, including women working and the death of young men during the First World War meant there could be no continuity of or comparable timeframe for data around birthrate. In fact, Ethel Elderton and Karl Pearson moved on to working on bombardment ranges and calculating other military statistics during the war.*

Booth Poverty Map, Whitechapel 1888-9, LSE Library

But why start with England north of the Humber? Although authorship of the Report was ostensibly Elderton, the scant documentation UCL archives show the importance of Pearson’s input into it.** Pearson felt there was too much emphasis by social reformers on London and was hostile to the poverty survey and maps of Charles Booth, whose images of London Streets in shades of yellow (for the wealthiest) through to red, blue and deepest black for the poorest are well known today.


In part it seems to be related to the lectures on birth control by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh in parts of the north, notably the textile factory towns like Bolton, in the 1870s. (Although this would have been old news by the 1900s!) The focus on the 104 districts in Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, Durham and Northumberland could be to do with the formation of, as Eric Hobsbawn termed it, 'working-class consciousness' from 1870 to 1914. The trade unions, clubs, co-operatives assisted the mobilisation of a more militant working-class movement leading to calls for increased State intervention in issues such as housing, welfare and health. Pearson was a socialist but only wanted intervention for those he thought could contribute to the ‘health of the nation’. . .


Elderton references the numerous Factory Acts of the 1800s as well as the 1870 Education Act and

Elderton did not provide anything so visual or memorable as Booth’s maps but provides tables and tables of data.

subsequent acts affecting the economic value of children to their families. The focus was on the women working, even after marriage, who could potentially have more children and their fertility. This focus, among other things, undermines the idea that the majority of women did not work, particularly in towns with textile mills.


Elderton’s North is roughly the north recognised as such today. In his memoir cum history cum popular culture miscellany The North, Paul Morley argues that the north of England was formed, with its moors, peaks, hills, lakes and rivers, as a geographical entity in the ice age. It is, though, a culturally constructed one:

The north, a definite territory, a certain reality, an assorted spread of times and spaces pulled together, charged with feeling, a famous base for outsiders and strivers, beggars and visionaries, zealots and loafers, jokers and poets, somewhere solid, authentic, which you can think about, and feel you understand.***

I am not a northerner and don’t really come from anywhere, having moved round from (post)colonial Africa to Birmingham, the northern fringes of London and Bolton, then Birmingham (again), South London and now Macclesfield with family roots in Essex, Cornwall and Lancashire. My vicarage upbringing made me a class outsider too – too middleclass to fit into working-class parishes, not wealthy enough for much of the aspirational middleclass lifestyle in the 1980s and 90s. On one of my first days in my new school in Bolton, our class all looked at a map of how London perceived the north – electricity stopped somewhere in the Midlands, trains stopped at Crewe etc. The teacher asked me if this was true and, in embarrassment, I nodded my head. When I told my friends in London I was moving to ‘the North’, they spent my final half of the term making jokes about no electricity, speculating whether I'd have hot water and whether everyone would be on strike (this was 1988). I am, in many ways, a sponger of observations like Elderton, though am – hopefully obviously – not a eugenicist.


The Wellcome Collection digitised the Report on the English Birthrate : Pt. I. England, north of the Humber.


*Pearson, E. S. (1938). An Appreciation of some Aspects of his Life and Work. Biometrika, 29 (3/4), 161–248. https://doi.org/10.2307/2332005

** Szreter, S., 1996. Fertility, class, and gender in Britain, 1860-1940, Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.400-401.

*** Paul Morley (2013), The North (and almost everything in it), London: Bloomsbury

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