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A study into historic inbreeding in rural English villages has uncovered more than just statistics – it’s also revealed a wealth of stories.
Cathy Day puts on her best olde-worlde rural Wiltshire accent, channelling the spirit of a man accused of fathering an illegitimate child in 18th century Britain.
The man stands accused by the child’s mother. She’s looking for parish relief – a sort of forerunner to Centrelink payments. But to get the money, she’s got to prove that she’s still a woman of virtue, and, crucially, she has to name the father.
Typically, the woman would say that conception was against her will, or have it frowned upon by the church.
For the accused man, however, the only way to get out of the accusation was prove that he was overseas or, better, point the finger elsewhere.
“He couldn’t just say ‘It wasn’t me’ – he’d have to say ‘It was him’,” Day says.
“So you get lots of records where they say,” she slips into her rural English brogue, “I did see her coming out of the shed and she did have hay upon her back and he did follow her out’.
“It’s legally laughable these days, but fascinating stuff.”
This is just one fascinating tale that the PhD researcher from the School of Archaeology and Anthropology has uncovered. It’s a study about something that makes people feel a little bit uneasy – because among the tens of thousands of birth, death and marriage records that she has looked through, she’s looking for evidence of something controversial even today: marriage between cousins.
Much of her study has involved poring over records in the neighbouring villages of Stourton and Kilmington in the UK.
The controversy surrounding cousin marriage in that country persists. Recently a government minister caused a furore after suggesting that cousin marriage was linked to birth defects among the children of first-cousin marriages in Britain’s Asian community.
“People said that Bangladeshis were very inbred and then made the ‘logical’ leap that they were a drain on the National Health Service because of deformed babies and such,” Day says.
“It really had racist undertones, because it was only directed at Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.”
The sensitivity that surrounds the issue of cousins marrying began long before the first Bangladeshis arrived in England. In fact, for hundreds of years in the UK there has been writing arguing about this form of inbreeding. Even Charles Darwin had a view – he wrote a lengthy and detailed book on the fertilisation of orchids which, after 485 pages of data on the plants – drew the startling conclusion that it was acceptable for the upper classes to marry their cousins, but was dangerous for the labouring classes.
So there was no shortage of writing. What there hadn’t been, however, was much explanation why.
“I was doing my own family tree and found out that my great grandparents were first cousins and wondered how common that was,” Day says.
“But I couldn’t find any research that talked about how common it was in Britain – I could find stuff about South India, or the West Indies, but not Britain. There was plenty about how bad they thought it was, but nobody knew how common it was.”
She chose for her study the idyllic country setting of Stourton in Wiltshire. This tiny settlement, home to no more than 600 people for at least the last 500 years, is the quintessential English country village. Surrounded on all sides by rolling green pastures, it’s picture postcard perfect, filled with blossoming gardens and historic homes.
Stourton, though, has one major difference from most English villages.
“Stourton was a ‘closed village’,” Day says. “That meant one land owner – the Hoare family – owned absolutely everything, and operated it as a little fiefdom. People couldn’t come in and out, and that’s partly why its records are so good.”
The years Day chose to study – 1775 to 1924 – were the longest continuous period where it was possible to identify more than 75 per cent of people who were baptised, married or buried. Her study looks at Wiltshire marriage patterns, particularly with cousin marriage, illegitimacy and geography, and how that geography affected who people would choose for a marriage partner.
It’s a topical area. Right now in the UK and Australia genealogy is very popular.
Day knows all too well how popular it is. As part of her research, she has established an internet database that compiles her painstaking research. The website, containing information on over 16,000 people, has been a huge hit with people tracing their own ancestral genes.
“I get literally hundreds of enquiries through the website from people researching their family history,” she says.
“My foolish plan initially was to put the website up and say to people they should look at that. In fact, it had the opposite reaction – I suddenly got many many more enquiries, so on the website I say ‘Don’t expect an answer before eight weeks’.”
With all of the interest in her work it would be easy to become distracted from her thesis, but Day said that there are enough interesting findings coming from her studies to help her stay focused.
Among those findings is that, during her study period, there is a strong link between cousin marriage and being the mother of an illegitimate child.
“If you’re the mother of an illegitimate child then you’re four times more likely to marry your cousin.
“That tells me that cousin marriage is one of those things on the fringes of acceptable behaviour in British society, so once you cross the boundary into doing things that are not quite acceptable then it was easy to do other not quite acceptable things as well.”
Previous studies have shown that once illegitimacy had entered a family, it became more common within that family. Day’s research has shown the same effect occurs with cousin marriage – once someone in the family had done it, others followed suit. In fact, 83 per cent of brides in first-cousin marriages had a close relative who was also married to a cousin.
The study has also produced some uncomfortable findings for Roman Catholics. Despite being expressly banned from marrying their cousins by the Church, Catholics of Stourton and Kilmington were much more inbred than their Anglican counterparts.
Day explains that the region’s Catholics battled competing pressures – to not marry a cousin, but to make sure they married someone of the same faith.
“In the 1780s only one per cent of the British population was Roman Catholic, so their available pool of spouses was very small. It’s interesting that what won out was the pool of available spouses – in their mind they had no choice, and it meant that the Catholics were much more inbred than then Anglicans,” she says.
Then there’s the peculiarly British trait of looking down at people from outside of your area. Regional rivalry is one thing, but Day’s study has shown that people were happier to pick a partner from further away in their own county than go to a closer village that was in another county.
“There’s a very strong sense of belonging to a certain county – even in this day and age.
“When I was living in Wiltshire doing my study I could be talking to someone who lived right on the border to Somerset and they’d tell me how strange Somerset folks were and joke about how funny they sound.
“There’s a clear sense that they see each other as ‘different’ and there’s something intrinsically special about each county.”
Then there are the quirky findings – that the historic two year age gap between British couples, present for hundreds of years, disappears with cousin marriage. Or that cousin marriage is far more common in two social groups – the slightly higher class of farmers and those with criminal convictions.
She’s also had to deal with some interesting reactions to her research. At a meeting of a Stourton local history group she was asked only to discuss the geographical aspects of her study because the other aspects “were too embarrassing to talk about”.
Then there are the people concerned that their family history is being rewritten through her findings.
“A couple of Catholics were concerned that I showed they had Protestant ancestors, and it had always been the family myth that they’d been Catholics since the Reformation.
“I didn’t press the point though, I’m not going to destroy their whole fantasy, particularly if their faith is important to them.”
But if offending local historians and some Catholics wasn’t enough, she’s also had to cope with barbed comments from British academics.
“I’ve had a few people think it’s odd to have an Australian anthropologist studying the British. One person said ‘It’s like having the ant coming to study the entomologist’! He thought it was odd that someone should come from the colonies to study them.
“But mostly the reaction I get is interest – everyone wants to tell me about some place that they say is particularly inbred.”
So just how inbred were the English? Day’s study shows that 2.25 per cent of the marriages in the ‘closed’ parish of Stourton were between first cousins, but the rate was half that for the adjoining ‘open’ village of Kilmington.
But for all the findings, it’s the stories that come up that make Day realise that for all the thousands of records she’s studied, there are plenty of great tales to be told.
Amazingly, one of those stories had a link to her.
On one of her visits to the Wiltshire parish, she stayed with a descendent of the Hoare family, the original owners of the village. Going through the records she saw a familiar name beside an entry from 1812.
“I discovered that Nick Hoare’s ancestor had sent my great great grandfather to jail for stealing chickens.
“It was just one of those funny things – I had no idea he was sent to jail for stealing, I just found it as part of my research. So I demanded an apology from Nick!”
But despite the amusing asides and historical tales she has uncovered, the “elephant in the room” remains. Why is the issue of marriage between cousins so sensitive? And are the fears of deformities borne out by the facts? The answer, Day says, is a matter of perspective.
“The bottom line is that unless you know there is a genetic defect in the family there’s no reason why you shouldn’t marry your cousin.
“Any two people randomly have, roughly, a two per cent chance of having a child that has some kind of genetic abnormality. If first cousins marry then it’s roughly four per cent. So one side says ‘that’s doubling the risk’ while the other says ’96 per cent of people aren’t having a problem’. You can look at it both ways,” she says.