War can break families apart, it can disrupt the normal patterns of family life through absence or death on war service. Patience Huthwaite suffered just this problem when her boyfriend Reggie Bryant was sent to serve in Iraq in 1916 and was reported missing in action.
Patience Huthwaite was born in London, daughter of house decorator Henry Huthwaite and his wife Patience. In 1901, she was seven and living with her parents and three brothers (Henry junior, James and George) at 40 Euston Road. In 1911, though, she was living in an “Industrial School” in Blackburn Lancashire, doing laundry work
In August 1915, she was living in central Colchester. We know this because she was receiving letters from Reginald Bryant, a young man from Diss (apparently also a decorator) who was in training in Colchester as part of the Norfolk Regiment. These letters are available on the Great War Archive. It is not clear whether Patience was already in Colchester and met Bryant there, or moved to Colchester to be near him – something a number of girlfriends and wives did during the war.
Sometime in early 1916, Reggie was sent overseas. Unfortunately for Patience he was sent to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), meaning that he was unlikely to be able to come back on leave – which men serving on the Western Front could about once a year (or more often for officers).
Reggie being away was a particular problem because Patience was pregnant. Worse was to come, though, when Reggie was reported missing in action. He was with his unit at Kut-al-Amara when the garrison there was besieged and defeated by the Turkish Army. The garrison fell at the end of April and a large number of Reginald’s comrades were taken prisoner (and treated terribly by their captors). Reggie Bryant was not among those prisoners, however – he was reported missing a week before Kut fell.
Patience gave birth to a son in September 1916, whom she named Reginald Bryant Huthwaite. As the letter above shows, when Regginald junior was born it was still not confirmed whether his father was alive or dead – Patience was writing to the War Office in December 1916 to try to find out. The advice sent to her was probably that she should write to the Red Cross office that dealt with inquiries about missing servicemen.
Contrary to what is often thought, pre-marital sex was not so uncommon in the first half of the twentieth century. In some ways the change from the 1970 was more in how people responded to pregnancies, with unmarried parenthood becoming more acceptable.
As Pat Thane put it in a report for the British Academy:
“Until the 1970s, illegitimate and legitimate birth rates followed similar trajectories: they rose and fell together, both rising between c.1750 and 1850 and falling from the later nineteenth century to the 1930s, suggesting that they were influenced by similar factors. In 1846-50, 67 in every 1000 live births were illegitimate. The figure fell steadily to 40 in 1906-10. During World War One it rose to 53.9 in 1916-20. This was probably due to marriages being prevented or delayed due to the absence or death of men at war rather than, as was assumed at the time, to licentious behaviour by young people liberated by wartime conditions.”
At the time of the Second World War (in advance of which illegitimacy rates were similar to before 1914), the moral panic about illegitimacy that had occurred in the Great War re-emerged. The Registrar General’s pre-war statistics showed that pre-marital pregnancies (i.e. illegitimate births and those within marriage that occurred significantly less than nine months after the wedding) accounted for 14.6% of all births, and more among younger mothers. This figure decreased as illegitimate births increased during the war. He felt that the explanation for the increase in illegitimacy was
“almost unquestionably to be found in the enforced degree of physical separation of the sexes imposed by the progressive recruitment of young males into the Armed Forces and their transfers to war stations at home and abroad, rendering immediate marriage with their home brides increasingly difficult – and, in the case of many – quite impossible”
It seems more than likely that Reginald Huthwaite was one of those children whose parents would have married had they had the chance. Eventually, the authorities decided that Reggie Bryant had died (usually this was after about a year with no news). This left young Reginald without a father of course. He soon acquired one, though, when Patience married Reggie’s brother Clarence (also a veteran of the Norfolk Regiment in the Great War: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission page for Reggie says he was one of six brothers who served). According to the family’s account (on the Great War Archive), Reginald Huthwaite was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Patience senior, in London. He remained a Huthwaite for the rest of his life and died in 1999.
The Great War affected families in many ways. The lives of Reggie Bryant, Patience Huthwaite and their son show just one of those stories.