Old maids, a tedious courtship, and dating advice

Old Maids – not just a card game

Old maids – it has never been a kind phrase, has it? And there is no equivalent for men. ‘Left on the shelf’ – has that ever been used towards a man? 

There’s an ancient French tradition of ‘coiffer sainte Catherine’: November 25 each year being dedicated to women who had reached the age of 25 without being married. It involves wearing a green and yellow bonnet – though I can’t imagine why any woman would want to do so.

A few statistics

The average age of marriage in the UK in 2016 was 31.5 years for women, and 33.4 years for men. 

Want to take a guess at the most popular month to get married in the UK, by the way?….


…..For all the fuss in magazines over spring brides, over the past two decades, it has been August.

A ‘tedious courtship’ – and assorted clichés

It was in September 1841, that one ‘happy couple’ finally ‘tied the knot’ in Kendal – not an old maid in this instance, but it wasn’t ‘love’s young dream’ either.

MARRIAGES. On Tuesday morning last, at the Superintendent Registrar’s Office, after a long and very tedious courtship. Mr. Richard Forsyth, shoe maker, to Mrs. Wilkinson. Richard is seventy-eight years of age, and was, when much younger, a gallant son of Mars. 

I have no idea what a ‘gallant son of Mars’ was – a soldier, possibly?

This is the third time he has courageously hopped to the hymeneal altar on the heart of oak, whilst his blushing spouse is in her seventy-ninth year, being the second time the fair damsel has fastened the connubial knot. 

I’m sure at 79, Mrs Wilkinson (by then Mrs Forsyth) wondered if ‘fair damsel’ was an affectionate cliché or the newspaper was having a quiet laugh. The ‘tedious courtship’ strongly suggests the latter.

On the subject of clichés, ‘blushing spouse’ (blushing bride) HAS lasted the course of time. Though grooms tend not to hop to the altar, and ‘heart of oak’ seems a repetition of ‘courageous’.

Which again was a bit of a laddish joke.

Who were the ‘happy couple’?

As the newspaper defined the bride by her first husband’s name only, I had to look at FreeBMD to establish that her first name was Martha. 

The only Richard Forsyth on the 1841 census in Kendal IS a shoemaker (born Canada). But his age is given as 60, not 78.

And that’s where I digressed to old maids.

The Old Maids’ Hospital

Looking for Martha Wilkinson, I instead spotted an Ann Wilkinson, 60; address ‘The Old Maids Hospital’. The hospital has eight residents. The first three being Ann Wilkinson, Agnes Wilkinson, 55, and Isabella Wilkinson, 50.

The Old Maids’ Hospital, at the bottom of Highgate, Kendal, ‘was erected in 1833, in accordance with the will of the late Miss Dowker, for the reception of six old unmarried women’.

I presume ‘hospital’ was in the original sense of ‘hospitality’: a place for impoverished women to live, not a medical establishment.

And from there, my delvings took me to some advice for young women on how to avoid ending up in the Old Maids’ Hospital. 

Dating advice from 1842

From the Westmorland Gazette.

Old Maids.—Old maids are creatures not of choice but of circumstances: nor is this to wondered at, for the struggling wife of the poorest peasant is more to be envied than the spinster daughter of a prince, if she feels that her destiny has decided against marriage.

Females are more to be excused for this protracted state of loneliness than the other sex ; because the laws of society imperatively require that they must wait to be asked; and, accordingly, if they are never asked, they can never be married 

Unmarried ladies, however, have too often to blame themselves for their unhappy condition, through the fact of being too difficult to please; for instance, a pretty maiden of nineteen will have five or six beaux. This makes her feel confident of a husband whenever she wishes to make a choice, and, accordingly, she neglects the present opportunity in the expectation of a better offer “and by.

These better offers,” however, are few and far between, that the lady loses one half of her personal fascinations while she is waiting for them ; and then not only discovers that she is disappointed in the lover of her future hopes, but also, that the lovers of her former contempt are among the missing.

Hence she probably becomes an ‘old maid’ and thus it frequently happens that the maiden who could not find a gentleman sufficiently worthy of her at nineteen is compelled, for want of a better, to run away with her father’s footman at thirty. 

  • You can read some more 1840s dating advice in this post.

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