'If only this could be my last': a re-consideration of the British fertility transition

The traditional story about fertility decline during the first demographic transition is that of a move from natural, ‘uncontrolled’ fertility to a regime where couples embark on childbearing soon after marriage and stop once they reach a desired or ‘target’ number of children. This paper uses new estimates of age-specific marital fertility rates, parity progression ratios and birth intervals calculated from British nineteenth and early twentieth century census data, to argue that there is little evidence for the emergence of normative target family sizes during the early stages of the British fertility transition. Instead couples stopped childbearing at a wide range of different parities, and fertility declined in a non-parity-specific way. The paper will discuss the implications of this for the way that people negotiated and achieved lower fertility, for the concept of ideal family size, and for economic and cultural theories of fertility decline.