It is 4am here in California, but being roused from my slumber for this news is worth the lost sleep. Women have been losing sleep over this issue for years, stifled in heartbreaking silence over the loss of their children. Alice Perman of Ronachan Films has done more than produce a documentary on the subject of forced adoptions, she has aided a movement which has finally been granted an apology by the Catholic Church. There is more work to be done, more stories to be told, more hearts to be mended. But when ITV’s “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence” airs on November 9th I’ll be among the sleepless women watching teary eyed as this long hidden history sheds another layer to be revealed to the greater public. Kudos to Alice and to the many women who have worked tirelessly for this acknowledgment and apology. I honor you and feel blessed to have played my small part.
I have recently undergone a transformation, and have been debating whether to share it here. But it has given me such new perspective on so much of my research that I’ve decided it fits here, it makes sense here, and I hope you will indulge my desire to share. I’ve joined the tribe of motherhood. My son, Dashiell, is just four-months-old now. His presence – from the moment his life took shape inside my womb, through those nine-months of constant awareness that I was carrying this little person around in me, to the moment he entered the world, and every day in between – his presence, has changed how I see everything. Relationships I’ve had a lifetime take on new light. Interactions with friends and strangers, have a different hue. My sense of self, of being in this world, has a completely new tenor. And my research, this research that is so close to my heart, now has a new lens with which to be viewed.
Every woman that I interviewed for this project is a mother. Those that kept their children, those that lost their children, those that had other children later in life, those that didn’t. They all are mothers. I am so glad I had the opportunity to interview them before my own transition into this tribe. Because I could approach the subject with wonder, with the untainted curiosity of someone from a different tribe. Details of pregnancy, of childbirth, of separation – all of these were a foreign land that I could delve into with no experience of my own to impact my perspective.
Now, I have been on this journey. A different journey, a unique journey – as we all have had. One of privilege, the privilege of choosing to get pregnant, the privilege of being ‘older’ and therefore have a better understanding of what the process looked like, and most exceptionally in this context, the privilege of keeping my child. Of holding him to my chest and watching him grow from the moment he entered this world. And that privilege, has given me a deeper understanding of the hardship of each of the women who endured an unexpected pregnancy, a (sometimes forced) confinement, the childbirth practices of the 1960s for unmarried women, and the unimaginable hurt of losing a child. This new perspective on my research is still something I’m teasing out, exploring in the quiet moments as I look at my son and think of the many women and children impacted by the history of mother and baby homes. But for now, what I can say, is that my respect for the difficult decision each of these women made has grown deeper, my empathy for their journey has grown richer, and I wish only to continue honouring this often hidden history by revealing it to the larger public.
For the moment, I will simply introduce you to my new favorite person – Dashiell Elon Bell, born on March 19th, 2016.
He has reintroduced me to all of you in new and unexpected ways.
Thank you, again, for entrusting me with your stories. With your histories. With the intimate hurts and loves you have endured. I honour you.
I have been in touch with Ronachan Films, which has been commissioned by ITV in the UK to produce a documentary exploring child adoption in the UK from post war until the early 1980s. The film is due for broadcast in the summer of 2016.
The one-hour documentary will examine the changing attitudes to single motherhood in the second half of the Twentieth Century, when tens of thousands of babies born to unmarried mothers were placed for adoption with British couples.
As part of their film they are in need of any photographs or moving images of Mother and Baby Homes. If you have any of these that you would be willing to share please find their contact information below!
The production team would be grateful for your help in finding professional and personal photographs and moving images of Mother & Baby homes during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
If you are interested in contacting the production team, please contact Alice and Rory at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a multi-part series in which I will intertwine my own history of tracing lost family with tips and resources on how to trace your own missing people. Come back in the following weeks for additional segments! If you are not familiar with my research, you can find out more from my website: www.motherandbabyhomes.com. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the journey!
During my research, there was one question asked of me consistently – was I adopted? My interest in the topic of women being sent to mother and baby homes, and being pressured to give up their children for adoption is a niche one (though I do wish it could gain a broader audience) and one in which many of the interested parties are those whom have been affected by it in some way. Either they or their relative were a mum sent to a mother and baby home, or a child relinquished to adoption.
The short answer to this question is: no. I was not adopted. But short answers never truly provide us with the full story, do they? It is true; I was raised by my mum who gave birth to me. We were close, had a loving relationship, and her death in 2007 has left me heartbroken for many years. However, I was the offspring of a fractured family whose immediate family tree was splintered and cracked again and again. As a result, I developed a great curiosity for tracing people. Tracking down these individuals whose names were like legends on my lips, their blood the same as my own, and yet I would not know if they were the server pouring my coffee or the dentist checking my teeth. I had names. I had stories of their origins. Stories of their loss. My mother was open and forthcoming about her history (at least it felt so when she was alive, in the years since she departed I’ve come up with a million more questions seeking answers!). She was open to my many prying curiosities, and yet they were like fairy tales to me. Caricatures of the lives they truly represented, their stories expanded and bloated with my childish imagination, these people out in the world living their ordinary lives, sharing my bloodline, cried out for my attention.
The first person I traced was my father. My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me. My father was younger than her, exploring the world with youthful indiscretion, and thoroughly unprepared to become a family man. My mother, the elder of the two, was a bit of a self-styled gypsy, a bohemian of the 1970s with three children trailing her flowing skirts; she was open to whatever the universe offered up to her. Their union, a brief one, resulted in the birth of her seventh child. Me. Snowed in a small cabin in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, end of December, no doctor or midwife to be seen, my mother gave birth to me. This was my legacy. A fatherless hippy kid with a gypsy mother.
The cabin, c.1977 My mother, a belly dancer
When I started school, and received my first school photo, I had a strong desire to find my father and show him my picture. My mum had an old address for his parents, so I began to write him letters in my four-year-old handwriting. Proudly enclosing my picture, a young, blonde, green-eyed little girl, I mailed it off. And then I waited. Days. Weeks. Months. No reply. My youthful enthusiasm could not yet be dampened however, so I tried again. And again. A few years of this, me sending along my school photograph and awaiting a reply finally crushed my hope and I abandoned the cause. Any knowledge of my father became a still life. My mother described him – tall, blonde. These were apparent in my own growing features, the only blonde of my family. She had a single photograph of him, which existed until a fire when I was four years old consumed my family’s meager belongings. That photo became etched in my mind, a tall, slender, tan blonde man, shirtless and leaning over a woodworking bench. It faded, morphed, distorted itself with age as I tried to recall the features I could only conjure the silhouette.
2nd Grade school photo…the final one I mailed off.
When I turned twelve, I developed a love for the library. I would go in and peruse the shelves to see what they might offer. This is when I stumbled across telephone books dating back for many years and for many regions. I decided to pick up my search. My father’s unique surname helped, and I began collect calling the numbers (I was twelve, had no money, and didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to). I was never successful, and gave up my search once more.
At seventeen I was enrolled in a theatre course at the local college (similar to a uni in England). One day as we sat on the stage in a circle, stretching our limbs and warming our vocal chords, our instructor assigned us my most dreaded project: to develop a family tree. I did not know my father. Knew nearly nothing of my mother’s family. Mine was a short and broken limb, no tree to connect with. That day I was without a ride home, and my instructor kindly offered to give me a lift. On the way I explained my dread of the assignment and my lack of a father. She encouraged me, vociferously, to try seeking him out once more. Bolstered by her encouragement, I went home and picked up where I left off when I was twelve. I began calling everyone in the phonebook on the west coast of America that had the same surname as my father. This time collect calls were not necessary. Alas, I found his brother, to whom I explained my long, convoluted story in the hopes of reconnecting. He promised to have my father call. I spent the next two weeks on edge, waiting for my telephone to ring. It refused to do so. Unable to wait any longer, I returned to the task of cold-calling other numbers asking for my father. When I chanced upon a number who knew him (it turns out this was my grandfather to whom I was speaking) I did not explain who I was, I did not provide my story, I simply asked to be given his number. Thankfully, he obliged.
Alas, the moment had arrived. His phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper in my hand; threatening, encouraging, whimpering for my attention. I scoured the house for a cigarette, came up with little, and dove in. I dialed. Ringing…once, twice… “Hello?” A deep breath, and then I asked – is this Steve? “Yes.” Oh. And here comes the clincher. “My name is Rose. I am the daughter of Elon Rickels, and you.” Silence. A lot of silence. Long, painful, creaking silence. And then… “I always thought you’d come after me with an ax.” Yes. Those are the poignant, encouraging, loving words my father first spoke to me. “Ummm…why?” He explained his fears – he believed I would hate him for leaving, for letting my mother leave, for never reaching out. He believed she would speak ill of him, berate his absence, blame his silences. She did not. My mother, never once even when pushed, said a bad word of my father. He was simply absent. He must have a reason for it. My lack of ax explained, we continued through a jilted conversation, making arrangements to meet.
A month later, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, with a hiking pack, camouflage trousers, and a friend at my side, I stuck my thumb out on the highway leading to my father’s home ten hours away. The journey took two days and was an adventure of its own. My dear friend Nora shivering beside me on the freeway, sipping endless cups of coffee at Denny’s to get through a long night with no money, avoiding creepy men with beds in their vans, laughing as the Stephen King look-alike bought us lunch and someone who had stayed up all night winning at poker bought us breakfast. Tired, road-weary, and bleary eyed we finally appeared at my father’s doorstep. We knocked…silence. That same, long, creaky silence. And then the door opened, and there before me, hunched over, greying, pale, this grizzled man who represented half of my DNA reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed me the fading picture of his young, blonde, green eyed little girl.
Kindergarten. The first photo I ever mailed.
The father I have known in my adulthood has never matched the distorted photograph formed in my youth. Our relationship has had many starts and stops, small victories, crushing failures. We have come to know each other with a thin and diaphanous thread holding us together. What the experience offered me, more than anything in retrospect, was answers and a taste for seeking out the ghosts of my childhood. My father kept a journal during those years in which he met my mother, and allowed me to read through it. I gained a new understanding of the world I was conceived in.
The research though, the hunting down those legends of my youth, became a new passion. With one success under my belt, I turned to the others waiting for me to find them. I will return on another day to share those stories, but in the process I learned to trace not only the missing who still live, but also the misplaced ancestors who flow through my veins and have been given stories once again.
I want to give you, dear reader, an equal opportunity to seek out your lost legends. To do this, I offer up a host of resources kindly shared with me by the Natural Parents Network and Adoption Search Reunion, along with resources gathered from my own research. This week I will just offer up some first steps to getting started, in future weeks I’ll include more extensive resources as you continue your journey.
Step One: Obtaining your birth certificate
The first step is to make sure you have as much information about your family origins, so you need to have a copy of your original birth certificate, which will contain identifying information about your birth mother and birth father if it has been recorded on the birth certificate. If you do not have a copy of your original birth certificate then you need to apply for a copy.
If you were adopted before 12th November 1975 and do not know your name at birth, you will need to apply to the Registrar General for Access to Birth Records. You will also need to meet with an adoption advisor so that arrangements can be made for the Registrar General to send them the information needed to apply for a copy of your original birth certificate. One of the reasons you are required to meet with an adoption advisor is because prior to 12th November 1975 promises of lifelong confidentiality were given to birth parents and families. At that time it was understood the adoption order would mean that all legal ties to the birth family were severed and that there would be no further contact. If you were adopted on or after 12th November 1975 and before 30th December 2005, and do not know your birth name, you can apply to the General Registrar for the information to enable you to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate.
You can apply for Access to Birth Records and a certificate of your original birth entry by contacting the General Register Office (GRO) on 0300 123 1837 or ordering them through the GRO website:
You can read more about your right to access information about your origins on the Adoption Search Reunion website:
If you already know your original name then you have the information to apply directly to the Registrar General for a copy of your original birth certificate. Contact information for General Register Offices in the UK can be found on the Adoption Search Reunion website:
If you were adopted on or after the 30th December 2005 then you need to apply to the Adoption Agency that placed you for adoption.
Step Two: Tracing Agencies. For many, the most direct way to trace your family is to use an agency which specializes in this. This list offers confidential, bona fide tracing services which you may find helpful in your own search. To find out costs and range of services offered, please get in touch directly with the individual company.
1. Tracing your Roots — Family Tracing Service for Adoptees
Sara Jones, based in the Wirral in the North West of England, works closely with Adoption Matters in Chester, and she also provides a professional, discreet family tracing service, specialising in finding birth families of people who have been adopted throughout the UK. Contact Information: Sara Jones. Tel: 0151 608 0503 (ans). Email: email@example.com www.tracingyourroots.co.uk
2. Adoption Services for Adults (Ofsted Registered)
Jean Milsted, specialises in birth records counselling for adults adopted before 12th November 1975, who want to apply for their original birth certificates; access to information from adoption files; also searching, tracing and intermediary services. Workshops are also run for adults affected by adoption. Contact Information: Jean Milsted. Tel: 01628 481954. PO Box 4621, Marlow, SL7 9DG Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.adoptionservicesforadults.org.uk
3. Family Tracing and Locating Services
Linda Cherry started Family Tracing and Locating Services, and works hand in hand with Adoption Services for Adults, which allows her to continue helping birth relatives and adopted adults, and also enables her to work with other adoption support agencies worldwide. Contact Information: Linda Cherry. Tel: 01843 223646. Mob: 07828 078041. Email: email@example.com
Birthlink is where to go if you or your child were adopted in Scotland. If you have been affected by an adoption with a Scottish connection in any way, as a child, parent or relative, and are either looking for somebody, some information, or just someone to talk to, Birthlink can help you. They offer a range of services including search and mediation and also hold The Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Contact Information: www.birthlink.org.uk or 21 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN, Scotland UK. Tel: 0131 225 6441
5. Adoption Search Reunion
This website provides information for adopted people, birth relatives and also adoptive parents in England and Wales. It is an excellent resource for getting started on your own without a tracing agency. It also provides information for agencies, professionals and volunteers who provide services for adopted people and their birth and adoptive relatives. The information available on this website applies to adoptions that were made before the 30th December 2005. This website includes a comprehensive listing of Mother and Baby Homes in England, including dates in which they provided services and location of archives.
That concludes this week, but please follow in the coming weeks for more resources on how to trace your family, and my continued journey in tracing the lost legends of my youth.
To learn more about my research, and to find additional resources please visit: http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com
Have you traced your family? Please leave your searching tips in the comments below so other readers may learn from your experience too!
I have been woefully absent from these pages for some time. For that, I apologize. The subject matter has been no less present in my thoughts, merely my availability to give it energy has been tapped by the day-to-day demands of life. I have moved back to California. I have been working full time. Moving. Living. But I am still here. I continue to get messages, and emails from women who have been impacted by Mother and Baby Homes. From curious researchers, inspired production companies, interested students. This thread between myself and the women who were impacted by Mother and Baby Homes has not disappeared. We are still linked, I have just been on something of a sabbatical. But I can feel that sabbatical drawing to a close, and my energy slowly turning back towards the topic at hand. Back towards the Homes. Back towards the women. Their babies. Their grown children. Out in the world, needing to know more. Needing to connect to each other. Needing to connect to their own experiences. To contextualize and contemplate what the impact of these Homes has been to themselves, their children, and the world around them.
I have a few ideas on where I want to go with the research. What I want to pursue next. What I’m curious to know, and share, and uncover. I would like to accumulate more imagery from the homes, the women and their children. I would like to flesh out the stories of some of the individual homes. I would like to highlight the experiences of some specific women. I would like to consider the lives of their children.
However, I would also like to hear from you. What are you curious to know? What would you like to read more about? See more of? Who would you like to hear from? Please leave a comment below to let me know so that this can be a dialog, not a lecture. That is my goal. That is the goal of oral history. To create a dialogue. With you.
I have been contacted by BBC News, among others, seeking women who were in Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland. If you spent time in one of these homes and would be willing to talk to a news correspondent, would you please email me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The news of Catherine Corless’s discovery of 796 babies buried in a mass grave at the Tuam home in Galway has been devastating. If women who spent time in these homes are willing to speak it affords us the opportunity to expose the network of homes which systematically shamed unmarried mothers.
The Mother and Baby Home at Tuam, Co. Galway
For those unfamiliar with this tragic new discovery, here is a synopsis of Ms. Corless’s research:
Catherine Corless has a synopsis of her research on that Facebook page but it’s hard to read in the FB format. Here is an easier to read version.
The Mother/Baby Home Tuam
The Mother/Baby Home in Tuam was opened in 1925 and was run by the Bon Secours Sisters to cater for unmarried mothers and their babies.
This was an era in our history when pregnancy before marriage was deeply frowned upon by church, state and family. The unfortunate woman who found herself in this predicament was quickly sent to an institution such as the Mother/Baby Home out of sight of prying neighbours and relatives.
The Bon Secours Sisters were a nursing congregation who had come from Dublin to take charge of the hospital wing of Glenamaddy Workhouse, which catered for the destitute, old and infirm, orphans and unmarried mothers. These Workhouses had been instigated by the Irish Poor Law since the 1840’s, but now after the Treaty, the Irish Free State reformed the whole system and put in place administration on a county basis, so that separate arrangements were made for the aged and infirm to go to County Homes, and for the unmarried mothers and orphans to go to institutions.
All Workhouses were closed, but it was decided that the one on the Dublin road in Tuam would be chosen as a Mother/Baby Home. The Home building itself was in a good structural state but needed quite a bit of repair. The Sisters and some of the mothers and children began the task of clearing and cleaning, and by the end of the year 1925, all were ready to move in. Dr. Thomas B. Costello was the Medical Officer for the Home and the Rev. Peter J. Kelly, a grandnephew of the former Archbishop of Tuam Dr. John McEvilly, was chaplain.
The building belonged to Galway Co.Co. and they were responsible for repairs and Maintenance, and a capitation grant was paid to the nuns for the cost and upkeep of the mothers and babies, and for the salaries of doctors. A maternity wing was added some time later. The travel writer Halliday Sutherland visited the Home in the 1950’s and it is worth quoting his review of the Home:
“The grounds were well kept and had many flower beds. The Home is run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours of Paris and the Reverend Mother showed me around.
Each of the Sisters is a fully trained nurse and midwife. Some are also trained children’s nurses. An unmarried girl may come here to have her baby. She agrees to stay in the Home for one year. During this time she looks after her baby and assists the nuns in domestic work. She is unpaid. At the end of the year she may leave. She may take her baby with her or leave the baby at the Home in the hope that it will be adopted. The nuns keep the child until the age of seven, when it is sent to an industrial school. There were 51 confinements in 1954 and the nuns now looked after 120 children. For each child or mother in the Home, the Galway Co.Co. pays £1 a week. Children of five or over attend the local schools. The whole building was fresh and clean.”
Haliday Sutherland, however, did not interview any of the resident mothers or helpers. Had he done so, he would have got quite a different story to the one he was told. During my researching the Home, I spoke to some mothers who gave birth there and their account of their confinements speaks of long unattended labours without sight of a Sister or midwife, it was only during the birth that a nurse was in attendance with only the help of an untrained resident. The doctor gave one examination when the mother was first admitted and that was the last they saw of him. No drugs of any kind were ever administered to help with pain, no kindness ever shown. Only mothers who had the ability to pay £100 for delivery services were allowed to leave after the birth. It was a condition that all others must wait a full year in the Home filling domestic duties, cooking, cleaning, minding the babies and children and tending to the gardens. The mothers did not have the choice of keeping their babies as outlined by the writer Halliday Sutherland. Seeing that their confinement in the first place was a hush-hush affair, no family would allow a daughter back home with a baby, as Irish Catholics in those days were in fear of a much distorted doctrine by the Catholic Church that the unmarried mother had committed a heinous crime. It is also to be remembered that the man who had fathered the child was never villainized or held responsible. Neither did the Irish state at that time offer any support for the unmarried mother.
The late John Cunningham, former editor of the ‘Connaught Tribune’ spent his early days in the Tuam Home, as his mother died in his infancy, and in an article which he published in the ‘Connaught Tribune’ April 1998, he speaks of the cruelty of the system which allowed the separation of babies from their mothers. In his article entitled ‘Emotional minefield of the rights of mothers and adopted children from the Ireland of yesterday’, John relayed the conversation he had with a woman who had spent most of her life in the Home: ‘What were the young women to do? Many weren’t wanted at home, they were ostracised by society. In those days a young woman could not become pregnant and stay at home. It was as simple as that. I saw the devastation when they were parted from their children. They nursed the child and looked after it for a year and then they went one way and the child stayed to be adopted or to be boarded out a few years later. I don’t know if any of them recovered from the heart-breaking parting. It was heart rending’.
For the children who were not adopted from the Home, they attended the Mercy Convent N.S. or the Presentation N.S. once they reached the age of 5. They were brought down to the schools in a line and always left a little earlier in the evenings, to ensure that there would be no integration with the other pupils. The sound of their heavy clogs making their way up the Dublin road is a memory that resonates with most people. After they made their first communion, many of the children were fostered out by families. There was an allowance per week from the Government at the time, and a yearly clothing allowance, provided to those families for the care of the children. Unfortunately, there was no vetting system in place to check on the suitability of those families to take those young vulnerable children, and many of them were sent to uncaring unscrupulous families who spent very little of the allowance on them. Many of the children were treated little better than slaves, but had to remain with the families until they reached 16 years of age after which many of them emigrated to England in the hope of a better life. Some of the children fared a little better, with the foster family accepting them as one of their own, and some even inherited the farmsteads they were sent to.
The Home was closed in 1961 as it had fallen into a dilapidated state. The children who had remained there were sent to the Industrial School in Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath. The Home and grounds remained vacant for a number of years, except for the rear building which was used by ‘Bontex’ who made school uniforms.
In the early 1970’s the whole building was demolished to make way for a new housing estate. When I started my research into the Home, I spoke to some of the residents who had moved into this housing estate on the Dublin/Athenry road, and they indicated that there was an unmarked graveyard in an area at the rear of where the Home once stood. It was believed that it was an angels plot for unbaptised babies, but further in my research I discovered that in fact, many children and young babies were also buried here. I was astonished to find that there was no formal marking or plaque to indicate that these children were buried there. I decided to contact the Registration Office in Galway to check for deaths in the Home. I was dismayed to find that in fact the number of children who died in the Home during its existence 1925-1961 numbered nearly 800. I now have all those children’s names, date of death, and age at death, which will be recorded into a special book.
It just did not seem right that all those children lay there unnamed and forgotten. Hence, I made contact with the Western Traveller and Intercultural Development (WTID) and a committee of interested people emerged, all with the view that some sort of Memorial should be erected in this children’s graveyard in dedication to their memory. Our committee is named: ‘The Children’s Home Graveyard Committee’.
We introduced our Project to erect a Memorial to the children, to the Tuam Town Council at one of their meetings, and got a unanimous decision that they would help us with some funding when they get their 2014 Grant Allowance. The Heritage Council have also promised to help but have cautioned us that Heritage Grants have been cut for 2014. Our fundraising is ongoing as it will take a large sum to complete the whole Project, i.e. to erect a proper Monument, clear the pathways into the graveyard, and to maintain the area with flowers and shrubs etc.
A St. Jarlath’s Credit Union account has been set up for anyone who would like to contribute to this very worthy Project.
Catherine Corless, local historian who discovered the mass grave holding 796 infants and children
I am in conversation with a production company, Wall to Wall Productions, who are currently developing a dramatised television series, based around one of the many Mother and Baby Homes in the UK in the 1960s.
Wall to Wall Productions are the creators of some excellent and relevant series, including Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Family. This production is still in development, however if the show goes forward it would be set in an unnamed Mother and Baby Home in 1960s England or Wales, and all of the characters would be drawn from the real stories of real women who experienced these homes. Their desire is to present the material as factually as possible, without romanticizing what was often a very challenging experience.
To this end, the development producer would be interested in talking with some women who spent time in the Homes. All contributions will be anonymous, however they will offer up the opportunity for an honest depiction of these experiences to be presented to a much broader audience through a televised series.
If you would be interested in speaking with the producer of this show to offer up some of your history in the Mother and Baby Home, I think it could afford us an opportunity to raise an even greater awareness of this important piece of the past.
If you are interested in speaking with the producer, please contact me at email@example.com. If you have any questions or concerns prior to speaking directly with the production company, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.
A distinguished oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, noted that one of the great values of oral history is its ability to amplify the voices of communities, movements or individuals by taking them outside, by breaking their sense of isolation and powerlessness by allowing their discourse to reach other people and communities. This achievement is my greatest goal in developing the project on mother and baby homes, and what brings me such joy in announcing that my project website is now live! You can visit it at www.motherandbabyhomes.com and I hope you will take a moment to comment in the social forum on your impression of the site and its content.
Women share their stories of time in the Homes
This project began with an oral history assignment, an assignment which suddenly married my passion for learning women’s stories…particularly their marginalized histories, with a new love for oral history methods. Methods which allow women to speak, in their own words to recount their histories, and then to bring those histories alive by joining them with others who had similar experiences. Suddenly a single, intimate, painful memory becomes part of a collective voice demanding attention. Just as this subject matter demanded my attention. I sought out a single woman to interview, to fulfil an assignment, to quench a curiosity. But the stories were too rich, too alive with a history not yet fully in the past, that I couldn’t bear stopping with just one interview. Instead the subject haunted me, women emailed me with their willingness to participate, charity shops I would pop into suddenly filled their bookshelves with stories of unmarried motherhood and these homes. Old friends began recounting their own experiences of illegitimacy and relinquishment. News articles, television shows, books, films…suddenly the topic was embedded in everything I saw and my only recourse was to relent and pay attention. To reciprocate by making my own contribution to this history which still lives in the everyday thoughts and actions of women and their children today.
History alive today in the women and children impacted
The website, the culmination of this research to date, has been live just a few days. And yet I have been receiving visitors and comments from people around the world. People who find resonance in the content, who have spent time in these homes, who have sisters and mothers and daughters who spent time in these homes, people who were adopted and have found or are seeking their birth relatives, academics and authors who have studied similar topics, and individuals who have never known such a history existed. Their words literally brought tears to my eyes, and I suddenly realized I am neck deep in this research and have no desire to escape it. I am moved each time I listen to the words of these interviews, when I hear the joy, the struggle, the pain, the humour, the healing that has taken place. I hope this is an issue I can continue to pursue, to research, and to find ways to give a voice to.
But for now, at this moment, I hope you will explore the website and share it with anyone you feel might appreciate its content. Until next time, my very best and my gratitude for your continued reading of this blog.
I first learned about Mother and Baby Homes about fifteen years ago. A friend of mine from the States shared with me her own story of being sent to a Home for Unwed Mothers (as they are frequently labelled in America) in 1960s New York, and giving her son up for adoption. She told me this tale at the time she was reuniting with her son, over thirty years later. Single motherhood never struck me as odd, I myself was born out of wedlock, but these homes seemed extraordinary. Serving a population in a way that was outdated to my own understanding of single parenthood and the way it was perceived. When I began pondering my dissertation it was to these curious Homes which my thoughts turned, and to the women who spent time in them. These women, and their children, represent a history that fascinates. It fascinates me because it still exists, not like the echoes of Roman invasion or Greek architecture, but lives still entangled by a history that only decades later has been swept away. Before I could turn to the women of this project to learn their stories, I needed to delve first into England’s first Mother and Baby Home. I needed to know how this began, before I could discover what it became. So today, I’m going to tell you the story of Ivy House. England’s first home for unmarried mothers.
History persists in the separation (and possible reunion) of women & children today
Credit for these homes might go to a Mrs. Cottrill, a Salvationist who had informally began opening her home to prostitutes in an effort to lead them to a more respectable path. After being inundated by women in need Mrs. Cottrill approached General Booth with the need for homes for these desperate creatures. The only other resource for women with nowhere to turn was the workhouse. While these ‘Spikes’ were not inherently evil as often depicted in Victorian novels, they still had to combine the functions of ‘schools, asylums, hospitals and old people’s homes, as well as being the last refuge for the homeless and unemployed. The workhouse was the first national experiment in institutional care; many mistakes were made, and both deliberate and unintentional cruelties were perpetrated, but in trying to remedy these, the state was led into creating the specialized institutions which eventually replaced the workhouse.’ Conceptually helpful as a system offering food and shelter in exchange for labour, the reality was often harsh as many weak and ailing inmates died in the workhouses with 20.9 per cent of all deaths in London in 1906 occurring in workhouses. Only the most desperate entered, yet the workhouse persisted like a spectre haunting them as “the honest poor really did prefer to starve rather than enter the workhouse. Their prison-like appearance, and that notion that they are intended to torment the poor, inspires a salutary dread of them.”
Spectre of the poor: the Workhouse
Recognizing the desperation of these so-called fallen women, The General accepted Mrs. Cottrill’s charge and appointed his daughter-in-law Florence Booth to oversee the new branch of Salvationist services. And, while the desire to help such needy women was the mission of England’s first home for unwed mothers, at its heart was the Salvationist doctrine to bring more members into the Methodist army through General William Booth’s mantra of ‘soup, soap, and salvation.’ It was with this in mind that Mrs. Booth opened the doors to Ivy House.
Ivy House, Hackney, London
Opened in 1891 at 271 Mare Street in Hackney, Ivy House was the jewel in Mrs. Booth’s social work crown, beginning with just 20 beds and a single nurse. Offering respite for expectant unmarried mothers, Salvationists spread the word of this new service through poor neighbourhoods and among prostitutes, hoping to offer refuge and spiritual guidance in their time of need.
London’s Victorian poor
The women receiving help from the Salvation Army’s maternity services included women and girls from all walks of life fallen into hard times, whether falling pregnant from a promised marriage, while in service or working the streets of London as a prostitute. Their presence in the home was twofold, as ‘girls who are about to become mothers, and whom it is not advisable to send to the workhouse, go to Ivy House, and their need is the opportunity for the Army nurses to study midwifery.’ Ivy House focused on women who were single and pregnant; however other services were also part of the Women’s Social Work movement including the Slum District services which provided in-home maternity care for poor married women and outreach to the ladies of the night during Midnight Work.
The Deliverer featuring Ivy House on the cover, August 1909
The Salvation Army’s publication The Deliverer reported on the Women’s Social Work efforts and on happenings within Ivy House. Here are a few interesting descriptions of the women served by Ivy House. Do note that their selection could be indicative of representing the larger population of women in the homes, or perhaps more likely were suggestive of the types of stories best suited to nineteenth-century stereotypes of pitiable so-called fallen women as a means of soliciting financial support for the home.
What would have become, for instance, of F___, a small, frail girl of seventeen, an orphan, without a friend in the world, led astray by a married man while seeking another situation, and only forsaken to struggle alone with her difficulty. (1890)
Among the many pathetic and interesting life stories told us was that of Margaret, a beautiful girl born in Africa. …Margaret came to England in the capacity of a young lady’s companion. …Space will not admit of our following the wretched girl all through her downward career, suffice it to say however, that after drinking deeply of life’s fever, Margaret eventually came to Ivy House, cast off by the father of her child. (1893)
…the ‘poor woman,’ just a few hours a widow, came to seek help for the time of her approaching confinement. There are three little children besides, but hopefully the mother speaks of providing for them as soon as she gets well. Anyway, she has declined the offer of the workhouse, and is determined to support them. God help the brave woman! (1895)
…the mother of the twins, a poor orphan, friendless girl who has been peculiarly prey of a bad man. For weeks efforts have been made to get her permanent help that she might be saved from the workhouse, for how could she, unless substantially aided, support two babies? (1898)
A very sad case is that of G___, a Eurasian girl, who, a few weeks ago, was deserted by her would be lover. With the promise of marriage and a happy home, the poor girl left her native town and came on to Madras, accompanied by her supposed intended. Arriving at Madras Central Station, the young man told G___ to wait until he went to make arrangements about their luggage, etc. Of course she expected him back in a few minutes …night fell and she was still waiting on the railway platform for him who never intended to return …the saddest part is that in a very short time poor forsaken G___ expects to be a mother. (1899)
These passages depict a very specific type of client to Ivy House, that of the pitiable innocent who passively came to her circumstances through the lies of deceptive men. Each is orphan, immigrant, or widow and found friendless and alone. They are in dire circumstances without work, though three are noted as recently working or seeking work. That spectre of the destitute, the workhouse, seems to loom as incentive to improve their circumstances. Indeed, they seem to be respected for having avoided thus far that level of aid, falling perhaps into a category we might call ‘the respectable poor.’ Yet, some care must be taken in assuming all women who passed through the doors of Ivy House were so miserable and alone, for they remark in 1906: “From all conditions and spheres of life they came – rich and poor, refined and rough, English and foreigner, Jew and Gentile, entered the wide open portals…” This makes an interesting point for the ways in which women who went to Mother and Baby Homes through the 20th century were perceived, as poor and fallen, rather than the realities that it was possible for women from any station and any background to find themselves pregnant and unmarried.
Ivy House with staff
At Ivy House these women in need were offered a bed, medical treatment, food, clothing, supplies for baby, and even efforts to track down the father to demand financial support. Central to their spiritual creed, the nurses also prayed with them, urging them towards ‘salvation’, offered emotional support, and assisted the women in finding employment in service afterwards including help with placing the babes in care while the mothers worked. The atmosphere of the home often jumps from the pages of the newsletter with descriptions of ‘the beautiful little hospital into which Ivy House has been turned. The decorative additions are charmingly fresh and bright, the house sweet and airy, the wards exceedingly comfortable and well kept. The nursery attached is a picture of cleanly comfort, and the wee, downy heads of brown, and black, and gold, nestle cosily into the whitest of pillows, in their bassinettes of red, as content as though the world into which they had come were actually the warm-hearted place it appears to their week-old inexperience.’
The nurses of Ivy House, 1898
Initially, only Salvationist women could work in the home. However as the years went on and the hospital grew the Army relaxed the requirement for nurses to be Salvationists and instead became one of the first training hospitals for any women wishing to become midwives. A new law instituted in July 1902 known as the Midwives Act forbade the practice of midwifery ‘except under the direction of a qualified medical practitioner’. As part of this change Ivy House was certified to become a Training School for Midwives. This opened up their existing training program to ever increasing numbers of new nurses with a report in 1912 that to date ‘506 maternity nurses have been trained’ at Ivy House Hospital and since the new regulations for midwives instituted ‘258 have received the C.M.B. certificate’. By November of 1889 forty cases had been received and one woman trained for duty, by June the following year over one-hundred had been helped in a home which could accommodate twenty young women.
Along with a bed, meals, medical treatment, and spiritual guidance the home even offered bundles of used clothing to needy mothers. Staff also performed work to seek remuneration on behalf of the girls from men who deserted their fatherly duties. Further, and perhaps crucially, the staff found placements in service for the girls after their children were born and arranged for foster-carers or nurse-mothers to care for the babes while the women worked. These services, at the heart of England’s first mother and baby home seem to have faded from view as the generations progressed and adoption became both legal and encouraged.
Mother’s Hospital in its later years
By May 1894 the maternity home had been transformed into a maternity hospital with a new residence, Brent House , established as the new confinement home for unwed mothers with 54 beds and over 225 new cases annually, while Ivy House had served five hundred women to date. The 1902 Midwives Act lead to Ivy House being recognized as a training centre for midwives, thus increasing their profile for potential nurses. With ever growing demand being placed on Ivy House Maternity Hospital plans for a new building were underway and the stone-placing ceremony for the new institution was laid by ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, on Thursday, July 4, 1912’. Thus began a new chapter in the life of Ivy House, one which would have special bungalows for “unmarried mothers, another for special cases, another will be reserved exclusively for married women, and one will, it is hoped, be used by Jewess mothers, for whom special arrangements are made.” The opening of this new hospital is the bookend to the Salvation Army’s early establishment of the first Mother and Baby Home, but is perhaps best used to reflect upon the previous eighteen years in which ‘506 nurses had been trained at Ivy House Hospital, in which 4,260 births have taken place; while 13,600 births have been attended to by Ivy House Nurses in the district’. Ivy House proved to be an important milestone in maternity care for poor women in London. Growing out of a Christian sense of duty to serve the needy in the late-nineteenth century, it persisted to be useful to women from all walks of life in London until its closure as Mothers Hospital in 1986.
Religion has always been tightly interwoven with Mother and Baby Homes. The Salvation Army initiated the movement, but by 1968 with 172 known Homes throughout England of these 138 was religiously affiliated, though the Salvationists were no longer in the majority. In 1968 58% of the Homes were run by the Church of England, 11.6% by Roman Catholics, 5.3% by Salvation Army, 3.5% by Methodists, and the remaining by other churches or local authorities. While this can be attributed to the social work missions of many religious bodies, it also implied acts of penance necessary for the unmarried young women who became residents in the Homes.
Further reading for the curious
Crowther, M. (1981). The Workhouse System, 1834-1929. Cambridge: University Press.
Mayhew, H., & ed. Neuburg, V. (1985). London Labour and the London Poor. London: Penguin Books.
Nicholson, J. (1968). Mother and Baby Homes: A Survey of Homes for Unmarried Mothers. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Prochaska, F. (1980). Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ross, E. e. (2007). Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press.
The Salvation Army. (1898-1993). The Deliverer. London: Salvationist Publishing.
Walker, P. (2001). Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down. Berkeley: University of California Press.
NOTE: Most quotations included are drawn from the Salvation Army’s publication The Deliverer between 1889-1913.
Post-war Western societies revered the nuclear family. This is how adoption came to be an acceptable and frequent practice. Couples unable to conceive worried over their inability to form a traditional family and were relieved of their childlessness by the growing practice of adoption. Any young couple understood that step one was marriage, step two was children. Motherhood, revered within marriage, was reviled outside of it. Thus, unmarried women who became pregnant offered the necessary stock of babies for married couples who could not conceive. One participant in my project who desperately wanted to keep her infant son described it as: “A marriage certificate. That’s the dividing line between its good and it’s not good.” This demarcation between the joyful reception an expectant married woman would receive and the dark looks, tears and anger an unmarried mother-to-be would confront all came down to that marriage certificate. Without this license to wed, this license to procreate, women were stigmatized and made to feel ashamed and guilty for their so-called transgressions.
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage”
Unmarried mothers of the 1960s understood the social conditions of their shame so intrinsically they often responded with denial. With fervent prayers to escape the physical mark of their sexual encounter, prayed for miscarriages or marriages, anything to remove them from the heartache that was to come. They masked their growing bodies beneath voluminous fashions, hid their morning sickness, excused their missed periods. However, eventually they had to confront the reality of their situation through doctor’s visits, telling their parents, and being led through the motions of decisions about their future.
Their stigma was cemented in the reactions of parents, friends, family, employers and school principals. In every way they were told that what they had done was wrong and in need of hiding. Banishment was the most obvious manner of cloaking their pregnancy, as women were shipped off to mother and baby homes distant from their local community as quickly as they could be accepted. Intentionally sent far from home to avoid neighbors uncovering the family’s new secret, taking care to protect their social standing, their ‘good name’ and respectability.
Saint Faith’s Home for Unmarried Mothers. Bearsted, Kent, UK
But for many, the Homes did not accept women until six-weeks or so before their due date. Which meant finding alternatives to conceal their growing bodies, to cloak the reality of their situation from the community. Some found jobs as nannies, as live-in mothers helpers, or stayed in hostels. For those that remained at home until being sent to the mother and baby home they were frequently barred from leaving the house during the day, slipping out on in the cloak of darkness, and keeping to their room whenever someone visited.
1958 Ad for the Duffle Coat – Perfect to disguise a growing waistline
However, the deceptions to mask their infidelity played out in other ways as well. Many of the women in this project described being told to wear a duffel coat when they left the house. These voluminous overcoats popular during the 1960s allowed the women to hide their shame under layers of heavy wool. One admitted to wearing a girdle far into her pregnancy to maintain a slim profile. A grandmother insisted her pregnant granddaughter wear a hat pulled down low anytime they were to be out together so no one would recognize her.
The mothers of the pregnant women frequently insisted their unmarried daughters wear a “Woolworth’s wedding ring” to disguise their sin, thus pointing to the clear demarcation in which married pregnancy is revered and unmarried pregnancy reviled. A number of the women protested against this falsehood, removing their ring whenever their mother left or refusing to wear it at all. Though some continued to slip it on anytime they went out with their bellies belying their situation, hoping the slim gold band would offer some protection against suspicious glances or rude treatment in the local shops.
Woolworth’s – Purveyors of false wedding bands and other practicalities
In some cases the women were checked into hospital under an assumed married name so the locals wouldn’t learn of the pregnancy and birth. Several homes during this period assigned incoming expectant mothers with false names to be used while in the home so even their roommates would not know their true identity; however this was not the majority experience of the women in my study. Of course, the culminating mask of their maternity came with the adoption of their child. While the women bestowed names lovingly upon their newborns, these were quickly wiped clean as the infants were adopted, given new names and cutting all ties to the women who created them. These mothers without children were then sent home, to pick up the broken pieces of their lives without mention of the life they grew inside them. A new disguise worn: that of a woman without children, a woman who had never known the growth of life within her, expected to move through the world of married families as though she had not experienced such motherhood herself.
The shame, the guilt, the heartache was not soothed upon the relinquishment of their children. No woolen coat or false gold ring could protect them from the feelings of guilt, humiliation, hurt, and disappointment others made them feel for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Or those feelings they felt for having relinquished their child to another family. A family legitimized by a marriage certificate.