Lending a Voice: Website Launched

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.

 Mother and Baby at a Home

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.

Mother and infant at a Home

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.

http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com

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Salvation! England’s First Mother and Baby Home

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.

 Reunion

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.”

 Workhouse

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 2

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.

Londons Poor

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_2_lr1_s

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

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.’

Ivy House Nurses 1898

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.

Mothers Hospital

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.

Without a License: Hiding Unwed Pregnancies

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.

1961_wedding_vera_coupleAdopted Baby 1000 Catholic Herald Nov 19621960s Portrait Family Father Mother Two Daughters Son Standing Together Outdoors

“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.

St Faiths Home Bearsted pub by Bearsted adn Thurnham Society

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.

Eatons-Montreal-Duffle-Coat-1950-large

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.

1967 Maternity Corset1962 Maternity Corset

Maternity girdles

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.

Woolworths 1960s Getty image

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.

 

Confessions of Pregnancy: Telling Mom and Dad

Our parent’s acceptance, love and pride are some of the most basic things we strive for in life. Some do so with intention, while others navigate these needs subconsciously. There is an understanding that these people have created us, cared for us, and provided for us, which makes us responsible to be the best reflection of them as we can. Even if the realities of how we were cared for deviate substantially from expectations, the cultural standards of familyhood continues to indebt children to the honor of their parent’s gift of life. This desire to make our parents proud, to love and accept us, therefore makes admitting such a failure to do so incredibly painful.

Vintage Family Portrait from CreativeCommons

Vintage family portrait, licensed by CreativeCommons

For young women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant, the meaning of her experience from the moment she discovered her pregnancy, was forged in the relationships with those around her and the ways in which they reacted to what was happening. Their reactions provoked feelings of stress, guilt, trauma and shame in the expectant mother and left her feeling increasingly trapped by a difficult situation. Wishing only to make her parents proud, desiring to escape her humiliation, the young women were nevertheless forced to confront her parents and reveal her transgression. This moment was often one of the most difficult and painful of these women’s pregnancy, and would forever shift their relationship with their parents.

Some studies have suggested that guilt was greatest in those women who came from homes in which there was a strong sense of the family’s social standing, however this didn’t necessarily correlate with the family’s actual economic or social class. Indeed, families from a broad spectrum of backgrounds perceived themselves to exist within the social strata in such a way that a pregnancy out of wedlock would taint their standing by the scandal of their daughters’ pregnancy. It was in this atmosphere where pregnancy equaled immorality, irrespective of social ranking, in which the women turned to their parents.

4186-13545 Coal miner

All economic classes found shame around illegitimacy

Some who were away from home wrote letters or phoned, others sat down with one or both of their parents to explain their situation. The parents’ reactions were shocked, hurt, angered, disappointed and sometimes abusive. A few accused their daughter of being a slut or whore, slapped her, said they always knew she would disappoint them. Others addressed the situation in an efficient and detached manner, saying little but expressing the hurt in the ways they turned away or withdrew their affections. Many were told they would have to go away from the family home and community when they began to show, banished for their detectable transgressions. For those that remained until the time of their confinement in a mother and baby home, they were frequently made to stay indoors, hide in their bedrooms if guests came to call, to wear voluminous woolen ‘Duffle’ coats and Woolworths wedding rings if they left the house. Their mistake was made clear and the shame they brought upon their parents explicit.

 Phone booth

Calling home

One young woman terrified of telling her parents attempted to overdose on Quinine, instead becoming violently ill, and in the end having to confess her true condition when her mother threatened to call the doctor. Another stood face to face with her mother in the doctor’s office as her condition was revealed, her mother’s face crumbling into shock and sadness. Some parents asked whether the girl could marry the father in question, but for a variety of reasons such marriages weren’t possible either by choice or circumstances. A particular young lady pregnant by her school boyfriend, wanted to run away to Scotland to marry him as it was otherwise forbidden in England to marry without parental consent if you were under 21. Yet, her parents put an end to this and instead arranged for her to enter a mother and baby home. In all cases my participants told their mothers, some of their fathers were told at the same time or at a later date, while exceptionally some fathers were never told at all. One lovely man wrote back to his daughter and said, “Welcome home” though it was understood she was not going to be keeping the baby. Responses were consistently shrouded in shame and secrecy, the need to hide the pregnancy and birth was made explicit, and arrangements were made for the young women to go away and only return after the birth. Never to speak of the ‘incident’ again, either in the immediate or in the distant future. Some were told that no man would want to marry them now, thus cinching their new status as stigmatized and no longer qualified for full social acceptance.

Telling their parents was one hurdle the women shared in going through their pregnancies, the next was their banishment to Mother and Baby Homes throughout the country so as to hide their ‘shame’ and give up their children for adoption, before she could return to take up her place in the home once more.