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 Serving a population in a way that was outdated to my own understanding of single parenthood and the way it was perceived.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.


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 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 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.

10 thoughts on “Salvation! England’s First Mother and Baby Home

  1. From the heart of a mother of such PROFOUND LOSS, to this evil act they call adoption, my loss was 46yrs ago in a M&BH. Please understand what it feels like when we read terminology,’ SHE GAVE UP HER BABY’, I stand to be corrected, but I have never met a mother yet that willingly surrendered her baby, and I quote HER BABY, also I quote MOTHER, I AM the MOTHER of my baby, and will be till the last breath leaves my body, I am not a bio-mum, natural mum, and I certainly am not a b—mother,(birthmother) I am just plain mum, so PLEASE understand this is NOT MENT TO OFFEND, I merely want to bring to your attention, many mothers who log onto your sight will log of just as quick, because such terminology HURTS. We live with a LIVING BEREAVMENT, and exist with this BOTTOMLESS ABYSS OF SORROW, we have had everything thrown at us, Societies Filth, Feeble-Minded, Sexually Deviant, to name but a few. For research to succeed, there needs to be a ditching of current ADOPTION LANGUAGE, which offends us mums so deeply, and there needs to b


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the terminology for mothers who have lost their children to adoption. I certainly do not wish to offend, and have tried to be very conscious about how I phrase the relinquishment of a child for adoption. I have borrowed my language from the women who participated in this project, however I can certainly appreciate the need to abandon adoption language to truly honor the experience of the mother. I hope you will continue to read the blog (and future website) even if it carries some of this language. It is most sincerely not meant to offend, only to inform. My very best to you.

      • Oh yes adoption industry has crafted a particular language to belittle and lessen the real mother to birth mother, etc.

        All carefully devised to lessen the role of mother- as each child only has ONE MOTHER as my 4 year old pointed out to a group of women one day.

        I was introduced to the dark side of adoption business by criminologist Dr Wrennell many years ago and have studied it ever since.

        Lynne explained how no one writes about the Baby Thief Georgia Tann and how she operated in identical fashion to many baby thieves all over- right up to today.

        Then another professional friend of mine wondered re mass murderers etc and i asked were x and y adopted? She asked why and i sent her all i had on adoption syndrome and the dark side of adoption. She was stunned.

        Also all the research was done in Australia in 1950’s so they knew and know all the consequences to mother and children re adoption and its social experiment.

        I meet mothers whose children were taken or they were pressured to hand over and also those children on regular basis. Its just heart breaking for both. No matter what spin is put on it, their hearts are broken inside. Even as 40 year old adoptees, they cannot understand a society that forced them to be separated from their mothers and sold to strangers. All this supposed to be grateful to adopters is more patriarchal guilt tripping. Many do not meet their mothers until their adopters are dead for fear of upsetting society.

        Oh I could write forever on this cruel human experiment.

        We would never ever do this to animals, yet it is OK to do it to human mothers and their children.

        We fork out billions to the adoption industry which uses Hitler’s energy signature “Best Interests of the child” slogan and we never blink an eye, just accept it. Do we ever ask who is making profit from all this?
        On it goes today 2014 with forced adoption of cute, well loved, healthy children as adopters do not want any damaged goods, now do they.

        They too are used as pawns in the game “oh do a good deed and adopt a child” Be seen to be do gooders. Then read the websites and there you read all the abuse adopters commit on adoptees- in order to force them to love them, to comply with their rules, etc.Oh it breaks my heart.

        Do we document the mothers who commit suicide when their creations are taken and sold to strangers? No, not really.

        Patriarchal society keeps presenting a picture through the media of how good adoption is. Keep the money rolling in. Take Madonna spending $15 million to get the child She wanted. Could she not have spent that money on a village of children and their parents. No, she wanted and she got what she wanted and to hell with the true family.

        Going to pop on here a few links to wake people up to the truth of separating children from their mothers- their only mothers.

        In Ireland we always called the do gooders, Child Snatchers.Still do.
        “While building her black market business Georgia also invented modern adoption, popularizing it, commercializing it, and corrupting it with secrecy by originating the policy of falsifying adoptees’ birth certificates – a practice that continues to this day.”

        Remember all the doctors etc in Ireland who sold babies in secret after delivering them?

        I bet no one will speak of that.
        “The mission of Pound Pup Legacy is to promote the safety and well being of children in care. To this end we document cases of malpractice and corruption and offer support to the victims of the “dark side of child placement”.

        “Known Consequences of Separating Mother and Child at Birth
        Adoption was a social experiment in which babies born to unmarried mothers were taken at birth and given to strangers for adoption. It was claimed to be in the best interests of the child, who would be protected from the slur of illegitimacy and would have a better life in the adoptive family. Adoption enabled infertile married couples to have a family, and the State saved money on its welfare bill”
        “No one wants to talk about adoptees who have obvious negative outcomes, including adopted serial killers such as David Berkowitz and Ted Bundy, nor the fact that even apparently successful adoptees have abandonment and rejection issues over being adopted — such as the late entrepeneur-founder of Apple Computer, STEVE JOBS, who is quoted as similarly expressing “unresolved pain” stemming from being adopted. Both famous and infamous adoptes at times demonstrate anti-social behaviors, as detailed in “CHOSEN CHILDREN,” which documents the changing psychiatric theories and labels pinned on adoptees to attempt to explain away their problems as being caused by them and which have often resulted in dangerous treatments — such as “Attachment/Holding Therapy, and “Re-Birthing Therapy” that have even killed them, as documented in the largest collection of “Adopters Who Abused and Killed Adoptees” with sources”
        “Adoption is a form of domestic terrorism.”
        -Reverend Ruth Peterson
        “separation of Church and State is a basic doctrine of American government. It is also a central issue in adoption because the adoption industry is chiefly driven by so-called “Christian” adoption agencies and their chief lobbyist, National Council for Adoption, which was partly financed by our federal government to promote adoption (with $1-billion in government funding over 4 years). Since adoption generates such astronomical profit for the Vatican and all religious organizations.
        Throughout history, the Catholic Church has been a primary instigator of family separations. The Church had several reasons for casting the “unwed mother” as a “sinner,” and her child as a “bastard child,” and for allowing mother and child to be magically “redeemed” via the lies of secret adoption. By hiding unwed mothers in private maternity homes, they Could steal the babies and sell them in adoption.
        Adoption was and still is one of the Catholic Church’s tools for Christianizing the world, thus increasing its own power and control. ”

        Ireland removes children from non nationals and non RC religion to assimilate them into Irish RC families for masses of money. Why not give the mother the same amount of money as its the same child.?
        Would anyone believe that an American mother could loose her children in Ireland for not being Roman Catholic today? Well secret courts keep all that truth hidden using an old Inquisition rule- not a law-in camera and also Hitler’s best interest of the child slogan”

  2. “the honest poor really did prefer to starve rather than enter the workhouse. ”

    Oh I know all about this from my own oral history.

    My grandmother in 1983 learned she was being sent to a rest home in Trim Meath- an old work house-after breaking her hip.

    There was nothing wrong with her. Anyway she called me in in the afternoon and told me she was being sent to the workhouse in the morning at 9 am and that she would be going home- die- that night. She gave me her jewellery and all instructions on what she wanted for her funeral etc.

    I knew she meant it, but had no idea she could just die in hours rather than go to the workhouse.

    But she did.

    I saw my father do the same thing.

    He learned he had cancer and called me in to tell me he would not have any child snatchers- SS Social workers come to his house to tell him what to do etc in his final days.

    He too passed over that night. No one could believe it as he was fine the night before. But I saw him say those silent farewells to my son and others. I asked to stay that night, but my mother was having none of it, then she called me 3 am to say Dad was cold beside her and she was freaking out.

    The memories of our ancestors live in our DNA, and no matter how we try to say they dont, they do and there is research to prove it.

    How else can the patriarchal church keep its control?

  3. I was so excited to read this. My granny had her first illegitimate son at Mare Street in 1901. She came from Hebden Bridge, her father owned a tailors’ shop there. Her son was looked after at Effingham Surrey for six years and when her parents lost some money, they moved and took him in as their own and we thought he was a great uncle not a half uncle. Granny married a Salvation Army officer in 1906 and had three more children. I wonder how she came to Mare Street and whether she would have stayed in London and seen her son or not. The family were methodists.

  4. Ouch, sorry but this article misses the Sacred Heart run Mother and Baby home set up a year before the Sally Army one. As far as I know, that’s the earliest record of a Mother and Baby home anywhere in the world..

    • Hi Paul,
      Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I have received the Mother and Baby Homes ebook you sent me, and am reading it now. I really appreciate your sharing this. I’d love to do a blog post about the Sacred Heart homes from your book. Would that be alright?
      All the best,

      • Hi Rose.

        Please feel free to use the eBook any way you want. It was written to inform and publicize our cause and it’s free to use, share, pass around for any reason. I look forward to reading your new blog article. Best wishes

        Paul Redmond…

  5. An interesting read. I use to live on Mare street but didn’t know about the home, although I knew the mothers hospital well. I was born in Darlington in 1959 my mother was a resident of St. Agnes mother and baby home and I believe a nurse at the hospital I was born in. I was adopted and I have never known my mother.The home closed a few years later in the early 60’s as it was no longer needed due to changing attitudes.
    I am stuck by the fact that in Hackney there is a lot of info on Booth and the salvation army but I never saw any information about the maternity side of things.
    I remember as a child been threatened with the work house and it really was a fear for older people. I also remember the old hospital in Yarm was a former work house and people would go to great lengths to avoid been sent there, there was a real and palpable fear about it, even today I can remember the unpleasantness of having to visit it and my mothers clear discomfort even panic to get out, but my mum will have grown up with the constant fear of the workhouse [she came from co.Cook and grew up in real poverty] her first work was in service and I think it was an unpleasant experience.

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