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 Serving a population in a way that was outdated to my own understanding of single parenthood and the way it was perceived.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