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 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 email@example.com
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
I think for any unmarried teenage girl finding out you are pregnant is an unwelcome shock, perhaps there are exceptions but given attitudes around illegitimacy, women’s sexuality and the difficulties of single parenthood I imagine the majority wish they could simply undo what had been done. I have been debating whether to share my own encounter with teenage pregnancy, worried over whether it would taint the academic nature of my work, would reflect poorly as an experience that happened in a very different time from those mothers whom I have been studying, or perhaps will just offend those that do not agree with the choice I made. In the end I have decided to go ahead and share this, with perhaps a fair dose of hesitation. I feel that all the women interviewed for my project have been so open with their own stories, far far more traumatic than my own, and I have been so honored to bear witness to these stories, that it is somehow feels false to not be willing to share my own.
Home pregnancy test
My tale is not unusual. I was a teenager in the early 1990s, and at one point had a brief and fairly casual relationship with a particular young man a few years older than myself. One day I didn’t feel well, my roommate suggested I take a pregnancy test, which I thought was a joke, there was no way I was pregnant. I used birth control. She wouldn’t let it go so I finally gave in and purchased a test, doing it only to make her drop the issue. When the test returned positive I was beyond shocked. I had had absolutely no awareness of it, and it seemed completely surreal. I grew up decades after the stories of those I’m collecting, and in a very open and loving home, yet I was somehow very prudish and would never talk to my mother about sex. To discover I was pregnant was mortifying, and even though my mother and sister both had children out of wedlock I was terrified that my mother would find out about me. (Anyone who knows my mother might laugh at this, she was a very free-love hippie type. But I was not and feared somehow disappointing her.) I had no hesitation in deciding to terminate the pregnancy. From an absolutely pragmatic sense I knew I was too young, had no resources, and did not want to ruin my life or that of another human being by trying to raise them without the skills or means necessary to do so. I contacted the father, which was strained and difficult as we had already broken off, and I told him he had to take me to the clinic. The day of the termination was one of the worst I can remember, I was awake the entire night before stressing over what was to come. I was angry and upset by the father’s ability to go out drinking then sleep comfortably through the night. We had a long tense drive, where neither of us spoke for a few hours. The entire experience was surreal, like watching your body go through the motions while you float somewhere above it. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he and I finally spoke to each other. Following the procedure I was woozy and sick, felt guilty for making him wait while I recovered, and kept apologizing. He returned me to my home and I don’t think we’ve had a single interaction since that day. The days and weeks that followed carried a unique level of distress as I fell into a depression and contemplated suicide. Thankfully with the support of my friends and qualified counselors I recovered fairly quickly. I have never once regretted that decision, I have always known it was the right thing to do. And yet, every year my mind will roll back the clock and contemplate how old that daughter would be (for some reason I always imagined the fetus was a girl). And as my own biological clock ticks, as I ponder whether or not to have children as my years tick by, that being often comes to mind. I hope you will not judge me for my choice, and even if it is one you disagree with I hope you will continue to read and consider the stories of these women who had to make another choice in far more difficult conditions. My reason for sharing my own story is twofold, first it seems incomplete to talk about the subject without confessing one of my own connections. Two, it marks the extraordinarily difficult position these women were put into. I was a child of the 80s and 90s, I had an open and loving mother, I had a sister who had already had children outside of marriage, and I had access to abortion. And yet I still suffered the trauma of that loss, of depression and attempted suicide. The women of this study were raised in an era when unmarried motherhood was truly reviled, had parents who refused to discuss such intimate matters as sex and pregnancy, had no access to abortion (though whether they would have chosen this option I could not say), and were forced without having too much choice in the matter to hide their pregnancies, to carry and bear a child they had to give up for adoption.
Advertisement for the earliest home pregnancy tests, Mademoiselle, December 1978.
That is the climate I want you to understand when reading about the moment they discovered they were pregnant. There were no home pregnancy tests in the 1960s, these did not appear until 1978. A few experienced horrendous morning sickness, which they had to go to great lengths to hide as they shared bedrooms and bathrooms with family, waking extra early to be sick before the rest of the family woke. Or being sick in their bedrooms and having to hide it so no one would find out. For the majority it was the absence of their period that clued them in to the pregnancy. Some understood what this meant almost immediately, while others existed in a detached state of denial which kept them from truly believing the meaning of that absence. The women’s mothers were commonly the ones who purchased the sanitary napkins each month, and when the girls failed to show the mothers became aware of what was happening. Many prayed it would go away if they just ignored it.
1959 Advertisement for Mornidine for morning sickness, Canadian Medical Association Journal
Eventually they each were made to face the difficult reality of their situation, this often occurred in the doctor’s office. Either on their own or with their mothers the women were taken to their family doctor who confirmed their pregnancy. The news, even if they had already known it, was devastating. One recalls falling into a surreal state, like being underwater. The world moving past her and she was trapped in a dream. The doctors generally didn’t want to know anything, perhaps living in a small community they wished to avoid being involved in anyway. One said to the young woman, ‘Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to know. I’ll give you the name of a social worker and she’ll sort you out.’ Another told the terrified mother-to-be, ‘Have some gin and a hot bath. Try falling down the stairs a few times.’ While a third said, ‘All I can do is give you a douche can and hope that works.’ The women did not explicitly ask for abortifacients, but their shock and the cultural understanding that unmarried pregnancy was unthinkable prompted their doctors to provide such advice.
The women were devastated with the discovery. For there were many young men and women having sex before marriage, but it was only the unlucky that found themselves pregnant. Their pregnancy marking them for their supposed moral transgressions, and setting them on a path of heartache and loss. A moment, which for married women was one of joy and celebration, became instead a time of shame and guilt. They understood intrinsically the social climate in which they lived, they knew the mark this transgression placed upon them, and they feared what was to come. For some this weight of shame and guilt was too much and they attempted to induce a miscarriage, or at the more extreme end even attempted suicide. Fear of their parents finding out was tantamount to their desperate measures, and underscores the social conditions these women existed in.
Keep reading as this journey carries the women to the unavoidable confrontation with their parents, to admit they were with child, and to enter an entirely new world which was dictated by their pregnancy out of wedlock.
Additional reading for the curious
History of the Pregnancy Test http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html
Having a child out of wedlock was not always looked upon so poorly, it is only as social, moral, and economic attitudes changed that women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant became stigmatized. To understand how the mid-1960s came to become the peak period for adoption in the UK (as well as other countries), and the stigma that drove this apex of adoption, we must first understand a bit of the history affecting attitudes towards illegitimacy. It is my intent of this blog to be as approachable and ‘un-academic’ in my writing as possible, so if I fail in that charge today please bear with me and continue reading this post as well as my future writings on the subject. It is hard to give an historical overview of most anything without becoming a tad pedantic.
To begin, we must look to a time when illegitimacy was not necessarily stigmatized, and for that we can thank agrarian communities which predated the industrialized, capitalist economies which thrive today. Medieval Britain, according to Pinchbeck (1954) did not view illegitimacy as a problem, as the children were absorbed into the mother’s own community and contributed to the labor necessary to support the community. The only disadvantage to the illegitimate child (which, fair enough, could be considerable in some situations) was their inability to inherit. However, with the growing practice of primogeniture, where only the eldest child inherits, this disadvantage was shared with any child who was not a first born.
Birth in the Middle Ages
It was industrialism, the growth of capitalism, and the ethics of sixteenth-century Puritanism that changed this. Illegitimate children who may once have been an asset in a labour-based economy would grow to become a liability if they could not find paid employment in the factories of later years. Rearing children became an expense, rather than a benefit to the family’s upkeep. This reduced the desire to care for children not of one’s own family, and caused an overall reduction in family size. Unmarried women who could not provide for their children fell upon the parish and the Poor Law for aid, and became a serious offence against the community. The Poor Law Act of 1576 aptly captures attitudes towards illegitimacy of the day:
“Concerning bastards begotten and born out of lawful matrimony (an offence against God’s and Man’s laws) the said bastards being now left to be kept at he charge of the parish where they were born, to be the great burden of the same parish and in defrauding of the relief of the impotent and aged true poor of the same Parish, and to the evil example and the encouragement of the lewd life, it is ordered and enacted.”
William Hogarth. A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen. c.1729.
It was believed that the Poor Law had to be harsh and humiliating otherwise the poor would abandon their children. In conjunction with the economic burden, a moral stigma grew as “sexual intercourse outside marriage was morally wrong, therefore any child conceived by an unmarried woman was viewed as the wages of sin.”
Illustration by Emma Brownlow King, from ‘John Brownlow, History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital’, 3rd edition, 1865
Over the next two hundred years the plight of the unmarried mother grew even more strained, as laws became harsher she was condemned morally and spiritually, and punished socially and materially. Due to the harshness of the Bastardy Clauses of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act there grew a great increase in infanticide, which was punishable by death according to the Act of 1832, to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children [Statute 21, James I, Chapter 27]. Women, without access to any real effective birth control methods (for more on that see my post on Birth Control), who found themselves pregnant were then damned by any choice they then made.
In a brief aside to these harsh attitudes there is one organization I would like to mention. In the early eighteenth century there was a man, Captain Thomas Coram, who was shocked to discover the number of infant children left to die as a result of attitudes around unmarried motherhood. Unable to turn his back on this problem Coram began a petition to open an institution, the Foundling Hospital, that would allow women to give up their children without retribution, to be fostered and then later trained for employment. With much effort Coram at last was successful and the Foundling Hospital was opened in 1739. The demand was so great it was immediately filled and children became part of a lottery to see who would be allowed in. In need of funding to expand their services, the Hospital eventually secured the necessary funds under the direction that they must then accept any child in need. It became so and the Hospital operated a facility serving up to 400 children at any given time straight through to the early twentieth century when it restructured its services. Its charitable history in support of children in need continues as the Coram Foundation (www.coram.org.uk). To learn more I’d recommend a visit to the Foundling Museum (www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk).
London’s ‘abandoned children’ at The Foundling Hospital
So, aside from plugging the estimable Foundling Museum, this tells us that because women had few resources, no access to birth control, severe stigma, and harsh penalties if they fell pregnant out of wedlock that women and their children were suffering. Their suffering may have been partially eased by Coram’s institution, however adoption was still looked down upon as it was thought tantamount to giving poor ‘lewd’ women a license to indulge their sexual passions with impunity.
It was the Victorians which began to consider other reasons for illegitimacy beyond the mothers’ corrupt morals, most notable the harsh conditions under which many of the poor lived thus bringing the sexes in close proximity. It was perhaps factors other than the spiritual condition of the unmarried mother, however the middle classes of Victorian Britain still looked down upon the lower classes who seemed unable or unwilling to control their errant sexual desires.
It was the First World War which shifted attitudes towards adoption, though notably attitudes towards unmarried mothers were still heavily stigmatized. It was estimated that in the early twentieth century at any one time there were 80,000 children in residential care under the provisions of the Poor Law. It was the First World War and need to provide orphaned children with a decent home which tipped the balance in favour of legalizing adoption, leading to the Adoption Act of 1926 which severed a birth mothers legal rights to her child and allowed the child to be brought up by another set of parents. This addressed only the circumstances for the illegitimate, now adopted, child and did nothing to change the way pregnancy outside of marriage was viewed. Furthermore, adoptions were conducted under a strong cloak of secrecy thus contributing to the notion of shame for the woman who bore and lost her child to adoption.
Orphans of the First World War
The twentieth century continued to regard illegitimacy as a social problem, however ethics began to be replaced with scientific explanations. So, while these women were no longer guilty of a moral lapse (though many of the women in my project still spoke of severe shaming and the need for penitence during the 1960s), they were still regarded as deviant and as psychiatric cases in need of treatment. By the 1940s and 1950s “elaborate psychological models” existed to explain why some unmarried women had babies, frequently attributed to emotional issues with her parents. In 1961 it was stated that “when an adolescent girl in our society becomes pregnant outside of wedlock this is indicative that something has gone wrong in the relationship between the girl and her parents.”(Rall, p.3) No wonder young women were terrified of telling their parents, and of the shame inherent when their community discovered their pregnancy, when ‘science’ was suggesting they were psychologically defective and their parents failed in their parental duties. In extreme cases women who became pregnant outside of marriage were even confined to psychological institutions as parts of the scientific community perceived them as feeble minded, emotionally disturbed, or mentally disordered.
1960s and the Sexual Revolution
Which brings us to the 1960s, the period of my study, when “tolerance and the promotion of sexual freedom on the one hand coupled with intolerance and the stigmatization of illegitimacy on the other created a recipe for producing more children born outside marriage without making it any easier for unmarried mothers to care for them.” It was a time of increased sexual activity amongst the young, while the shame of unmarried motherhood remained strong, which led to Britain’s peak year for adoption in 1968 with a total of 16,164 adoptions in England and Wales that year alone.
Increased adoptions in 1960s
Attitudes towards illegitimacy and support structures for how to address it are deeply rooted in social conditioning. It is the cultural context in which the unmarried mother finds herself and the attitudes towards having children outside marriage which most contribute to whether or not she keeps her child. There are many non-Western societies which have completely different cultural contexts for illegitimacy. In African, Caribbean, Indian, Polynesian and Eskimo communities they appear to practice kinship fostering and outright adoption to a much greater extent than in white Western societies, encouraging a communal responsibility for the next generation. If adoption is to exist in a society where possession, ownership and materialism reign supreme than it will become something exclusive of any communal support.
Unmarried motherhood in any form, whether a woman raises her child or forfeits for adoption, comes with many challenges and the attitudes that govern her experience have changed drastically over the past few centuries. After 1968 there has been an increasing acceptance of the unmarried mother and her child, which some attribute to a correlation between improved living conditions and a reduction in the social stigma associated with birth outside marriage. The availability of birth control to unmarried women in 1968 in Britain, the development of support systems for single parents such as Gingerbread (www.gingerbread.org.uk) which began as a support group for single mothers in 1970s and has grown to become a support and advocacy group for single parent families, all of these things have helped in shifting the attitudes towards childbirth outside of marriage.
The author (c.1977) the perfectly happy bastard child of a single mom
The lesson in all of this, as we chart illegitimacy from medieval times through to the twenty first century, is that being an unmarried mother is a problem only to the extent that society has defined it as a problem and it is only through shifting our attitudes that we can change the way women and children are perceived and cared for in our communities.
Further reading for the curious:
Howe, David, Phillida Sawbridge, and Diana Hinings. Half a Million Women: Mothers who lose their children by adoption. (1992, Penguin Books)
Pinchbeck, I. (1954) ‘Sexual attitudes to problems of illegitimacy’, British Journal of Sociology, no. 5 (which includes quotes of the Poor Law Act referenced above)
Gill, Derek. (1977) Illegitimacy, Sexuality and the Status of Women. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rall, Mary E. (1961) Casework with Parents of Adolescent Unmarried Mothers and Potential Unmarried Mothers. New York: child Welfare League of America.
Benet, Mary Kathleen (1976) The Character of Adoption. London: Jonathan Cape. (For references to non-Western cultures which include adoptive children in their communities)
London Lives, 1690-1800: Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis http://www.londonlives.org/static/EP.jsp
The Foundling Museum: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk