Seeking Footage of Mother and Baby Homes

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 info@ronachanfilms.co.uk

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Seeking interviewees for potential dramatised television series

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 oralherstorian@gmail.com. If you have any questions or concerns prior to speaking directly with the production company, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.

Rose Bell

Unwanted Pregnancies and the Alternatives

Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.

Gin bath

Most frequent suggestion: Gin and a Hot Bath (admittedly, Hendricks was unlikely to be the available gin option)

The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot.  One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, “have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.” Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.

Quinine Ad

Quinine found in cold remedies

Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts “My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.”

Folding Feminine Syringe

Feminine Syringe for Douching

One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the fetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and postwar periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumors to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.

Lysol advertisement Zonite ad 2 Douche powder ad 1969

 Lysol, Koromex and Zonite all advertised as germicides to be used when douching for ‘Feminine Hygiene’

 

Keep following the journey of these unmarried mothers as I recount their stories of telling their parents in my next update.

 

Further reading for the curious:

http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/index.php/media-and-resource-centre/abortion-law/275

Fisher, Kate.  Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Szreter, Simon and Fisher, Kate. Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility and Contraception during the Demographic Transition: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 34, No. 2. Pp. 141-154

Courtship and Dating – Sixties Style!

Dating, courtship, going out, going steady – whatever you called it it was a different concept in the 1960s than the internet laden landscape of the 21st century. For the young women of the mid-century courtship and dating was a group affair. Getting to know the opposite sex frequently meant a gaggle of guys and girls hanging out at the ice rink, going to concerts or the cinema, having fun at someone’s house or mingling during an organized  activity.

Soda Fountain1960 Soda Fountain Group Hangout

The women who participated in my project started ‘dating’ anywhere from 12 to 18 They met their beaus at schools and youth clubs, in jazz clubs, at work, at the bowling alley or  just through friends. Dating meant hanging out with a boy, having him walk you home, and perhaps a kiss good night. But just as you or I might recount tremendously different dating experiences, so too did the women in this study. They recall themselves as being far more mature than today’s teens with greater levels of responsibility and fewer parental checks, while others believed themselves far more naive than teens today. Their naivety they often attributed to how little they knew about the opposite sex, expectations around courtship, and most notably their limited knowledge about sex and contraception. These were the young women experiencing the shifting norms of courtship from a strict nuclear 1950s to the era of free love.

Bowling

Experiencing that shift meant parents still expected a polite young man who would ring them for their permission and arrive with a corsage in hand. While pop culture was actually filling cave-like clubs with cigarette smoke, riotous guitar riffs and ever shorter mini skirts. Teens, just entering the world of sex and dating, were confronted with radical new social norms they were not entirely prepared for.

Nightclub1960s Nightclub

Consider this helpful educational video on what to expect when going out to dinner with your date. If teens were struggling with the etiquette of how to order their food or whether they could apply powder at the dinner table, the notion of being prepared for what happens when they are cornered in the back seat of a car or empty bedroom after a house party is completely beyond the scope of helpful educational videos or the guidance of a kindly aunt.

1960s Teen Dinner Date Educational Video

Whether going steady with their school sweetheart, dating an older fella from work, or juggling a string of suitors; each of these women came up short when their romantic endeavors resulted in unplanned pregnancies in an era with little support for single mothers and a heavy dose of shame. Told little or nothing about sex by parents raised with Victorian ideals, these women may have enjoyed the process of getting to know their beaus, but discovered pregnancy was a long and lonely path. Stay tuned as I continue to explore methods of contraception available and the difficult journeys of the ensuing pregnancies.

The Limitations of an Historian

If there is one thing I’ve learned as an historian it is this: history is not some singular experience, some faded snapshot, or morality tale which we can reach our dusty paws back and draw out. History does not exist as a ‘thing,’ it is rather the many millions and billions of experiences of every individual that took place before this moment. There are large arcs in history which give us common markers to share: battles and wars, movements and leaders, WWII or The Beatles. But how each and every one of us experienced (or not) these individual moments from the past will be different. They may share similar markers, like watching the television reporting JFK being shot or reading about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on the cover of the daily newspaper. But what those moments meant, who those individuals or politics were to you, whether you were ironing your uniform for work or standing on the sidelines watching it happen. Or perhaps you were one of the “history makers,” individuals creating change. Pulling at the bricks of the Berlin Wall, riding that bus through Alabama, or sheltering the evacuated children of London during the war. Whatever you were doing, wherever you were, whoever you are, your history is a unique one. And that, dear readers, is the simple point I’ve taken far too long to make.

 Child Evacuees        Kennedy assassinated Guardian front page 23 Nov 1963        Berlin Wall tumbles

Moments in history – where were you? How did you experience these moments? 

As you read this blog in the coming days and weeks and months, as I hope you will, you may discover pieces of history that you experienced quite differently. To that I beg your kindness, for this very reason: much of my research is drawn from interviews with women sent to mother and baby homes in the 1960s in England. While many have shared qualities (the ubiquitous staircase!) there are also every possible kind of variation depending on the uniqueness of each woman with whom I spoke. The second reason I beg your kindness is this: I was not there. I did not live through the 1960s, I didn’t experience the evolution of courtship norms from a Victorian past clashing with the sexual revolution. I have studied, read, researched, interviewed. And what I am more clear about after all of this is not that I have some amazing insight into this decade I did not experience, but rather that no amount of research will ever allow me to truly understand what it was to be there. What I know is the 1960s were revolutionary, in big ways and small, and for many they were the best era to have ever lived through.

books research books research 2
A small sampling of the tools of my trade

I ask each of you, current readers and future followers, to give me the freedom to share with you my discoveries with these understandings. And, if you find a point very different from your own, or very similar, or just something that peaks your curiosity, by all means send me a message (oralherstorian@gmail.com) or leave me a comment below. I welcome your input, your insight, your questions or feedback. Just be kind…and keep following the journey as it unfolds.

Researching Homes for Unmarried Mothers

Standing on the doorstep of another home I’ve never before seen, meeting another woman I’ve never before met, I wait with anticipation for the stories to come. More than stories, HIStories, HERstories…the recounting of past loves, passions, sorrows, of a different era and a different way of communicating with our parents, our lovers, our friends. This gathering of stories is more than sheer curiosity, this is research for my MA Public History dissertation which explores the Mother and Baby Homes of 20th Century England and the women who spent time in them.

Falloden Nursing Home in Leeds Yorkshire from leodis.net

Falloden Nursing Home, Leeds, UK.

Mother and Baby Homes existed in England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, America…these residences for unmarried mothers were humanitarian, but experienced by the women in the homes as many different things. For some it was refuge, others imprisonment, an only hope or a last resort. They are remembered with fondness, with horror, with pain, with distance. They were run by voluntary organizations, local authorities, and a range of religious groups including  the Salvation Army, the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and more. Most were large converted estates, some purpose built. They peaked in 1966 with 172 known homes sprinkled throughout England, and were said to serve between 11,000-12,000 of the nations 70,000 unmarried mothers each year. Most frequently the women who resided in these homes arrived around six-weeks before their due date and remained about six-weeks after. Leaving after their babies had been adopted, whether or not they personally desired such a permanent separation.

I am drawn by these stories for the raw emotion, the sense of another time, the choices offered or made during a difficult time. In my own family I’ve had siblings lost, both through adoption and divorce, which I sought out many years later to reunite with our tribe. I am the child of a single mother, and watched earnestly as she struggled to provide for myself and my siblings. I have friends who have spent time in a home for unwed mothers, giving up their children for adoption and being reunited decades letter. I am passionate about exploring the experiences of women faced with these difficult decisions, and curious about the institutions that sought to help in a way they believed to be appropriate given the social restrictions of the day. I am endlessly honored to bear witness to these very personal histories and am eternally grateful to the women willing to share their pasts with me.

Join me as I journey through these histories, and follow this blog to stay tuned as I prepare a website unveiling the fruits of my academic labours. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and please, share this blog with others you may know that have lost a child to adoption, are searching for or have been reunited with their birth family, have spent time in a mother and baby home, or are interested in the stories of these homes, the women and children who were in them.