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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a multi-part series in which I will intertwine my own history of tracing lost family with tips and resources on how to trace your own missing people. Come back in the following weeks for additional segments! If you are not familiar with my research, you can find out more from my website: www.motherandbabyhomes.com. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the journey!
During my research, there was one question asked of me consistently – was I adopted? My interest in the topic of women being sent to mother and baby homes, and being pressured to give up their children for adoption is a niche one (though I do wish it could gain a broader audience) and one in which many of the interested parties are those whom have been affected by it in some way. Either they or their relative were a mum sent to a mother and baby home, or a child relinquished to adoption.
The short answer to this question is: no. I was not adopted. But short answers never truly provide us with the full story, do they? It is true; I was raised by my mum who gave birth to me. We were close, had a loving relationship, and her death in 2007 has left me heartbroken for many years. However, I was the offspring of a fractured family whose immediate family tree was splintered and cracked again and again. As a result, I developed a great curiosity for tracing people. Tracking down these individuals whose names were like legends on my lips, their blood the same as my own, and yet I would not know if they were the server pouring my coffee or the dentist checking my teeth. I had names. I had stories of their origins. Stories of their loss. My mother was open and forthcoming about her history (at least it felt so when she was alive, in the years since she departed I’ve come up with a million more questions seeking answers!). She was open to my many prying curiosities, and yet they were like fairy tales to me. Caricatures of the lives they truly represented, their stories expanded and bloated with my childish imagination, these people out in the world living their ordinary lives, sharing my bloodline, cried out for my attention.
The first person I traced was my father. My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me. My father was younger than her, exploring the world with youthful indiscretion, and thoroughly unprepared to become a family man. My mother, the elder of the two, was a bit of a self-styled gypsy, a bohemian of the 1970s with three children trailing her flowing skirts; she was open to whatever the universe offered up to her. Their union, a brief one, resulted in the birth of her seventh child. Me. Snowed in a small cabin in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, end of December, no doctor or midwife to be seen, my mother gave birth to me. This was my legacy. A fatherless hippy kid with a gypsy mother.
The cabin, c.1977 My mother, a belly dancer
When I started school, and received my first school photo, I had a strong desire to find my father and show him my picture. My mum had an old address for his parents, so I began to write him letters in my four-year-old handwriting. Proudly enclosing my picture, a young, blonde, green-eyed little girl, I mailed it off. And then I waited. Days. Weeks. Months. No reply. My youthful enthusiasm could not yet be dampened however, so I tried again. And again. A few years of this, me sending along my school photograph and awaiting a reply finally crushed my hope and I abandoned the cause. Any knowledge of my father became a still life. My mother described him – tall, blonde. These were apparent in my own growing features, the only blonde of my family. She had a single photograph of him, which existed until a fire when I was four years old consumed my family’s meager belongings. That photo became etched in my mind, a tall, slender, tan blonde man, shirtless and leaning over a woodworking bench. It faded, morphed, distorted itself with age as I tried to recall the features I could only conjure the silhouette.
2nd Grade school photo…the final one I mailed off.
When I turned twelve, I developed a love for the library. I would go in and peruse the shelves to see what they might offer. This is when I stumbled across telephone books dating back for many years and for many regions. I decided to pick up my search. My father’s unique surname helped, and I began collect calling the numbers (I was twelve, had no money, and didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to). I was never successful, and gave up my search once more.
At seventeen I was enrolled in a theatre course at the local college (similar to a uni in England). One day as we sat on the stage in a circle, stretching our limbs and warming our vocal chords, our instructor assigned us my most dreaded project: to develop a family tree. I did not know my father. Knew nearly nothing of my mother’s family. Mine was a short and broken limb, no tree to connect with. That day I was without a ride home, and my instructor kindly offered to give me a lift. On the way I explained my dread of the assignment and my lack of a father. She encouraged me, vociferously, to try seeking him out once more. Bolstered by her encouragement, I went home and picked up where I left off when I was twelve. I began calling everyone in the phonebook on the west coast of America that had the same surname as my father. This time collect calls were not necessary. Alas, I found his brother, to whom I explained my long, convoluted story in the hopes of reconnecting. He promised to have my father call. I spent the next two weeks on edge, waiting for my telephone to ring. It refused to do so. Unable to wait any longer, I returned to the task of cold-calling other numbers asking for my father. When I chanced upon a number who knew him (it turns out this was my grandfather to whom I was speaking) I did not explain who I was, I did not provide my story, I simply asked to be given his number. Thankfully, he obliged.
Alas, the moment had arrived. His phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper in my hand; threatening, encouraging, whimpering for my attention. I scoured the house for a cigarette, came up with little, and dove in. I dialed. Ringing…once, twice… “Hello?” A deep breath, and then I asked – is this Steve? “Yes.” Oh. And here comes the clincher. “My name is Rose. I am the daughter of Elon Rickels, and you.” Silence. A lot of silence. Long, painful, creaking silence. And then… “I always thought you’d come after me with an ax.” Yes. Those are the poignant, encouraging, loving words my father first spoke to me. “Ummm…why?” He explained his fears – he believed I would hate him for leaving, for letting my mother leave, for never reaching out. He believed she would speak ill of him, berate his absence, blame his silences. She did not. My mother, never once even when pushed, said a bad word of my father. He was simply absent. He must have a reason for it. My lack of ax explained, we continued through a jilted conversation, making arrangements to meet.
A month later, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, with a hiking pack, camouflage trousers, and a friend at my side, I stuck my thumb out on the highway leading to my father’s home ten hours away. The journey took two days and was an adventure of its own. My dear friend Nora shivering beside me on the freeway, sipping endless cups of coffee at Denny’s to get through a long night with no money, avoiding creepy men with beds in their vans, laughing as the Stephen King look-alike bought us lunch and someone who had stayed up all night winning at poker bought us breakfast. Tired, road-weary, and bleary eyed we finally appeared at my father’s doorstep. We knocked…silence. That same, long, creaky silence. And then the door opened, and there before me, hunched over, greying, pale, this grizzled man who represented half of my DNA reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed me the fading picture of his young, blonde, green eyed little girl.
Kindergarten. The first photo I ever mailed.
The father I have known in my adulthood has never matched the distorted photograph formed in my youth. Our relationship has had many starts and stops, small victories, crushing failures. We have come to know each other with a thin and diaphanous thread holding us together. What the experience offered me, more than anything in retrospect, was answers and a taste for seeking out the ghosts of my childhood. My father kept a journal during those years in which he met my mother, and allowed me to read through it. I gained a new understanding of the world I was conceived in.
The research though, the hunting down those legends of my youth, became a new passion. With one success under my belt, I turned to the others waiting for me to find them. I will return on another day to share those stories, but in the process I learned to trace not only the missing who still live, but also the misplaced ancestors who flow through my veins and have been given stories once again.
I want to give you, dear reader, an equal opportunity to seek out your lost legends. To do this, I offer up a host of resources kindly shared with me by the Natural Parents Network and Adoption Search Reunion, along with resources gathered from my own research. This week I will just offer up some first steps to getting started, in future weeks I’ll include more extensive resources as you continue your journey.
Step One: Obtaining your birth certificate
The first step is to make sure you have as much information about your family origins, so you need to have a copy of your original birth certificate, which will contain identifying information about your birth mother and birth father if it has been recorded on the birth certificate. If you do not have a copy of your original birth certificate then you need to apply for a copy.
If you were adopted before 12th November 1975 and do not know your name at birth, you will need to apply to the Registrar General for Access to Birth Records. You will also need to meet with an adoption advisor so that arrangements can be made for the Registrar General to send them the information needed to apply for a copy of your original birth certificate. One of the reasons you are required to meet with an adoption advisor is because prior to 12th November 1975 promises of lifelong confidentiality were given to birth parents and families. At that time it was understood the adoption order would mean that all legal ties to the birth family were severed and that there would be no further contact. If you were adopted on or after 12th November 1975 and before 30th December 2005, and do not know your birth name, you can apply to the General Registrar for the information to enable you to obtain a copy of your original birth certificate.
You can apply for Access to Birth Records and a certificate of your original birth entry by contacting the General Register Office (GRO) on 0300 123 1837 or ordering them through the GRO website:
You can read more about your right to access information about your origins on the Adoption Search Reunion website:
If you already know your original name then you have the information to apply directly to the Registrar General for a copy of your original birth certificate. Contact information for General Register Offices in the UK can be found on the Adoption Search Reunion website:
If you were adopted on or after the 30th December 2005 then you need to apply to the Adoption Agency that placed you for adoption.
Step Two: Tracing Agencies. For many, the most direct way to trace your family is to use an agency which specializes in this. This list offers confidential, bona fide tracing services which you may find helpful in your own search. To find out costs and range of services offered, please get in touch directly with the individual company.
1. Tracing your Roots — Family Tracing Service for Adoptees
Sara Jones, based in the Wirral in the North West of England, works closely with Adoption Matters in Chester, and she also provides a professional, discreet family tracing service, specialising in finding birth families of people who have been adopted throughout the UK. Contact Information: Sara Jones. Tel: 0151 608 0503 (ans). Email: email@example.com www.tracingyourroots.co.uk
2. Adoption Services for Adults (Ofsted Registered)
Jean Milsted, specialises in birth records counselling for adults adopted before 12th November 1975, who want to apply for their original birth certificates; access to information from adoption files; also searching, tracing and intermediary services. Workshops are also run for adults affected by adoption. Contact Information: Jean Milsted. Tel: 01628 481954. PO Box 4621, Marlow, SL7 9DG Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.adoptionservicesforadults.org.uk
3. Family Tracing and Locating Services
Linda Cherry started Family Tracing and Locating Services, and works hand in hand with Adoption Services for Adults, which allows her to continue helping birth relatives and adopted adults, and also enables her to work with other adoption support agencies worldwide. Contact Information: Linda Cherry. Tel: 01843 223646. Mob: 07828 078041. Email: email@example.com
Birthlink is where to go if you or your child were adopted in Scotland. If you have been affected by an adoption with a Scottish connection in any way, as a child, parent or relative, and are either looking for somebody, some information, or just someone to talk to, Birthlink can help you. They offer a range of services including search and mediation and also hold The Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Contact Information: www.birthlink.org.uk or 21 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN, Scotland UK. Tel: 0131 225 6441
5. Adoption Search Reunion
This website provides information for adopted people, birth relatives and also adoptive parents in England and Wales. It is an excellent resource for getting started on your own without a tracing agency. It also provides information for agencies, professionals and volunteers who provide services for adopted people and their birth and adoptive relatives. The information available on this website applies to adoptions that were made before the 30th December 2005. This website includes a comprehensive listing of Mother and Baby Homes in England, including dates in which they provided services and location of archives.
That concludes this week, but please follow in the coming weeks for more resources on how to trace your family, and my continued journey in tracing the lost legends of my youth.
To learn more about my research, and to find additional resources please visit: http://www.motherandbabyhomes.com
Have you traced your family? Please leave your searching tips in the comments below so other readers may learn from your experience too!
I have been woefully absent from these pages for some time. For that, I apologize. The subject matter has been no less present in my thoughts, merely my availability to give it energy has been tapped by the day-to-day demands of life. I have moved back to California. I have been working full time. Moving. Living. But I am still here. I continue to get messages, and emails from women who have been impacted by Mother and Baby Homes. From curious researchers, inspired production companies, interested students. This thread between myself and the women who were impacted by Mother and Baby Homes has not disappeared. We are still linked, I have just been on something of a sabbatical. But I can feel that sabbatical drawing to a close, and my energy slowly turning back towards the topic at hand. Back towards the Homes. Back towards the women. Their babies. Their grown children. Out in the world, needing to know more. Needing to connect to each other. Needing to connect to their own experiences. To contextualize and contemplate what the impact of these Homes has been to themselves, their children, and the world around them.
I have a few ideas on where I want to go with the research. What I want to pursue next. What I’m curious to know, and share, and uncover. I would like to accumulate more imagery from the homes, the women and their children. I would like to flesh out the stories of some of the individual homes. I would like to highlight the experiences of some specific women. I would like to consider the lives of their children.
However, I would also like to hear from you. What are you curious to know? What would you like to read more about? See more of? Who would you like to hear from? Please leave a comment below to let me know so that this can be a dialog, not a lecture. That is my goal. That is the goal of oral history. To create a dialogue. With you.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 (email@example.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.
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.
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.