Sin and the single mother: The history of lone parenthood

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Sixty years ago, unmarried pregnant women were sent to special hostels to have their babies adopted. Maureen Paton hears their stories.

It all began with an abbreviated birth certificate that carried only the barest details. I had known since childhood that I was born 'out of wedlock', and that my father had deserted my mother as soon as he discovered she was pregnant in November 1950. But it wasn't until I looked up my full birth certificate after my mother's death in 2001 that I discovered I'd been born in a hostel for unmarried mothers.

The address given for my start in life was Birdhurst Lodge in south London. That seemed rather grand-sounding for my poor mum, so I investigated and found that a health centre now stood on the site. When I asked about the Lodge, the woman at the other end of the phone hesitated, dropped her voice and murmured discreetly: "Do you mean the old mother-and-baby home?".

And that was how I found out about the hidden history of my birthplace, only once hinted at by my secretive mother when she had told me how other girls she knew had "cried and cried for weeks" after giving up their babies for adoption. I realised that the "other girls" must have been her fellow inmates in Birdhurst, the missing piece of the jigsaw that showed the humiliating ordeal she had gone through as a woman expecting a baby outside marriage. In fact, she had been married once, but what really mattered to the moralists of the day was that she wasn't married to the father of her child. And I further discovered from her address records that she had stayed in a total of three such mother-and-baby homes.

Nowadays, it seems incredible that women should have had to hide their 'shame' – a Victorian word still in common currency in the 1950s – in such forbidding institutions, austere relics of 19th-century workhouses and 18th-century penitentiaries. Even worse were the cases of unmarried mothers discovered in mental asylums in the 1970s, having been incarcerated there for decades, thanks to the post-war influence of such notorious experts as the child psychiatrist John Bowlby who condemned "the neurotic character" of the "socially unacceptable" unmarried mother.

Yet even today there are traces of this attitude: the economic downturn seems to have almost encouraged disdain for single mothers on benefits in certain parts of the media – which blames them for everything from causing 'broken Britain' to wilfully destroying the traditional family. Meanwhile, a moralistic undertow to British welfare policies from the 1980s has arguably targeted them, too. But what is it about lone motherhood that still provokes such rage and suspicion – and how have these women become demonised as the poster girls for a scroungers' society?

The turnover at Birdhurst Lodge was brisk, with each woman's stay limited to three months: six weeks before the birth and six weeks afterwards. The timing was partly to give the mothers a chance to bond with their babies before deciding whether to have them adopted, but also a calculated move to let enough time elapse to make sure the babies were developmentally healthy, since adoptive couples did not want disabled children. The official stigma surrounding illegitimacy, together with queues of childless couples wanting to adopt in the days before fertility treatment, meant that the mother-and-baby homes that were widely established in Britain between the two world wars by the main churches and the Salvation Army were seen to be neatly solving two societal problems at once: they effectively operated as baby farms. And of course it made economic sense, since the adoptive parents would donate money to the religious charities running such homes.

My Irish father had met my English mother in Oxford, where the refrigeration firm she worked for as a filing clerk had relocated from London. At the time, she was on the rebound from a disastrous, unconsummated marriage to an Oxford college cook. She had known my father for only 18 months when, in November 1950, she realised she was pregnant. At 40, my mother was young for her age, and knew little of the facts of life after a very religious upbringing in south-east London with a Baptist foster family.

She dreaded their reaction, particularly as history was repeating itself: she herself was the illegitimate daughter of an abandoned birth mother. Birdhurst was just one of three such institutions in which my mother stayed; the first was run by a religious charity called Skene Moral Welfare, a forerunner of Social Services, while another, in Hampstead, was run by the then London County Council.

But I was most interested in Birdhurst, where my mother gave birth to me. I knew nothing about the strictness of the regime there, until, in the course of researching my family history following my mother's death, I made contact with a woman called Gwen Bishop. I wanted to find someone who had gone through a similar experience as my mother; Gwen, now aged 79, gave birth to her daughter, Anne, at Birdhurst Lodge nearly six months before I was born there.

Bishop was aged 17 when she got pregnant by a 21-year-old boyfriend who had just come out of the Navy, and her banishment by her family now sounds like something from a Victorian melodrama.

"I was living at home and didn't get on with my stepmother," recalls Gwen, whose mother had died when she was aged 10. "I mistook sexual love for what I was missing at home, and when I told my father I was expecting, my stepmother gave him an ultimatum and said it was her or me. So he packed my things in a brown paper parcel, gave me a 10-shilling note and told me that he never wanted to see me again.

"Cousins of mine said to me years later, 'Why didn't you come to us?'. But in those days it was considered a real sin that you had committed, and you didn't land yourself on someone's doorstep."

Her GP referred her instead to a hotel in Brighton that took in pregnant girls as skivvies and housed them in the cockroach-infested basement in dorm beds. Six weeks before her due date, she was sent on to the Edwardian Birdhurst Lodge, run by the evangelical Mission of Hope.

"In a way it was a relief, because there was a comfort in being with other girls in the same boat, and there was a lovely, sweet, kind woman called Nurse Beach," recalls Gwen. "But although we handed over the government maternity allowance to pay for our keep, we still had to work very hard at keeping the floors clean, scrubbing the huge staircase and doing all the washing; and they would make us get down on our knees in a group to repent. There must have been 20 of us girls and we slept in dormitories."

And they weren't even able to hide their 'shame' entirely, since twice every Sunday the women were marched to church in crocodiles, like children – which led to a cruel local nickname for Birdhurst as "the home for naughty girls".

Without family support, the teenaged Gwen had no alternative but to give up her daughter for adoption. She left in the spring of 1951 and became a nanny, but the experience of looking after someone else's little girl while missing her own proved too much, and she instead joined the Women's Royal Air Force for four years, "for security", before finally finding happiness with her beloved late husband Harold, by whom she has three more daughters.

Even in the so-called family-friendly 1950s, the irony was that domestic life outside the walls of Birdhurst was often less traditional than we now realise. Indeed, the complex picture of society in Pat Thane and Tanya Evans' new history of single motherdom, Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in 20th -Century England (Oxford University Press), shows that unmarried co-habitation, for example, was common as far back as the 1800s, when records first began. Thane, Research Professor in Contemporary History at King's College London, argues that there has never been such a thing as the ideal British family unit, but instead a whole raft of diverse arrangements to which the authorities turned a blind eye – until they had to pay for it.

Only the most visible, vulnerable cases – the unsupported women – were ruthlessly singled out for scapegoating, since they had been seen as a drain on the parish purse ever since the first Poor Law in 1576. And when the earliest form of social insurance finally came into effect in 1925, it was granted to widowed mothers but not divorced or unmarried ones – a malicious piece of legislation clearly intended to deter women with unconventional lives from living off the state.

But although the 1948 National Assistance Act, which replaced the old Poor Law, finally gave unmarried mothers the same (meagre) government aid as widowed mothers, there were still huge practical difficulties for go-it-alone mothers. Until the 1977 Housing Act, it was almost impossible for lone mothers to get a council flat since, as single people, they had fewer 'points' than couples.

Following that legislative act of mercy by the then Labour government, it was no coincidence, surely, that in the 1980s and 1990s, the unmarried mother came under attack with more venom than ever before as part of a wide-ranging Conservative government assault on the Welfare State. The 'pramface' image of single mothers as benefit drains spawned such cynical caricatures as the fecund Vicky Pollard from the comedy series Little Britain, while even Panorama reinforced the image of single mothers as feckless scroungers in a 1993 programme with the loaded title of Babies on Benefit.

"There were many more single mothers in the 1980s and 1990s; that's why the government really started gunning for them. More and more couples weren't married and it was getting scary for people of the family-values persuasion. I suppose there is a fundamentalist Christianity that feels particularly threatened, because of the nuclear family being a relatively recent creation in our society, and that fear does go very deep," argues Thane.

But, historically, sympathy has not been entirely lacking. The first-ever dedicated support network for unmarried mothers had been set up as early as 1918, when The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (now Gingerbread) was formed in response to a concern about higher death rates among illegitimate children than legitimate ones, particularly during the First World War.

Some 30 years later, the National Council was agonising over what it referred to as 'the West Indian problem' in the 1950s: the relatively high pregnancy rates on arrival, or soon after, of lone women recruited from the Caribbean to work as NHS nurses. But although the advent of DNA has made paternity easier to prove, extracting money from fathers is quite another matter, as the difficulties of the Child Support Agency (CSA), set up in 1993, demonstrated.

Though economic issues drove the campaigns against unmarried mothers, they were not the only reason for prejudice. The lone mother has, believes Professor Thane, become "the living embodiment of our double standards of morality for men and women", hence the age-old feelings of ambivalence towards such women. My own feeling is that it's also a deep-rooted, anti-feminist fear of the independent woman in our male-dominated society, one that harks back to the 17th-century witchhunts, where females living alone were demonised. Heaven forfend that such go-it-alone women should ever render men redundant.

Meanwhile, there was a hard-won happy ending to the story of Gwen Bishop and her daughter Anne, even though, as with my mother and her birth mother, history repeated itself. Anne was renamed Jan Hodgson by her adoptive parents. Now 61, sales executive Jan became pregnant in 1967 at the age of 16 by an 18-year-old boyfriend after an emotionally unhappy childhood with a "domineering", highly religious adoptive mother.

"I suppose it was a little bit of rebellion – although my parents gave me everything that they thought was good for a child, such as piano lessons, in a way I must have been looking for love," she says. "I always had it levelled at me that I was an awful baby, always crying, always unsettled. I had an adopted brother who was the favourite, whereas I felt I was the black sheep."

Jan gave birth in a mother-and-baby home in Wimbledon, south London, where chores and group prayers were still an integral part of the f system. Her adoptive parents came to visit her, along with the vicar who told her that she had committed a sin. Diagnosed with puerperal psychosis (a variant of post-natal depression), she had a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for four months in 1968. Her daughter, whom she named Rachel, was fostered out; and although Jan went to see Rachel when she got better, she admits that she "didn't get too attached to her because I knew she was going to be adopted. It was out of my control really, I let events carry me along".

Jan went on to marry twice and give birth to two more daughters before deciding to trace her birth mother. "I met my mother in 1983... it was amazing, lovely; being reunited with her has been a godsend, and we've been very close ever since," she says.

As for Gwen, what struck her immediately was how alike she and her long-lost daughter were in their mannerisms, "even though she didn't grow up with me". Eight years ago, in turn, Jan's daughter traced her via social services. "I got home from holiday one day and a letter was waiting; I was overjoyed," says Jan. Yet she admits it has been "difficult" for them without that crucial early bonding. As another woman in the same situation put it so poignantly to me: "You get an adult back, not a baby, and I still grieve for the loss of my baby – who will never come back".

As for my mother and me, our luck changed forever when her favourite foster sister took pity on her and offered us a permanent home after making a first marriage in late-middle age to a kindly old widower with two grown-up sons but no daughter. This remarkable couple were old enough to be my grandparents, but they became a second mother and father figure to me and had a lasting impact on my life.

Yet Thane sees history now repeating itself as the recession provides an excuse for a return to the punitive rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s, as lone mothers become the weakest link in the embattled welfare state.

"You can see it all coming back now," she says. "Women can be equal to men until they have children. It's a general problem for all women, but it's even greater when they are on their own. And I don't see things getting any better; in fact, with such things as the housing benefit cap, it will get worse."

'Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in 20th-Century England' by Pat Thane and Tanya Evans (OUP) is published this month

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