The women who participated in this study represent just a few of the half million women who have lost children to adoption in England. Their choice to forfeit their child to adoption was contingent on a number of factors, not least was the social attitudes towards unmarried motherhood in the mid-twentieth century. Unmarried motherhood carried a strong stigma, provoked feelings of shame, resulted in fractured relationships with parents and friends, caused the women to leave school and give up their jobs. There was little support in place to help unmarried women to keep and raise their children as single mothers, and any support that was available was rarely shared with these women. Many were young, still living with their parents, and terrified of the consequences of their pregnancy. The fathers seldom remained in the picture, and even fewer provided any kind of support. From the moment they discovered their pregnancy the lives of these would-be mothers was never the same again. Their pregnancy was a time of emotional, physical and social turmoil where their lives were turned upside down, and life after the adoption continued to carry the grief, pain and loss associated with giving up their child.
Mother and Baby Homes were created to provide support to unmarried pregnant women, to give them shelter as they underwent their confinement and frequently the adoption of their newborn. They sometimes served only as shelters or hostels, but for the purpose of this study Mother and Baby Homes are any institution whose main function was to provide accommodation for women and girls having an extra-marital pregnancy. Such homes were predated by residential institutions, known as Penitentiaries or Reformatories, which intended to reform Penitent Prostitutes. While the Mother and Baby Homes of the twentieth century no longer followed the penitentiary model, they still retained much of the reputation of their forbearers. The twentieth century homes, run frequently by religious institutions but also by social service organizations, provided short-term care during the weeks around the confinement. The homes were rarely purpose built, instead they were converted old-fashioned houses which rarely indicated their institutional function, most had dormitories for the women, communal living spaces, gardens, nurseries for the infants, and some included their own medical ward. Residents followed a daily schedule of chores, meals, prayers, caring for their babies and recreational time which frequently allowed for visitors and trips into town. The experiences of the women in this project vary in the homes, just as the circumstances of their pregnancies varied, some found the homes more extreme while others discovered a welcome refuge.
Mother and Baby Homes first appeared in England in 1891 under the guidance of the Salvation Army in London. By 1968 there were a total of 172 known homes for unmarried mothers, the majority run by religious bodies. Premarital pregnancy was heavily stigmatized and provoked issues around sex, morality, religion and authority both parental and community. While there were women who birthed and raised their illegitimate children, there were many who were feared to have brought shame upon the family and quickly ushered into the confines of a Mother and Baby Home to hide their pregnancies. Often orchestrated by social workers, or parents of the young woman, many were pressured into giving their children up for adoption with an all-time peak in 1968 of adoption orders granted in England, 16,164 in all. Young women feared the ‘private punishment and public humiliation’ which accompanied illegitimate pregnancy, and with little information on alternative options they conceded to their perinatal penalty. It was to this world of hidden pregnancies, forced adoptions and quiet reprimands which my thoughts turned when pondering my MA dissertation. This website represents the culmination of that research.
To discover more about the social conditions surrounding these young mothers, the steps which led them into a Mother and Baby Home, their lives in the Homes and after relinquishing their children to adoption, you can click any areas of interest through the menu above.
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The Falloden Nursing Home, 4 Allerton Park, Leeds. Date and photographer unknown.