Mother and Baby Homes were designed to provide residential support to unmarried pregnant women.
The majority focused on the time during confinement, generally six-weeks before the due date through six-weeks after the baby was born. There were some homes which allowed residents to stay for longer periods, and some with special focuses such as for schoolgirls which integrated their time in the home with the needs of their education as they could no longer return to school. A 1968 study showed that roughly 20% of Mother and Baby Homes which focus on the confinement period had their own maternity unit within the home, while the remaining 80% of homes sent the pregnant women to the local hospital to give birth. There were also a small percentage of homes which were run more like hostels, allowing women accommodation up until their confinement at which point they would generally transfer to a home which catered to the confinement period. While the homes were fairly large relative to a single family unit, in relation to other institutions they were actually quite small in comparison, with an average of thirteen residents per home. The homes with dedicated maternity wings tended to be larger however.
The majority of homes were run by religious organizations. According to a 1968 study on Mother and Baby Homes, the greater part of the homes were run by the Church of England (58%), followed by Roman Catholic (11.6%), the Salvation Army (5.3%), the Methodist Church (3.5%), as well as other church and religious organizations (7.6%). The remaining homes were run by local authorities including health and welfare departments (14%). Funding for the homes varied, where local authorities provided block grants to some to subsidize resident fees, but each authority determined its own method for these allocations. Most calculated the amount of their contribution after consideration on how much the applicant herself could pay from National Insurance benefits and allowances from the National Assistance Board, while others hoped the women’s parents or the putative father would make contributions towards the fees. However, the latter proved difficult as a father’s contribution towards the fees of a Mother and Baby Home could be construed as admission of paternity, which not all wanted to acknowledge. About half of the women in this study remember their parents paying fees towards their keep, though they cannot always remember the amount. A few recalled signing up for benefits to help cover the costs, while others recollect their chores and work within the home as contributing towards the cost of their keep.
Most of the women were booked into the Homes through a social worker, which could include a Church of England moral welfare worker, Roman Catholic welfare worker or priest working in the field, Methodist welfare worker, child care officer, or local health authority welfare worker. Women most commonly entered a Mother and Baby Home for lack of alternative services and a fear of social ostracism which required their pregnancy to occur in secret, some were reportedly sent to Mother and Baby Homes by their parents either out of fear of social disgrace or as a means to break up the relationship with the putative father. Going to a Mother and Baby Home was seen as anywhere from the best, to the quickest, to the only way to give birth and have the baby adopted without people knowing about it. An almost complete ignorance about other services existed which might help them keep their child, from fostering to financial support, or a lack of ability to secure such services. Many ended up in the homes because they felt they had no choice, and no other options.
Which home a girl ended up in was often contingent upon a number of factors. Frequently it was desired for her to be sent away from her locality, however if local authorities subsidized a nearby home they would not contribute fees towards a more distant residence. While all the women in this study were in Mother and Baby Homes with their first pregnancies, there were difficulties in placement for women who had previously had an illegitimate child, were married, were deemed the ‘prostitute type’, had a history of delinquency, or were physically handicapped. The latter two were deemed in need of ‘special’ Homes, while the first three were seen as hopeless. One woman in my study recalled a staff member telling her ‘this home is only for good girls, if this happens to you again don’t expect to come back here.’ The admission criteria for the homes reflects this attitude as they considered marital status (seeing illegitimate pregnancy in married women less excusable); number of previous pregnancies (first pregnancies only was the general rule, believing if a resident had failed to learn anything from her first visit she was unlikely to benefit from a second); religion (usually with a strong divide around Roman Catholicism); age (some had certain age restrictions, but this was infrequent); physical or mental handicap (as previously mentioned, these were considered cases in need of a ‘special’ home); venereal disease (most homes required applicants to be tested for VDs prior to admission, if they tested positive they must undergo treatment and be cleared before being admitted); girls on probation (some barred these ‘naughty ones’); nationality (generally not restrictive, though some preferred British citizens); place of residence (restrictive only in the financial sense previously mentioned); and background (not restrictive but matrons tended to accept girls with a particular type of background). Local authority homes and Salvation Army Homes had the freest admission policies, while the others used their screening process to exclude women with apparently undesirable characteristics.