Updated: Dec 14, 2020
In 1891, the Salvation Army opened its first Mother and Baby home in London. In the decade that followed, almost 200 of these homes would appear across the United Kingdom, designed specifically to provide accommodation and maternal support to unmarried mothers. In 1923, the Salvation Army opened one such home in Jesmond, which then moved to Gloucester Terrace, Elswick, in the West End of Newcastle in 1950. It became known as Hopedene Maternity Home, offering six spaces for unmarried mothers, but also functioning as a private maternity hospital in order to garner funds. By 1974, the site had become a hostel for women, and by the 1990s, it had been demolished.
However, Mother and Baby homes were more than benevolent establishments available for unmarried women to seek help. Instead, they are an unpleasant telling point about the way in which society viewed such women, and to this day there remains countless people all over the world who were born in these homes making desperate attempts to locate their birth mothers. Indeed, a Daily Mail headline from the 10th January 1952 decries the homes as no more than ‘baby farms’ from which married couples could seek to adopt the babies of unmarried mothers. Reports from the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child detail the pressure exerted on these single women to sign adoption papers, and there are many reports of babies being taken away from their mothers by force at the age of only six weeks. From posts across internet forums and the websites for campaigns seeking adoption apologies, it appears that Hopedene was no exception to this policy.
In her book In the Family Way, Jane Robinson notes the function of the Mother and Baby homes to sort the ‘sinful from the righteous’. Homes such as Hopedene were a way to hide illegitimacy behind closed doors, and they would all too frequently send the unmarried woman away six weeks after birth, without the sinful evidence of an illegitimate child. In homes like Hopedene, where patients could also pay to give birth privately, the injustice of this treatment is stark. It is hard to imagine the pain felt by women who knew they would not be able to take their baby home, when they could watch others walk freely out of the hospital doors holding their child simply because they were married.
Such stigma was not solely based on religious thoughts on marriage but was apparent in scientific conversations too. Single mothers were often deemed neurotic, unable to offer the proper care and upbringing to a child. Worse yet was the teenage mother. Despite the all too common narratives about the ‘swinging sixties’ being the decade of sexual liberation and freedom, illegitimacy was still viewed through this lens, and it was unmarried mothers, bearing the evidence of supposed promiscuity in the form of their children, that bore the brunt of the backlash against this supposed slip in moral standards. It’s important to remember, here, that contraception was only available to married women until 1967, and even after this, unmarried women still faced the shame and stigma that continued to be attached to extra-marital sex when asking for contraception.
Indeed, discrimination permeated into all aspects of life for unmarried mothers who did keep their babies. Often cast from the family home in shame, landlords and employers frequently shunned them too, leaving unmarried mothers trapped in a cycle of poverty from which it was almost impossible to escape. If women were able to find employment, affordable childcare was scarce (an issue that is reappearing at present, or one that perhaps has not ever gone away). Even by the late 1980s and 1990s, there remained harsh critique of single mothers. You only need look at depictions such as Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to gauge public attitude towards the ‘scrounger’ figure of the single mother claiming benefits. Whilst homes such as Hopedene have been closed or demolished, therefore, the attitudes that propelled them into being linger. The damage done in emotional terms is impossible to quantify, but in Newcastle, and across the world, people continue to search to repair the broken family ties, showing the persisting scars of the Mother and Baby homes in the present day.
Katherine Waugh is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, researching experiences of deindustrialisation in County Durham across generations. Born and brought up in County Durham (by a single Mum in the ‘90s), she studied History at the University of Manchester, then completed a masters degree in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response. Missing History, and home, Katherine returned to the North East in 2019 to resume study.
Jane Robinson’s book ‘In the Family Way: Illegitimacy Between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties’ can be found here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/186/186910/in-the-family-way/9780241962916.html
A website dedicated to the study of the Mother and Baby homes can be found here for further information: https://www.motherandbabyhomes.com/
Reports from the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (now the charity Gingerbread) can be found in the archives at The Women’s Library at London School of Economics.
For examples of work that suggest the ‘neurotic’ and ‘unsuitable’ character of single mothers, see John Bowlby, Maternal Care and Maternal Health (Geneva, 1952) or Leontine Young, Out of Wedlock (New York, 1934)