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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.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.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.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.
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."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.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.
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.