Unmarried mothers and illegitimacy in the 20th century

Much has been written about illegitimacy in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, but were things any different for the single mother in the early to mid-twentieth century? Yes and no might be the answer to that question. In the twentieth century, there was a growing sympathy for single mothers, but still many in positions of authority were wary of offering too much assistance for fear it might encourage ‘sinful’ behaviour.

Such opinions had their roots firmly in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Before 1834, the poor law system had assisted single mothers and gave equal responsibility for a child to the putative father. The availability of parish relief was believed by some to encourage licentious acts; pressure from campaigners resulted in a change in the law in 1834. The new poor law system essentially absolved the father of any responsibility and placed the burden solely on the mother up until the child was sixteen.

A detail from Henry Nelson O’Neil’s 1855 painting A Mother Depositing Her Child at a Foundling Hospital. Photograph: The Foundling Museum; Source: The Guardian

The mothers of illegitimate children were humiliated and suffered social and economic sanctions purported to restore female morality. Even if they had the means to support their child and tried to regain their moral ‘identities’, obstacles were placed in their way. Most forms of employment meant they were unable to conceal their condition and avoid the scrutiny of their employers. Any attempt to work after the birth of their child was also impossible because of the lack of childcare facilities. Though many turned to foster care or baby farmers to dispose of the child either legally or illegally.

It was not until early 1918 that the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child (NCUMC) was formed to promote legislative change. Its aims were to ensure fathers acknowledged and supported their child; to help mothers keep their children, and to ensure children of unmarried parents were treated fairly in law and in society. The NCUMC did not regard unmarried mothers as ‘saints’ nor as ‘sinners’ or ‘scroungers,’ though their treatment of some women may seem harsh by modern standards.

While a small number of women worked independently to keep their child, some children were ‘absorbed’ into the mother’s family and were cared for by grandparents, enabling the mother to work and eventually marry the father or another man.

For middle class families, pressure was applied to the couple to marry and therefore a high proportion of babies were born within eight months of marriage. The NCUMC worked hard to encourage parents to support their pregnant daughters and take them into their home, but they found that some grandfathers were intransigent. Those mothers not supported by their family often moved to a new place and found another life for themselves.

Unmarried mothers generally only came to the notice of authorities if they failed to support themselves and their children, prompting them to claim public relief which may have led to a period in the workhouse.

If the mother sought support from the father, she could obtain a court affiliation order if she could prove he was the father of the child. This was a difficult and painful process, and most women who could not afford legal advice or fearing confrontation with a former partner, avoided the procedure.

In 1920, Chamberlain introduced the Bastardy Bill, which would have compelled fathers to make payments in support of their child and enabled the legitimisation of children by the subsequent marriage of the parents. The Bastardy Bill failed, but reformers working to improve the rights and support for illegitimate children created separate bills leading to legitimisation by future marriage which was passed into law in 1926.

The weekly payment resulting from affiliation orders was troublesome for fathers on low incomes or who were unemployed. If the mother was unable to get support from the father, she and her child could apply for means-tested benefits. In the interwar years, these were provided through Poor Law and renamed Public Assistance in 1929; ‘deserving’ mothers were often supported in their homes, while others were separated from their children and confined to workhouses or mental hospitals, where the assumption was they were ‘mentally deficient’ or feeble-minded. The latter having pejorative connotations inferring loose morals and prostitution.

As the century progressed women were offered more assistance and greater acceptance. It had been a long struggle since the poor law reforms of 1834, but finally women were receiving support and their children, who were the victims of prejudice, received the care and love every child deserves.

(C) 2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.


Thane, Pat. (2011) Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England. Women’s History Review,20(1). pp. 11-29. http://www.estadoysociedad.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Unmarried-Motherhood-in-20th-Century-England.pdf : accessed 16 August 2019.

Legitimacy Act 1926 (16 and 17 Geo 5). UK Public General Acts. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/ 16-17/60/contents/enacted : accessed 27 August 2019.

Holman, Mish J. (2022) Recording the Nations. (Currently unpublished).

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