Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?

Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth-Century England


Pat Thane & Tanya Evans


Oxford : University Press, 2012

Hardcover. vii+223 p. ISBN 978-0199578504. £60.00


Reviewed by Sue Bruley

University of Portsmouth



My mother grew up in the 1920s in the southwest London district of Putney with three aunts living nearby; Ada, Lil and Flo. She told me that there was another aunt whom she never met as Polly threw herself into the Thames from Putney Bridge before the First World War. Family legend has it that Polly ended her life because she was pregnant and the shame of unmarried motherhood was too much to bear. Women such as Polly were often betrayed by boyfriends who had promised marriage. Sometimes the boyfriends were in fact already married. Even worse they could be the victims or rape or incest. In 1902 4% of births in Britain were to unmarried mothers. Many such births were in workhouses where women had to give up their children after the confinement. For the lucky few who kept their babies the best they could hope for was usually a position in domestic service with a kindly employer. Higher death rates for ‘illegitimate’ babies was a cause for concern and this was a major factor in the launching of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child (NC) in 1918.

This book has multiple interwoven threads. First it is a history of the National Council from its early beginnings, through various changes of name, to the decision in 2009 to merge with Gingerbread as a campaigning and social organisation for one-parent families. The NC worked tirelessly for the benefit of lone mums and particularly to keep mother and baby together, regarding adoption or fostering as a last resort. Second, the book documents the history of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector on the issue of lone motherhood, principally through the NC. The NC pressured government for legal reforms and practical help for single mums. Antiquated divorce laws prevented many couples from marrying as one partner was still married to a previous partner. The NC worked to remove lone mothers from punitive poor law institutions and promoted a network of mother and baby homes where women could stay during confinement. By 1956 twenty-seven local authorities ran mother and baby homes with a total of 397 beds. During the 1960s and 1970s the National Council failed in its attempt to secure a benefit for single mothers but it did succeed in the granting of child benefit for the first child for the first time under the Child Benefit Act of 1975. The inferior legal status of children born outside marriage was only finally rectified in 1987 with the Family Law Reform Act which conferred equal status between children of married and unmarried parents. During the 1980s, One Parent Families, as the group became known, also pressed for government initiatives for training and educational opportunities for single parents, particularly under the leadership of Sue Slipman, who argued that ‘work is the best form of welfare’.

Third, Thane and Evans trace the evolution of attitudes towards single mothers during the last century. As we have seen the early twentieth century was characterised by shame and stigma towards unmarried mums, regarding it as some kind of moral delinquency. The authors make clear that these women were not so tainted as it would appear as most were married within a few years and absorbed into new families. Changing attitudes towards sex outside marriage meant that by the 1990s one in five families were headed by lone parents and in many London boroughs the figure was more like one in three. Despite this, attitudes towards single parents are very often negative. In the 1980s it was commonly believed that most lone mums were teenagers deliberately getting pregnant in order to try and gain local authority housing. There is no evidence for this and only a tiny fraction of lone parents were actually teenagers. In the riots of 2011 David Cameron talked about the rioters ‘coming from homes without fathers’. In fact there is much evidence, from Jane Lewis particularly, to show that single parents often create responsible, stable and secure households. Finally, the book provides numerous case histories of lone mothers. These women experienced difficulties on all fronts; poor earnings and employment prospects, problems with childcare and housing being the most pressing. For black women these problems were exacerbated. The stories of lone mothers such as abandoned girlfriend Pauline Tilston and teenage mother Clare Short go some way to fleshing out just how hard it was for lone mothers.

Pat Thane and Tanya Evans have done a fine job in bringing together a huge range of research and synthesising it into a very readable volume. By weaving together these multiple threads they have come up with a very useful account which certainly fills a gap. In my view it leans a little too heavily towards an institutional history which may well have been the intention, but I would have preferred the voices of the single women themselves to have come through more forcefully as they seem to be rather ‘tagged on’ to the main narrative. In this respect the book would have benefitted from some oral testimony. The authors do not appear to have done any interviews with lone mothers. I wondered why this was as there must be many single mothers from the 1940s onwards who could provide stimulating material.

Finally there are some issues with the chapter on the second world war. Thane and Evans focus on the wartime rise in the birth rate for ‘illegitimate’ babies and the problems of single women workers who became pregnant away from home. This emphasis obscures the fact that the war heralded a temporary period of relative prosperity and elevated status for single mothers. As Penny Summerfield made clear, the demands of the war economy were such that the government decreed that any woman willing to work should be welcomed into the munitions factories and given a nursery place whatever her marital status and this surely was good news.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.