Wednesday 20 September 2017

Harsh Victorian morality at core of mother and baby home scandals

Local schoolgirls pay their respects at the site of the mothers and babies home unmarked grave in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Andy Newman. Photo: Andy Newman
Local schoolgirls pay their respects at the site of the mothers and babies home unmarked grave in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Andy Newman. Photo: Andy Newman
David Quinn

David Quinn

Attitudes to unmarried mothers and their babies have changed back and forth over the centuries. The historian Ivy Pinchbeck says that in medieval England, children born outside of marriage were not viewed as being as much of a problem as later and were absorbed into their mothers' communities and worked on the farms like everyone else.

From Elizabethan times, with the introduction of the first poor laws, attitudes began to harden, and then hardened again in the 19th century in both Britain and Ireland. An award-winning essay by Dorothy L Haller called 'Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England', shows how society's attitude became even more punitive in the 19th century and this legacy continued well into the 20th century, with only some attempts to soften the edges.

Ms Haller writes that prior to the 1830s, unmarried mothers and their babies tended to be looked after, reluctantly, out of parish funds, but then it was decided they were too much of a drain on scarce parish resources. They were to be dealt with under new poor laws that made it even harder for them to receive help, including from the father of the child.

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