By J. Keating
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Extra resources for A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45
The booklet the Council compiled showed feelings of humiliation which persisted even into the 1980s. One correspondent wrote, ‘I am so ashamed of being illegitimate myself – I am in my sixties now – that I have never had any kind of social life, or friends ever at all, in case it should be revealed by chance’. 99 Writing for The Clarion in 1913 about the pregnant girlfriend of a convicted murderer who had been refused permission by the Home Secretary to marry her as he awaited execution, the young feminist and free-thinker Rebecca West said that ‘an unmarried mother is the most outcast thing on earth.
This was incorporated into the Children Act 1908, which took the age of supervision for children kept for hire or reward to seven, and prohibited life insurance for children (a controversial issue). Adoption at this time was often seen as either a synonym for baby farming or as akin to fostering, a form of social service for children from very difficult backgrounds, carried out by the rescue societies61 and the Poor Law Guardians (see below). 62 The Earl ended his speech proposing the bill with a suggestion ‘that there are a large number of people in this country who are very desirous to obtain children, having no children of their own, and who would be glad to adopt children if only they felt they had a legal claim upon them when they had adopted them’.
Now the state was beginning to intervene. 64 Further legislation was pushed through by the NSPCC in 1894, making the penalties for ill-treatment more severe and empowering the police to remove suspected victims of child cruelty from their homes without a court order. Further child protection measures followed throughout the 1890s and they were incorporated in the Children Act 1908, which extended the law to cover not just ‘wilful’ cruelty to children but also that arising from negligence. Legal adoption began during this period, in the sense of the assumption of parental rights by the Poor Law Guardians to give them more powers to direct the fate of the children in their care.