The Wharfedale Family History Group met at the Salem Church Hall, Burley on Thursday 4th May. A brief AGM saw the re-election of existing committee members with the exception of Derek Wrathall who retired following 16 years of dedicated enthusiasm. Chairman Lynda Balmforth then introduced our speaker for the evening, social historian and author Jane Robinson whose illustrated talk ‘In the Family Way: Illegitimacy between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties’ related to her most recent book of the same name (ISBN-13: 978-0670922062).
Jane’s initial insight into this tricky subject began with the revelations of a member of her own family. The lady concerned, born in 1949, was separated from her parents and siblings at a very young age when it became known that her father was in fact married to someone else and not to her mother. Following mistreatment with various foster families she was cruelly singled out as illegitimate when she went to live in a children’s home (left behind to clean their shoes when the other children, presumably orphans, were treated to an outing). Children such as her were often placed with prospective adopted families on approval and she was eventually officially adopted into Jane’s family.
This harrowing account of the harsh effects of illegitimacy upon young children led Jane to seek out other stories and many people came forward in response to an advert she placed. In true ‘Long Lost Family’ tradition many stories of long guarded traumatic and guilty secrets were revealed with the assurance of anonymity. One of the most harrowing concerned a teenage girl in the 1960s who was left pregnant following an assault. She was unable to discuss this with either her parents or her loyal boyfriend and to avoid the shame of her condition she ended up alone far from home in a London hospital where she gave birth to twins. Despicably, she was forbidden to mix with the other ‘respectable married mothers’ and was sent home alone. Tragically neither child survived nor was any compassion shown towards her, leading to years of subsequent grief and guilt.
Not all Jane’s stories were sad, as one woman revealed how her illegitimate baby was born in a mother and baby home run by kindly nuns. The atmosphere was both cheerful and respectful towards the unmarried mothers and she returned home to her parents when her daughter was considered too unwell to be adopted. Happily the little girl prospered and following a period of resilience towards disapproving neighbours, mother and daughter were accepted in the local community and benefitted from a close relationship thereafter.
Jane explained how attitudes towards illegitimacy have changed over the centuries from open acceptance during the Middle Ages to more censorious following the Reformation and introduction of Parish Registers which formalised birth and parentage. Later Poor Law legislation helped to further ostracise unmarried mothers moving on to a general attitude of disgust in the Victorian era. Surprisingly disapproving attitudes seemed to peak in the aftermath of WW2 when the model family was seen as perfection and any situation not conforming to this ideal was considered degenerate. Some families even admitted their daughters to asylums on the grounds of moral insanity.
Thankfully society today has largely moved away from such negativity to a point where illegitimacy is hardly commented upon at all. However many family historians are confronted with the stigma and secrecy surrounding illegitimate ancestors making research difficult if not impossible. Jane’s talk was both interesting and moving and prompted stories of illegitimacy from members of the audience. President Stanley Merridew gave a warm vote of thanks.
The group’s next meeting will take place Thursday 1st June 7.30 pm at the Salem Church Hall, Burley when Stanley Merridew will present his talk ‘Beyond the Obvious’. Everyone welcome, members and visitors, and refreshments will be served.