When you hear the term “casualty of war,” what do you think of? Do you think of fallen or wounded soldiers, refugees or bombed civilians? Perhaps you might even take it a step further and think of the families affected by the loss of a loved one?
How about illegitimate children? Did that come to mind?
In World War One area Britain, unplanned pregnancies had become a big problem. During the war, the illegitimacy rate rose 30% and added a new phrase into the English vocabulary, the war baby.
Women were told “Give the boys on leave a good time” but it was never explained what exactly that was supposed to mean. Obviously many people took this to mean sex.
I imagine many of these young people took the saying “carpe diem” (seize the day) to heart. After all, if the soldiers could die on the battlefield, or the women could be killed in bombing raids, at any time, there must have been a sense of living in the moment because there might not be a tomorrow.
Adoption in 1914
Birth control was illegal in the 1910s and so unmarried mothers who had no help raising their children were left with three options: an illegal abortion, adoptions or foster care.
Adoption as a legal entity did not exist in Britain until 1926 when legislation was passed in England and Wales. It was passed in Scotland four years later.
Women placed advertisements hoping to give their children a good home. Others would place ads looking for babies to adopt.
These women were desperate, most were poor and the fathers either knew nothing of the babies or wanted nothing to do with them.
For those who decided to keep their babies, foster care was generally the only option. Women paid a fee to the foster parent and were permitted to visit. Although laws were in place to protect foster children, babies were fed sugar water or cow’s milk and did not receive the proper nutrition.
Many of these mothers sought the advice of Fanny Deane, the persona of Mary Ann Brown. Fanny Deane was an agony aunt columnist for a magazine called The Weekly Companion that launched just seven months before the war started.
Deane was an agony aunt. For those in the United States who might be unfamiliar with the term, an agony aunt is person who gives others advice on their personal problems. Her persona was that of a middle class, married mother of two with a husband off fighting in the army.
In reality, Brown was neither married nor a mother and she was barely middle class, but she resolved to respond to every letter within three days of receiving it. Judging from a 100-year-old box of letters, it appears she did just that.
Deane received letters from women frustrated with their workplace or social situation, unwed mothers who needed to give their babies away and letters from grieving mothers.
One of these mothers was Lucy Allen who had a son with a man who left to join the service at the war’s onset. Presumably, they had no contact. Allen gave birth in October 1914 and was forced to put her son into foster care while she worked. Allen had no relatives to help her and had little choice, although she would have preferred to stay home with her newborn son, Wilfred.
While in foster care, Wilfred lost two pounds and was very ill, but by five-months old had recovered.
In April 1915, however:
“Dear friend I am grieved to tell you that my darling baby passed away 10 o’clock last night (Friday). I had been very busy making him a little dress and with your present too, I was going to have his photo taken on Monday. He was quite well Friday morning laughing and trying to talk in his little way but at about 3 in the afternoon he had a fit and never was out of it, he was dead by 10 o’clock at night. It was so terrible as the last time I saw him was the week after Easter he was such a lovely boy and oh so pretty … it really makes me feel there is no God as everything is so hard. I felt that I had at last one thing that really did belong to me.” (Source: Newsweek)
Full of grief, Allen continued to write Deane until November 1916 when Allen asks if she can take care of Deane’s daughter, not realizing the daughter and Deane were fictional.
Not long after, Brown married and the Fanny Deane column was never published again.
Brown went on to live a long life. Allen’s fate is a mystery, although baby Wilfred can be found in Streatham Park Cemetery in the UK in unmarked pauper’s grave number 8974. Both mother and son would be unknown to history if it weren’t for Brown’s box of letters.
Were you touched by the stories of unwed mothers during the First World War? Leave a comment below.
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