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When you hear the term “casualty of war,” what do you think of? Do you think of fallen or wounded soldiers? Refugees? 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 they come to mind?
In World War One era Britain, unplanned pregnancies had become a big problem, giving rise to a new phrase, the war baby. War baby could have two meanings: babies who were born when their fathers were at the front, and babies who were fathered illegitimately.
Women were told to “give the boys on leave a good time,” but it was never explained what exactly “good time” was supposed to mean. For many, this meant sex.
“Carpe diem” (seize the day) was a motto they took to heart. 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 with no help were left with three options: abortion (which also was illegal), adoption or foster care.
Adoption, as a legal entity did not exist, in Britain until 1926 when legislation was passed in England and Wales. Scotland passed the same legislation four years later.
The process worked like this: Women placed advertisements in publications hoping to find their children a good home. Families seeking to adopt also placed ads.
The unwed mothers were desperate. Most were poor, and the fathers either didn’t know about their children 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 visitation rights. 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.
Agony Aunt Fanny Deane
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.
An agony aunt is a 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.
Deane received letters from women frustrated with their workplace or social situation, unwed mothers who needed to give their babies away and grieving mothers.
One of these grieving mothers was Lucy Allen who had a son with a man who left to join the service at the war’s onset. They had no contact after that, and Allen gave birth in October 1914. She was forced to put her son, Wilfred, 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 him.
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)
Lost to History
Full of grief, Allen continued to write Deane until November 1916 when Allen asked if she could 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.
Treatment of Illegitimate Children
Children who were born out of wedlock faced a lifetime of shame. As did their mothers. Although some were in stable, long-term relationships, others took desperate measures.
“Look at the assize records for the 19th century and you’ll find that half the murder victims were little babies,” author Ruth Paley says. “We don’t think twice about illegitimacy now; it’s really hard to get your mind around the idea that the shame was once so awful that women were prepared to kill their babies.”
Stories like Allen’s sadly were all too common as well. During the war, the death rate among illegitimate children was double that of legitimate births.
In addition to the shame, “bastard” children also were unable to inherit money or property, and often lived in poverty.
Were you touched by the stories of unwed mothers during the First World War? Leave a comment below.
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Updated: 5 July 2018