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The turnover at Birdhurst Lodge was brisk, with each woman's stay limited to three months: six weeks before the birth and six weeks afterwards.The timing was partly to give the mothers a chance to bond with their babies before deciding whether to have them adopted, but also a calculated move to let enough time elapse to make sure the babies were developmentally healthy, since adoptive couples did not want disabled children."I mistook sexual love for what I was missing at home, and when I told my father I was expecting, my stepmother gave him an ultimatum and said it was her or me.So he packed my things in a brown paper parcel, gave me a 10-shilling note and told me that he never wanted to see me again."Cousins of mine said to me years later, 'Why didn't you come to us? But in those days it was considered a real sin that you had committed, and you didn't land yourself on someone's doorstep."Her GP referred her instead to a hotel in Brighton that took in pregnant girls as skivvies and housed them in the cockroach-infested basement in dorm beds.Indeed, the complex picture of society in Pat Thane and Tanya Evans' new history of single motherdom, Sinners? Thane, Research Professor in Contemporary History at King's College London, argues that there has never been such a thing as the ideal British family unit, but instead a whole raft of diverse arrangements to which the authorities turned a blind eye – until they had to pay for it.
Bishop was aged 17 when she got pregnant by a 21-year-old boyfriend who had just come out of the Navy, and her banishment by her family now sounds like something from a Victorian melodrama."I was living at home and didn't get on with my stepmother," recalls Gwen, whose mother had died when she was aged 10.
She left in the spring of 1951 and became a nanny, but the experience of looking after someone else's little girl while missing her own proved too much, and she instead joined the Women's Royal Air Force for four years, "for security", before finally finding happiness with her beloved late husband Harold, by whom she has three more daughters.
Even in the so-called family-friendly 1950s, the irony was that domestic life outside the walls of Birdhurst was often less traditional than we now realise. Unmarried Motherhood in 20th -Century England (Oxford University Press), shows that unmarried co-habitation, for example, was common as far back as the 1800s, when records first began.
That seemed rather grand-sounding for my poor mum, so I investigated and found that a health centre now stood on the site.
When I asked about the Lodge, the woman at the other end of the phone hesitated, dropped her voice and murmured discreetly: "Do you mean the old mother-and-baby home? And that was how I found out about the hidden history of my birthplace, only once hinted at by my secretive mother when she had told me how other girls she knew had "cried and cried for weeks" after giving up their babies for adoption.
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There must have been 20 of us girls and we slept in dormitories."And they weren't even able to hide their 'shame' entirely, since twice every Sunday the women were marched to church in crocodiles, like children – which led to a cruel local nickname for Birdhurst as "the home for naughty girls".