Tag Archives: In Darkest London

Motherhood, childhood, and homelessness in 1920s London: a fragile and painful existence

As part of the series of posts on Ada Chesterton‘s ‘undercover’ experiences as an ‘outcast’ in 1920s and 30s London, I’ve brought together some of the comments that she made within In Darkest London, written in 1926, regarding motherhood and childhood.

Removal of children from homeless mothers after a stay in the workhouse, and imprisonment of the mothers for vagrancy:

‘Sometimes a woman suspected of professional begging gets an order for the Casual Ward with her baby, in which case the officials communicate with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Society has no jurisdiction inside the House, but an inspector will lurk outside, and, on the appearance of the suspected woman with her children, he will march her off to the police court, where he will apply for a summons against her for neglect. In the majority of cases, she will go to prison for a month.

This seems to me to be one of the greatest abuses of the system. It is not only the professional beggar who may be seized on, towards the poor woman who comes in with her baby in a verminous or dirty condition, the same procedure is enacted; having enjoyed the respite of a night’s shelter, the unfortunate creature is seized on as she emerges with her child.

In some few cases professional beggars may be neglectful or unkind to their children. Personally, I have many times tried to get a definition of the term “professional.” So far as I can gather the authorities lay it down that a “professional” beggar is one who gets his living by the getting of alms. An itinerant street seller who occasionally begs does not come under the same heading. It must be remembered, however, that if a woman with young children stands in the street selling matches, or some other article, she runs the risk of being charged with exposing her children, and once again prison is the conclusion of the whole matter.’

‘Wherefore these professional beggars alternate between the streets, the cheaper doss house, the casual ward and prison. Generally speaking, during one of these terms in gaol, the accused’s children are compulsorily adopted. A law exists which empowers the Guardians to take over children without the consent or even knowledge of the parents, who have no right to see them, or even know their whereabouts until they reach the age of fourteen. Some very pitiful cases have come to my knowledge where a woman, forced by circumstances out of her home, has been charged with neglecting her children, has been sent to prison, and has come out to find that she is childless. Her babies have been taken away from her, and she will see them no more.’

A woman – a ‘frail creature with big, bright eyes’ – in despair at Hanbury Street told Ada ‘in a whisper that she worked in a slop shop in Bethnal Green. She used to rent a couple of rooms with her husband and three children, but he was a German and had been killed in the war, and she and the children had lost their home.

“The kids are at an institution in the country,” she said. “I used to think that one day I’d be able to get them back, but I’ve given up hoping now. It’s cruel difficult to live. I’m afraid, somehow, they’ll forget me, and I always promised him I’d look after them whatever happened. But, what am I to do?” she asked. “What am I to do?”

– o –

The experiences described within In Darkest London had been previously serialised within the Sunday Express. Extracts from a letter sent to , after Ada Chesterton published some of her accounts in the newspaper, from a young unmarried mother who had spent time at a Salvation Army Rescue Home (‘Home for Mothers and Babies’), are recorded in the book:

“There I remained for seven months, hiding from a curious and unsympathetic world, the shame I had brought on myself, living with just the sort of girl you saw at Mare Street [a Salvation Army clearing house, where, as elsewhere, the majority of women were unmarried mothers] that night, and many other sorts too ; girls taken from practically every walk of life, ex-chorus, factory, office, shop and servant girls, with here and there a waitress or a farmer’s daughter ; plenty of types, plenty of different perspectives, and always plenty of courage ; that was the most wonderful part of it all, the courage which these girls, mostly the victims of an unfortunate fate, displayed in the face of overwhelming tragedy. A hopeless. Blank future, with the added burden of an illegitimate child to support…

…Later they would return from the Women’s Hospital at Clapton, hugging tightly their precious woollen, cuddly bundle of humanity, their faces paler and manner subdued ; some were only eighteen, mostly all in their early twenties, but they had lived and seen life.

As weeks succeeded week, and the end of the six months (the ordered time to remain after baby is born) draws to a close, you would see they get perturbed. The fatal day arrives – the parting is hard, ah, how hard only God knows ! Tomorrow those arms will be empty. That baby will be in a strange foster home, that mother will be breaking her heart, working feverishly…working like grim death to kill the ache. Oh the horror of that first night in a strange bed [as a domestic servant], with no cot to rock, a nameless child, perhaps, but a mother’s baby for all that. To-day [when she leaves the shelter] as she says ‘Good –bye, girls’, she smiles, yes, even laughs outright, shrilly, and when someone says ‘ Good luck, dear ‘ the tears will trickle down her cheeks, still she smiles, waves her hand almost flippantly. ‘ The big, brown door swings on its hinges – she is gone gone – to face – what?

I have seen several of them again quite recently, those girls who shared a tragic period with me. I think they have nearly all altered, they are happy enough and quite smart, too, some of them – not all ; marvellous how it is done on, say nine shillings weekly dress allowance and pin money, for baby [to send to the foster family] and self, isn’t it?’

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