Nobody wants her baby

An unmarried mother’s biggest problem

DIANA LANCASTER who posed as the mother of a three-month-old son and trudged around London trying to find work and lodgings. Her report provides a significant background to Wednesday’s hour-long special programme from Granada, Unmarried Mothers

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 28 July 1963

SLOWLY and deliberately the door was shut in my face. Just as it closed the woman behind it made her final, withering remark. “This,” she said, “is a respectable house.”

I turned away, thanking God that I was not what I was pretending to be — an unmarried mother

To find out the kind of existence that faces thousands of the 50,000 girls in Britain who have illegitimate babies every year, I invented for myself a three-month-old son, and trudged around London looking for work, looking for somewhere to live, trying to borrow money.

Trying to live the part of so many mothers without husbands.

A woman reads the sits vac board at a newsagent

Finding somewhere to live was the most pressing problem. I telephoned a flat agency and asked if they ever had flats to let where young children were allowed. A man answered.

“Well — we don’t have many. How much do you want to pay?”

“Up to £6,” I said (just manageable with a job).

“No — not very likely,” he came back. “Nothing at the moment. How many children do you have?”


“What does your husband do?”

“I haven’t a husband.”

“Have you ever had one?”



“I think I’ve got something.” Another pause. “Yes — do you work?”

“I’m a secretary.”

“How old are you? How far out of town are you willing to travel? Where do you live now? I think I might have something. If you like to call in, dear, we might come to some arrangement.”

Obviously I didn’t go. Instead, I began the march round newsagents’ noticeboards. Here’s a sample of the sort of encouragement these notices gave me:

“Suitable for European married couple. Respectable and quiet business people only. References required.” The rest inevitably ended with “no children, no coloureds.”

At house after house I was faced with a battery of bells and no indication of which should be rung. Most of the landladies said: “No children.” and that was the end of the matter.

If children were tolerated, this was the reaction: “But it’s only a single bedsitter.”

“There are only myself and the baby,” I said over and over again.

“What about your husband, then?”

“I haven’t a husband.”

“Oh. no, I’m sorry, dear. It’s not that I mind, but the other tenants would object. You see, we don’t allow men here — this is a respectable house. No. I’m sorry, dear.” And the door closed…

One landlady gave me a chink of hope. She invited me in through a jungle of brown lino corridors and grey net curtains, put me down in a hand-greased armchair and confided:

“Yes, dear — you see — I know what it’s like. It was in the war, dear…”

And I had the history of her boy-friend, herself and her son. Even then — the room had been taken the day before, and she suggested I tried next door.

If I couldn’t get lodgings, perhaps I could find a living in domestic job. I answered all the advertisements in the papers. More often than not there was no reply. If replies came, they didn’t vary…

“Sorry — I haven’t the conveniences.” “Sorry, I’m afraid it wouldn’t work out.” “I’m awfully sorry, there’s no room for a baby…”

Money, obviously, was the answer. I would have to borrow — so that I could afford a more expensive flat. Where could I borrow? I saw advertisements in the paper that promised — “absolutely no security needed” for any amount up to £5,000.

I tried them — in turn.

The first question:

“Are you married? I’m sorry, madam — you have to have a gentleman guarantor in regular employment.”

Everyone was always sorry. I wasn’t an outcast — just a nuisance.

In the end I went to the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child.

Plaque on the doorway to the NCUMC

Past the small plaque on the doorway in North London’s Kentish Town Road, which reads: “National Council for the U.M.C. Second Floor. Please walk up.” On the second floor, two prams give a clue to the meaning of “U.M.C.”

Just two senior staff. Mrs. M. E. Bramall, General Secretary, and Mrs. P. Crabbe, Welfare Secretary, deal with about 5,000 unmarried mothers a year — putting some of them in touch with their local social workers, and helping about 300 of them personally, watching over them and their children often until the children are of school-leaving age.

“We don’t pay for them all that time — we don’t have the money or any real resources — but the important thing is we know where the resources are,” said Mrs. Crabbe, who is a West Indian.

“We have a grant of £1,500 [£26,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] a year from the Ministry of Health, local authorities give us some help, but most of our funds come from individuals. Even so, we are £5,000 or £6,000 [£88,000 to £105,000] in debt every year,” said Mrs. Bramall.

Of the country’s 50,000 illegitimate babies a year, about a third are to couples already living as man and wife. Another third are absorbed into families that already have their problems. Another child, illegitimate or not, is just another mouth to feed.

The mothers of the remaining third find their way to local social workers; or are among the 5,000 who go to see Mrs. Bramall and Mrs. Crabbe; or just don’t know what to do.

“Poor things. Some of them just refuse to face up to it, and the others are so frightened and guilty and ashamed,” said Mrs. Crabbe.

Mrs. Bramall is concerned with the Council’s work in trying to educate public opinion and change legislation affecting unmarried mothers.

“This might be the point when people will begin to be a little more tolerant and accept the problem,” she said.

“There’s less hypocrisy now. People are at last beginning to realise that ‘but for the Grace of God…”

Even now, though, for the girls who, because they are afraid of authority, or too proud to ask for help, decide to go it alone, lodgings are the most pressing problem.

“Few people want young children in their houses — apart from anything else. I saw a girl last week who has moved her lodgings eight times in the four months of her baby’s life,” said Mrs. Crabbe.

“Most of the girls feel too scared and guilty to talk about the trouble they have had while they have been searching on their own.”

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