Illegitimacy. A War Problem?

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Leanne Blaney writes about illegitimacy as a social problem in 20th century Glasgow.

In April 1915 – as the First World War raged on the continent and thousands of young men and women had their lives forever inexplicably altered –  Ronald McNeill, the Unionist MP had only one thing on his mind. He endeavoured to establish an “influential committee” to deal with the ongoing “problem” of unmarried mothers. Specifically those located in districts where “large masses [of] troops” had been quartered since the outbreak of the war.[1] A combination of time; more than nine months had passed since these regiments had been stationed in these various districts, and the ‘shipping out’ of various regiments to the front line had served to highlight the perceived ‘problem’. And the press were not adverse to reporting it.  An edition of the Daily Aberdeen Journal for instance, contained the rather alarming headline “Problem of Unmarried Mothers. 300 Cases in Aberdeen”. The accompanying article included an interview with a “prominent Aberdeen clergyman” who reportedly was aware of a “large number of forced marriages that had been taking place in the city recently”, which he believed was an indication of “the state of matters”.[2] Laying the blame for “quite a number of the cases” at the feet of those girls whose “home circumstances were not the most desirable and who paraded about the streets and ‘threw themselves’ at the soldiers”, the clergyman expressed the opinion that “this was not the time to be hard on the girls.” Instead he felt that “they must be looked after, and help must be given [to] them.”[3]

c2965, cowcaddens, 1922, virtual mitchell, glasgow libraries, glasgow

Cowcaddens day nursery, 1922. Record Number: C2965, Virtual Mitchell, Glasgow Libraries.

Illegitimacy was not a new phenomenon in Scotland. The Magdalene Institution for the “fallen daughters of pious parents” had been in operation in Glasgow since 1815. Such was the interest of medical practitioners and students in the associated risks and dangers of illegitimacy in Glasgow that visitations to “dens and wynds” were allegedly timetabled with the same regularity that planners and social workers visited contemporary slums. [4] Yet their efforts were to no avail.

Memorandum on a Social Evil in Glasgow and the State of Law for Dealing with Certain Forms of Immorality, published in 1911 by Glasgow Parish Council asserted that the ‘immorality’ of illegitimacy was only increasing and provided some suggestions as to the “principal causes of this condition of affairs”:

  • Condition of home life.
  • There are those who are brought up amongst vice, see it and hear it spoken of, and naturally drift into it.
  • There are some who start life, with the definite object of making money, having a weakness for “finery”, and a desire for pocket money.
  • There are some who appear to have no control over their passions.
  • There are a few who have previously lived a moral life but have been led astray by the man with whom they have been keeping company and finally left to their fate.
  • The promiscuous housing of the sexes.[5]

The memorandum also issued the stark warning that “Once a girl has started on this life she soon loses all self-respect and has no desire to go back to what she considers a monotonous life”.[6]

Ronald McNeill, however, believed that wartime illegitimacy was not to be taken as the norm. He argued “We do not want to degrade a large number of young women who would have been in no danger of it but for the war.”[7] In his mind, were it not for the exceptional circumstances these women found themselves living in, they would never have been in danger of becoming unmarried mothers. This argument is one stressed in a number of diaries and interview transcripts of women who were associated or interacted regularly with soldiers during the War. Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet (1935), recalled while working as a VAD during the war in rural England encountering a young couple courting in a quiet field as she ran an errand on a dark summer evening.[8]

c2961 london road virtual mitchel l glasgow libraries, glasgow

London Road Child Welfare Clinic, c. 1922. Reference No: C2961, Virtual Mitchell, Glasgow Libraries

A combination of unprecedented uncertainty and fear among young people who were acutely aware of their own mortality, a lack of knowledge and awareness of contraception and the opportunity of unchaperoned courtships, proved heady. Women and girls who had previously feared the repercussions and moral judgement of pre-marital intercourse were now willing to engage in such encounters. As recounted in this doggerel composed by Marie Stopes, which included the lines:

“You’re so tall and fine in yer khaki…

…I’ll marry yer Tommy me darlin’

The day you come ‘ome from the war

And I fancy if you was to ask me,

I even might do it before.”

Owing to these encounters, individuals such as Marald Grant found themselves running impromptu (and illegal) adoption agencies for illegitimate wartime babies. Grant, who operated her agency principally out of Glasgow, described how she “got homes for about 30 or 40 babies” during the war period. Remarkably she recalled travelling down “to a place near London” to deliver one such infant to its new home, and not being allowed to speak outside the house “because nobody was to know that it was a child from Scotland that they were taking”.[9] Despite everything, some standards could not be forgotten.


leanne blaney

Leanne Blaney is a former Teaching Fellow in the School of History at University College Dublin. She has published widely on the subjects of mobility, social history, sport, technology and transport. Author of two books: Easter Rising 1916 (2016) and UCD Collegians: All Ireland Senior Hurling Champions 1917 (2017), she has recently completed her visiting research affiliation with the University of Glasgow. A member of the Irish Association of Professional Historians (IAPH), her current research examines the themes of emerging car culture in 20th century Scotland and the historical role of Irish immigrants within urban Scottish culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @L_Blaney


[1] Daily Aberdeen Journal, 21 April 1915

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Elspeth King, The Hidden History of Glasgow’s Women: The THENEW Factor (Glasgow, 1993), p. 89

[5] Memorandum on a Social Evil in Glasgow and the State of the Law for Dealing With Certain Forms of Immorality, Glasgow Parish Council (October 1911).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Daily Aberdeen Journal, 21 April 1915

[8] Enid Bagnold, A Diary Without Dates (London, 1918), p. 11

[9] King, The Hidden History, p. 144


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