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]

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Problematising Pregnancy in Ireland, 1864-1913

Submitted by Dr Ciara Breathnach, Department of History, University of Limerick, Ireland.

Key words: infant mortality, illegitimacy, institutions


Problematic motherhood in Free State Ireland was routinely conflated with discourses of morality and illegitimacy, this tendency meant that overarching issues of health inequality and associated problems did not receive due consideration.  Indeed, the socio-legal positioning of the family followed the dictates of Roman Catholicism, the majority religion, much to the detriment of the socially disadvantaged. Together with Eunan O’Halpin I have co-written two articles on unknown infant dead, where parentage was unknown (Irish Historical Studies, 38:149,2012) and on the subject of unnamed infant dead, where parents were known to the authorities (Social History, 39:2, 2014) and placed them in wider social contexts. Our analysis of the records of civil registration and coroners’ courts records has led us to the conclusion that dire poverty played a central role in both instances, irrespective of marital status. This research has raised a host of other research questions about general cause of infant death –to include issues such as maternal health status, stillbirth and general ‘failure to thrive’- we quickly realized that we would need a much larger dataset.

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