Torn from their mothers' arms
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It's a tale of terrible heartbreak Britain's tried to forget: Hundreds of thousands of mothers forced to give up their babies because they weren't married. Now they want justice
By Frances Hardy/ The Daily Mail
24 March 2015
The legacy of loss and yearning has persisted — intractable and insistent — like a physical pain throughout Lorna Read’s adult life.
A day has not passed when she did not think of the daughter, her perfect baby with the white-blonde hair, she was forced to give up for adoption.
On a spring day in April 1969, when the child she had called Rowan was six weeks old, Lorna signed away her right to motherhood.
She did so for the simple reason — unimaginable today — that she was a single mother, having become pregnant to an art lecturer 11 years her senior when she was 23.
‘I can still summon up a picture of my last sight of her: a forlorn little baby with huge blue eyes, wrapped in a blanket.
‘I’d been told by nuns in the maternity home where I gave birth not to form a bond, not to breastfeed, not to love her. But, of course, I did love her and it was absolute torture to try to ignore her. I walked to the bus stop the day I left her, and sobbed. And ever since I have felt empty, as if a part of me is missing.
‘When Rowan was eight months old, her adoptive parents sent me, anonymously, a lovely photo of her. It’s the one possession I would have gone into a blazing house to save.
‘I thought of her every day. I had lots of short-lived relationships with men, but it was as if I couldn’t love anyone else until I’d found her again. And I couldn’t contemplate having another baby. It would almost have felt like being unfaithful to her.
‘Every day on her birthday, I’d light a candle for her and cry. It was the only day I allowed myself to cry because I knew if I didn’t hold back I’d open the floodgates and never stop.’
Lorna, 69, an author and literary consultant from West London, remains single and has never had another child.
Educated and articulate, she is one of an estimated half a million unmarried mothers in the UK who, between the Fifties and Eighties, were marginalised by ‘respectable’ society determined to stigmatise illegitimacy.
Denied access to housing, and bullied by parents, religious groups or social workers, these women were forced to give up their babies for adoption — for the sole reason that they were single parents.
Too often, they were not given information about housing and financial help to which they were entitled. There was no question of these women being found to be unfit mothers; they were simply prevented from becoming mothers at all.
For four decades, Lorna carried the burden of her loss silently and stoically. But now she has joined a growing band of women who, because of that stigma once attached to illegitimacy, are seeking a Government apology for the forced adoptions.
The Movement for an Adoption Apology (MAA) was co-founded by Veronica Smith, 74, a retired nursing manager, in 2010 after the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a formal expression of regret for the ‘shameful’ treatment of unmarried mothers in Australia in decades gone by.
The MAA knows that similarly punitive policies were being pursued in Britain at the same time, and continues to campaign vigorously for more signatories to its petition.
Veronica says she was ‘coerced, cajoled and cornered’ into having her own baby daughter taken away within a week of her birth in March 1965.
She argues that an apology would help to atone for the trauma and grief she and other unmarried mothers have endured throughout their lives.
The shame of illegitimacy was acute, even in the so-called Swinging Sixties; so much so that Veronica’s devoutly Catholic father, a Lieutenant-Colonel, never knew about her child.
‘My elder sister and mother told me: “Daddy must never know about this. The disgrace would kill him,” ’ recalls Veronica. ‘I honestly felt if I’d murdered someone it might have been more acceptable.
‘I’d committed a mortal sin and in the eyes of the Catholic Church I’d never go to heaven.’
Veronica was a nurse at Butlin’s holiday camp in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, when, aged 24, she accidentally became pregnant during a short-lived relationship with Sam, a Red Coat. ‘I went to a GP and he said all he could offer me to try to end the pregnancy was a douche, then he told me to have a hot bath and drink gin. It didn’t work,’ she recalls.
‘I wrote to my elder sister. A letter came back, saying: “Don’t worry. It’s sorted.” And I remember the train journey to Victoria. I was crying, scared. I had no idea what would happen.’
Veronica’s sister had booked her into a Catholic hostel in Tulse Hill, South London. An austere corrective institution, it was not unlike the convent laundry depicted in Philomena, the 2013 film which told the true story of a young Catholic woman forced to give her child up for adoption in Fifties Ireland. Veronica scrubbed floors as a penance for her sins.
Like all the other unmarried mothers at the hostel, she had to knit a layette — bootees, a hat, leggings and a matinee jacket — for the baby she would hand over to strangers.
Veronica remembers, too, clandestine meetings with her mother and the fabrication of a story for her father’s sake that she was ‘working abroad’.
‘My mother used to meet me every fortnight or so at Wimbledon station, and she’d bring airmail paper so we could concoct a letter for my father about my job overseas,’ she says.
Veronica’s daughter was born at a private maternity hospital in Guildford, Surrey, on March 2, 1965. She has one poignant memory of her baby.
‘I called her Angela because she looked like an angel in a painting,’ she says. She was even given a drug to stop her breast milk.
‘It’s totally unnatural to carry a child for nine months then to have it taken away. It’s not what we’re put on Earth to do,’ she says.
‘Yet it was assumed we’d have our babies adopted. We weren’t told about the resources, the housing or benefits that were available to us.
‘My parents had a six-bedroom house in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, but I knew absolutely that it would be fruitless to ask to live with them. My baby was fostered, then adopted and I was told to go home and forget about her.
‘So I shut it out completely. My life was stolen, really. I didn’t have any proper relationships and put all my energies into work as a nurse.’
Veronica, who is serene, capable and softly spoken, quietly bore the weight of her unresolved sorrow for almost three decades.
Her father had died without knowing her secret, and the pressure her mother had exerted on her to give her child away caused a rift that was not healed. Then in 1990 — childless and unmarried — Veronica faced the menopause and had a breakdown.
‘Perhaps it was because it was the end of my fertility, but something seemed to unlock in my head and all my grief came tumbling out,’ she says.
‘I fell apart. I couldn’t stop crying. I went to my boss and sat in her office blubbing. It all came out about my daughter; the first time I’d ever spoken about her other than to one close friend.’
As she recovered, Veronica found solace in searching for her child, named Catherine by her adoptive parents. Channels of communication, denied to women in the Sixties when it was illegal to have contact with an adopted child, had opened up.
She traced Catherine and discovered that she had enjoyed a stable and happy upbringing with parents, both academics, who had emigrated to Canada.
But forging a relationship with a daughter who is a stranger proved tricky. ‘I wrote a rather gushing letter full of how wonderful it was to find her and I think I overwhelmed her,’ says Veronica.
Indeed, for several years, the birthday and Christmas cards Veronica sent with dogged and hopeful persistence went unacknowledged.
Meanwhile, unburdened of the compulsion to keep her secret, Veronica sought a fresh start. She moved from London to East Sussex where in 1993, at a singles’ club, she met Roger, 69, a divorcee with a grown-up son and two daughters.
‘And the first time we went out I said: “I’ve got a daughter, too,” ’ she smiles.
The admission was liberating: Roger, who is now her husband, supported Veronica’s efforts to build a relationship with her daughter.
Then, in 2008, an unexpected email arrived from Catherine. She’d had a baby. Within a year, Veronica had met not only Catherine, but also her new granddaughter.
She recalls the day when her daughter’s car pulled into the drive of the house with sweeping coastal views which she shares with Roger.
‘Catherine walked in with her toddler and all her baby stuff as if she was at home and gave me a big hug. It was wonderful. Now she introduces me as her “other mum”, and I’m also Grandma Veronica.’
For Lorna Read, too, there was eventually to be a happy resolution to the agony of separation from her daughter. But for her it also came after many years of emotional trauma following her pregnancy in 1968.
At that time, her parents disowned her and she, too, was treated as a fallen woman, even though it was her philandering lover who abandoned her.
‘He was an art lecturer 11 years my senior and he’d asked me to marry him,’ she says. ‘Then I got pregnant, and after three months he threw me out of the house and installed another woman there.
‘No decent landlord would give me accommodation because I was single and pregnant, so I ended up in a bedsit in the East End of London, up 89 stairs. It was overrun with mice and I shared a cold water tap on the landing.’
Lorna, a graduate, found temporary work in the civil service. ‘I bought a ring for nine shillings (45p) from Woolworth’s and told everyone my husband was away at sea,’ she says.
Meanwhile, she endured the full weight of her social workers’ disapproval for her moral laxity. ‘They told me I was feckless and had nothing to offer a child,’ she says. ‘They said there were lots of God-fearing people who’d give my baby a good Christian upbringing.’
When Lorna’s baby was born in a maternity home run by nuns, she named her daughter Rowan after the tree which is believed to have protective properties.
She tried vainly to stem the flood of love she felt for the little girl. ‘She had a cry with a little hiccup at the end, but I’d been told to ignore her after she was born — not to reach out and pick her up — which was torture. All the time I tried to put a stopper on my emotions and it took all the strength I had,’ she says.
After her discharge, Lorna’s daughter was placed in foster care in South London. She begged for time to try to find a home for herself and her baby, and was given six weeks’ grace, after which, she was told, the child would be adopted.
‘I traipsed the streets looking for accommodation, but no one would take a single mother and baby,’ she remembers. When the time was up, I was forced to say goodbye to her. It felt as if the world had ended. The legacy of heartbreak stayed with me.’
It was only in 2005 that she was able to trace her daughter — renamed Rhiannon by her adoptive parents — through an adoption and reunion organisation. A bond was forged instantaneously.
‘I met her at the ticket barrier at Liverpool Street Station. She’d travelled from Ipswich, where she lived then. She said, “Hello Mum”, and we haven’t stopped talking since.
She is warm, outgoing, artistic, caring. She also has the most wonderful adoptive mother, Jo, a geography teacher, who is solid, dependable, intelligent. Rhiannon tells everyone she has two mums now, and Jo calls her our mutual daughter.’
Not every search for an adopted child, of course, is resolved as neatly. Pat Ferrett, 67, from Ramsgate, Kent, was 17 and working as an accounts clerk when she fell pregnant in 1965 by her fiance. She needed her father’s consent to marry because, as the law stood then, she was underage.
But he refused. To compound Pat’s misery, her fiance then refused to acknowledge paternity. They had not actually had intercourse: she had become pregnant through ‘heavy petting’ as it was then termed.
Naively, neither had imagined this was possible; her fiance assumed another man was the father. Though her father organised a private adoption, she never forgot her son.
It is the scent of her newborn that stays with her even now. ‘I can still summon it up; a warm, sweet smell like honeysuckle,’ she says. ‘When I held him for the last time, I almost couldn’t breathe. I felt as if everything had been taken from me.’
Pat went on to marry another man. She had two children, now aged 45 and 44, by her first husband. They divorced and she is now happily wed to Frank, 77, a retired printer.
But the yearning to find her first child remained and in 2005 she traced him and sent him a letter via an intermediary. The response was businesslike. He assured Pat that he’d had a happy childhood. He’d attended public school and university, married a beautiful woman and had two adorable children.
But he added that he felt no need to form a relationship with Pat; neither did he wish to correspond further. Pat, though she was bereft, accepted her son’s decision.
‘I’m glad he had an education I could never have provided for him; that he’d turned into a solid, upright young man. I would have loved a relationship with him, but I know he’s had a good life.’
And so she goes on from day to day, scarred like so many other women by the shattering knowledge that she can never get back the years of happiness that were snatched away from her.