Monday, 25 May 2015

Adoption of Fatherless Children

From The Illustrated London News, 22nd May, 1915.


Miss Florence Nightingale’s birthday was celebrated by memorial meetings in a number of great towns on May 12, and the base of her statue in front of the Guards Monument in Pall Mall was surrounded with numerous beautiful wreaths, and was also saluted by every officer who passed by.  The London meeting was organised by the Women's Freedom League, which was founded by Mrs. Despard, sister of General Sir John French. It was addressed, amongst others, by Susan Countess of Malmesbury, and by Surgeon-General Evatt, who made a most interesting speech, because he had personally well known Miss Nightingale.  He described how, when he was surgeon in command at Woolwich, if any question arose in regard to any matter concerning the health of the Army, he used to go personally to consult Miss Nightingale, and never with-out profit; and he said that the health of our Army to-day is largely due to her trained judgment and her organising faculty.  The statue, “with a bunch of skirts in one hand and a lamp in the other,” came in for much criticism.  “She was a handsome woman, with a wonderful brow, and a woman of the world, and a remarkably highly educated woman in all general knowledge, not a frail, stooping, sad-faced, gentle creature; and yet she was the highest expression of womanliness,” said Surgeon-General Hyatt.

One speech at this meeting—from Miss Townsend, the representative of the Women Teachers of London—incidentally drew attention to an important problem that awaits us.  She said that her father was a Crimean soldier nursed by Miss Nightingale's aides, and so saved to come home and marry; but he died of the results of his wound twelve years later, leaving five small children, and all the help that her mother could obtain took the form of the removal of her children from her care into institutions for orphans.  The speaker urged that the mothers of the present-day soldiers' orphan children should be left to care for their little ones themselves, with some assistance from the State.  I have often urged this very point in happier days for any "fatherless and widows" of respectable life; and such consideration is yet more deserved by those who are of that position (so calamitous that the Church liturgy specially offers constant prayer on their behalf) purely and simply because the father was so brave as to give up his life for his country. In such cases, ought not Britannia to say to the soldiers' widows, as Pharaoh's daughter said to the mother of Moses, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages?”  To leave the children with their mothers need be no more costly than to intern them in institutions or “cottage homes,” deprived of all that mother-love means.  It will be less expensive, in fact, if the scheme be not weighted by a crowd of paid inspectors of the mothers, such supervision as would be necessary being given by voluntary committees of ladies.

A different idea, and one that is very desirable in some cases, is the adoption by childless women of means, married or single, of one or more of the children of killed or severely wounded soldier-fathers.  “Now's your time,” ladies!  There will be probably hundreds of poor but educated and honourable mothers unable to see their way, even with such assistance as they may expect to receive from public and private funds, to bring up with due advantages the families with whom they are left, and who would therefore consent, for a tiny baby's own sake, to resign it completely to a foster-mother of good position and certain ability to provide for the child.  The actual mother should be able legally (I believe this is not now the case) to make over once for all her parental rights to the adoptive mother; for success, the real mother must consent to allow the woman who is to fill the part to be the only mother that the growing child will know.  There is not in normal circumstances anything like the opportunity that there is now of finding ready for such adoption infants of thoroughly good stock, with a family record both of moral and physical soundness, and coming from educated and refined parents; for many of our best, strongest, and noblest men, with cultured brains and gentlemanly ways, alas! are now being reft from their wives and leaving unprovided-for their little children.  And though heredity is by no means a certainly working factor—else how does the Kaiser come to be the son of two of the finest characters of the last generation?—yet every racecourse and agricultural show tells how important a factor it is, speaking broadly. Adoption as a social custom has worked out well in ancient Rome and modern Japan.


[I have included this piece not for the mention of Florence Nightingale, although it's interesting to realise that her influence on nursing was then quite recent, and there were many doctors and nurses still working who would have known her.  (She had died in 1910 at the age of 90.)  But the argument about adoption in the article is fascinating.  Adoption was not legal in England, Wales & Scotland before the 1920s.  I think it's remarkable that Filomena assumes that State assistance to widowed mothers is only appropriate if the mothers are 'inspected', either by paid inspectors, or as the writer suggests, by "voluntary committees of ladies".

It's also notable that the influence of genetics on the personality of a child is thought to be of paramount importance (in spite of the example of the Kaiser!) -  so all these ladies 'of good position' and able to care for a fatherless child should only consider adopting 'infants of thoroughly good stock, with a family record both of moral and physical soundness, and coming from educated and refined parents'.    Working class children from poor families were doomed to stay that way.]

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