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Published On: October 28, 2011 | Blog | 0 comments

Single Parent Families

Written in conjunction with Caroline Davey of Gingerbread and Sarah Scott

Single parents have been vilified for centuries and whilst the stigma may have reduced with the years it has not disappeared.  In April 2011 the London Evening Standard reported on a bus driver who was cleared over a cyclist’s death and the article began: “Single mother…….25, was driving a double decker along Oxford Street….”

The popular press would still have us believe that the majority of single parents are unmarried teenagers, on benefits and depleting the housing which would otherwise be available for families.

It is against this background that we should owe a sense of gratitude to Gingerbread, the campaigning organisation which supports single parents and champions their voices in society.

The History

Throughout English history, there has been a stigma attached to being an illegitimate child and these children have suffered from discrimination and prejudice through no fault of their own.  Legally there were a number of disadvantages in being illegitimate; a bastard could not be an heir to anyone for being nullius filius (son of nobody), he was, therefore, kin to nobody and had no ancestors.  One exception to the general principle that a bastard could not inherit was when the eldest son (who would otherwise be the heir) was born a bastard but the second son was born after the parents were married.

The Bastard Act 1576 was the basis of English bastardy law.  It gave justices the power to punish the mother and alleged father of every bastard child left to the care of the parish and to charge the mother and alleged father with the payment of a weekly sum or other provision.  Originally the cost of maintenance of the bastard child fell upon the parish, but Acts were passed in 1609 and 1733 so that the mother of any child chargeable to the parish was vulnerable to arrest and even imprisonment until the father indemnified the parish.

The Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834 influenced The Poor Law 1834.  The Commissioners thought that poor men were at the mercy of blackmail and perjury by devious women with illegitimate children and the bastardy clauses of the 1834 Act were in line with the opinions of the Poor Law Commissioners.  The laws which had enabled a mother to charge an alleged father before the magistrates were repealed. The new Act made all illegitimate children the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old.  If mothers of bastard children were unable to support themselves and their children, they would be forced to enter the workhouse and the alleged father became free of any legal responsibility for his illegitimate offspring.  Not surprisingly, the 1834 Act did not reduce illegitimacy.  It increased because it enabled men to avoid some of the responsibility for their illegitimate children.

The Bastardy Acts of 1845 and 1873 gave powers to women to apply to Petty Sessions for maintenance against the alleged father of their children. Powers were also provided for guardians to recover the cost of support. The various Poor Law Acts and Bastardy Acts formed the basis for the recovery of payments for the maintenance of illegitimate children which lasted until the abolition of affiliation proceedings.

Affiliation Orders

Until the coming into force of the Family Law Reform Act 1987, the only method of obtaining a maintenance order against a man alleged to be the father of an illegitimate child was by summons under the Affiliation Proceedings Act 1957.

In 1872 the maximum amount of an Affiliation Order was 5s a week, raised to 10s after 1918 and £1 in 1925, where it remained until 1952 despite the campaigning efforts of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child.  From 1872 the responsibility for collecting and enforcing maintenance and affiliation orders rested with the woman.

The Finer Report in 1974 recognised and supported the obligation on men to maintain their families but insisted that the difficulties of single mothers would be better met if the state rather than fathers were expected to maintain them and their children.  The Report proposed that mothers should be spared access through the courts in order to receive their maintenance and the Supplementary Benefits Commission should take over the duties of assessing and collecting maintenance.  The Labour government rejected many of the proposals because of the cost implications.  However, although nothing immediately happened, the proposals regarding the administrative agency were similar in many ways to the eventual Child Support Agency.

The History of Gingerbread

In 1918 it was not only deaths on the battlefield that were causing concern. The Registrar General’s report of 1916 had drawn attention to the shockingly high mortality rate among illegitimate children, which was twice that of children born in wedlock and was increasing all the time. In 1914 the Child Welfare Council of the Social Welfare Association for London, which represented 70 bodies concerned with children, had established an enquiry office which was soon overwhelmed with appeals from unmarried mothers for help and advice. This led to a conference in London held by the Child Welfare Council and a number of voluntary organisations. Here, on Valentine’s Day 1918, the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child was born.

The National Council had two simple initial aims, as printed in its first booklet:

  1. To obtain reform of the existing Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts.
  2. To secure the provision of adequate accommodation to meet the varying needs of mothers and babies throughout the country; such provision to include Hostels with Day nurseries attached where the mother can live with her child for at least two years, whilst continuing with her ordinary work.

Of these two aims, the first was finally achieved nearly 70 years afterwards – the Family Law Reform Act 1987 gave the same legal rights to children born outside marriage as within it. The second – though the emphasis on hostels has disappeared – remains a preoccupation.

The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child started as a campaigning organisation and a pressure group, but by the end of the first year advice and assistance became another important strand of its work. By 1920 a Case Committee was appointed to deal with individual enquiries, and that year handled 600 cases.

An equally important principle was trying to alter public opinion, to turn it away from the punitive and harsh attitudes of the past. The National Council had to tread a narrow line between achieving this aim while satisfying public concern about morality. With an eye to this, the National Council, after its first year of operation, expressed its motivation as “to save the child, to restore the mother to good citizenship and to make effective the responsibilities of the father”. Despite the attitudes to morality that dogged the work of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, the royal seal of approval was given in 1924 when Queen Mary visited the offices, subsequently referring several clients to the Case Committee.

Employment was also an area of major activity for the National Council from the start. One of the main tasks of the National Council was to help unmarried mothers get back into domestic service (the primary employment opportunity for young women at the time) after the birth of a child. The National Council set itself up as an employment agency, registering enquiries and placing mothers wherever they could.

The Council’s work continued and grew during the inter-war years, with the Second World War itself providing more opportunities for employment as well as, paradoxically, reducing poverty among single mothers due to equality of wartime rationing. The Council also lobbied hard to influence the development of the welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s, which resulted in the provision of state support – and therefore an independent income – to single mothers for the first time.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of fundamental changes in society, and there were parallel changes in the Council as well as in other support structures for single parents. The increase in divorces, following the liberalisation of divorce law in 1969, led to more and more one-parent families, with children who were not born out of wedlock but who suffered many of the same problems – of housing and poverty for example. By the end of this period there were 700,000 one-parent families, bringing up one and a quarter million children, but only 15 per cent of these were unmarried mothers. In 1962, Lady Prudence Loudon and Professor Leonard Schapiro, after a visit to Denmark, reported to the Council on the advantages of providing services for fatherless families as a whole, irrespective of the marital status of the parents. Subsequently, in 1973 the organisation changed its name to the National Council for One Parent Families, symbolising a change to cater for all single parents, whether unmarried, divorced, separated or widowed. Also around this time, single fathers began calling the Council in greater numbers for advice on access, custody, legal rights and requests for help when bringing up children on their own, and in 1973 the Council held a symposium called Fathers Alone to discuss their issues in more detail.

In 1970, a single mother in London whose marriage had recently broken down, Tess Fothergill, found being a single parent such a struggle she decided to set up a self-help organisation. The Sunday Times featured an article on her and hundreds of parents in similar situations got in touch. This response gave birth to the organisation Gingerbread, which supported many local groups across the country and provided opportunities for single parents to meet, socialise and support each other. It was so-called because Tess lived near a restaurant called ‘The Golden Age of Gingerbread’ and felt that Gingerbread would make a good name, representing:

  • Ginger: for gingering up support or getting help from the authorities
  • Bread: the money and resources one-parent families need to support themselves and each other.

Following the publication of the Finer Report in 1974 the Finer Joint Action Committee was formed from over 28 groups, including the National Council for One Parent Families, Gingerbread, Shelter, the Women’s Institute and MIND. Through marches, conferences and booklets – they published a series called Forward from Finer on different aspects, such as housing, income and the family courts – they sought to keep up the pressure for change.

However, the election of a Conservative Government in 1979 presaged a change in the political landscape in the 1980s, with increased hostility towards one-parent families at odds with their growth in number in society. The structure and aims of the Council changed radically in response to the prevailing mood; in 1988, the Council launched a Back to Work strategy, inaugurating a series of return to work courses. The whole emphasis of the Council had changed from individual advice to a clearing house for information – still catering for individuals but also, and increasingly, for the professionals working with one-parent families.

One great triumph for the Council during this period was the Law Commission report on illegitimacy, with recommendations designed to remove all discrimination. 69 years after the formation of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child to repeal the Bastardy Act, the 1987 Family Law Reform Act did exactly this. Further developments through the 1990s included the 1991 Child Support Act, which set up the Child Support Agency in 1993, and great strides forward in supporting single parents into work through the New Deal for Lone Parents and increased funding for childcare.

Having worked happily in parallel for many years, the interests of the National Council for One Parent Families and Gingerbread converged to the point where the organisations officially merged in June 2007, and subsequently adopted the name Gingerbread.

While the context and focus of the organisation’s work has changed considerably over the years, the charity’s early priorities continue to be a core part of its work in the 21st century: campaigning for legislative change; providing information and advice; working to change public opinion; and providing support for single parents to secure or retain employment. Times have moved on considerably since the organisation’s early days battling against single mothers being consigned to the workhouse. However, with children in single parent families twice as likely to live in poverty as those in couple families, low levels of child maintenance paid, and residual stigma for single parents, there is still much to do. Whilst heading towards its centenary in 2018, Gingerbread is as needed today as it was when it was founded.

Family lawyers know the reality of single parents’ lives and are well placed to help Gingerbread provide support as well as challenge myths and stereotypes.  If you are interested in becoming a Legal Friend of Gingerbread (either as an individual or corporate membership), through which you can support the organisation and receive regular updates about its work, in particular issues relating to family law, please go to

This article was first published in Family Law Journal – October 2011

Kim Beatson is a Partner and Head of Anthony Gold’s Family & Divorce Law team. For further information email Kim Beatson or call her on 020 7940 4060 for advice on any aspect of family law.

*Disclaimer: The information on the Anthony Gold website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. It is provided without any representations or warranties, express or implied.*

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