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A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45 (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 635-637 | 10.1353/jsh.2010.0047

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Jenny Keating's historiographically sophisticated, deeply researched monograph on the history of adoption in England from 1918 to 1945 is a significant and welcome event. Although she follows the well worn-path of such historians as Stephen Cretney, N.V. Lowe, and Alan Teague, examining the major and minor government committees and reports on adoption and various pieces of legislation, none have done so in such a thorough or comprehensive fashion. Keating begins her study with an excellent discussion of the many factors responsible for the enactment of England's first adoption statute, the Adoption Act 1926, which included changing attitudes toward children and unmarried mothers, new demographic patterns, the lobbying efforts by the adoption societies, and World War I—though curiously she does not inquire into why England waited until 1926 to legalize the practice. Unlike any previous historical account, Keating is especially good at identifying the origins and leaders of the various voluntary organizations and adoption societies and differentiating between them in this early period. She emphasizes that while the rescue organizations such as Barnardo's concentrated on reclaiming unwanted children, the adoption societies, such as the National Adoption Society and the National Children Adoption Association sought to bring children and adopters together to create families. The adoption societies were also adamant about the necessity for secrecy and discretion throughout the adoption process.

In 1920 the government responded to the adoption societies' pressure and appointed the Hopkinson Committee to consider making adoption a legal entity. According to Keating, although the Committee issued a report supporting legalizing adoption and instituting secrecy, the government's civil servants had their own plans and derailed the enabling legislation. The government formed a second committee, the Tomlin Committee in 1924, which went over the same ground but reached somewhat different conclusions: it was more guarded and conservative, hence less enthusiastic about adoption, though it ultimately supported such legislation; and it was highly critical of the adoption societies and hence adamantly opposed to their championing of secrecy. Keating dilutes the Tomlin Committee's commitment to openness however, by noting that it allowed the public and press to be kept out of adoption court hearings and denied the public any right to inspect the Adoption Register, where adoptions were to be registered. When finally passed, Keating stresses that the Adoption Act 1926, was "a way of introducing the practice gently to English society," (p. 114) with the understanding that a cautious approach to separating children from their parents was best and should not be rushed into as urged by the adoption societies. Uppermost in the Committee's mind was the possibility that a child might lose all knowledge of its identity and the birth mother, all contact with her child.

Keating describes in great detail, better than anyone else, the origins and debates over the amendments to the Adoption Act 1926 that arose as a result of the need to regulate the subsequent abuses by the adoption societies. In 1936, the Government named the Horsbrugh Committee to look into these problems caused by the adoption societies and propose remedies. Its Report resulted in the Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act 1939, which for the first time regulated the adoption societies by making it illegal to arrange an adoption unless they were registered and approved by the Government. It also laid down rules by which the local authorities were to regulate the adoption agencies. Six weeks after the Act's passage World War II broke out, and the Government officially postponed the legislation. After the war, adoption again became a priority as a result of the increase in illegitimacy and unregulated adoptions, giving rise to one other significant piece of legislation. Among other changes, the Adoption of Children Act 1949 permitted the identity of the adopters to be concealed behind a serial number.

Keating concludes that between 1918 and 1950 enormous alterations occurred in adoption policies, practices, and attitudes. By the end of the 1940s, the reluctance and opposition to adoption that had characterized the earlier period had been transformed to total acceptance, a force for good. She credits the adoption societies with providing the essential force behind the campaign to legalize adoption in the 1920s, though...