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HM Prison Holloway, Convict Nominal Register, Dec 1917-May 1918

​HM Prison Holloway, Convict Nominal Register vol. 1, Dec 1917-May 1918. Ref: LMA CLA/003/PR/02/002

The failure of the Infant Welfare Movement in London, 1850-1950: misplaced blame and half-hearted measures

In the late nineteenth century, public officials in London realised that they had a major crisis on their hands: although the second half of the century was generally a time of public health progress the infant mortality rate had not benefited from these reforms. Attempts to address the issue marked the beginning of what historians now consider the Infant Welfare Movement. Paulina Calcaterra has used original sources at London Metropolitan Archives to examine an overlooked area, the protocol for policing infant neglect and disciplining those mothers who did not meet the expectations of reformers.

As a Dartmouth College student majoring in History, I spent this fall semester studying abroad in London at University College London. Part of my work on this program was to conduct archival research to write an original research paper based on my own findings. LMA was instrumental for my research. Below is an excerpt from my research paper in which I highlight the findings that came directly from research in the collections at LMA.


In the late nineteenth century, public officials in London began to realise that they had a major crisis on their hands: although the second half of the century was generally a time of public health progress, and the overall death rate of the population had been declining, the infant mortality rate had not benefited from these reforms. In fact, England and Wales reported their highest infant mortality rate to date in 1899. The problem was caused by desolate working-class living conditions, and thus was concentrated in the working-class slums of London where conditions were worst. Several philanthropists and volunteers began to observe the problem and attempted to address it with piecemeal local efforts. This marked the beginning of what historians now consider the Infant Welfare Movement.

According to social historian Ellen Ross, 'mothers’ and babies’ clinics, extensive health visiting systems, and expanded volunteer School Care Committees were the Infant Welfare Movement’s efficient and confident cadres.' Through these institutions, reformers targeted working-class mothers as agents of change, and charged them with the responsibility of adopting new methods and skills to raise their babies according to middle and upper-class standards of child-rearing. The reforms were carried out in slums and other working-class neighbourhoods which were easily identifiable targets for education campaigns that could also be surveilled by health visitors. Mothers who failed to meet the standards of reformers could be found guilty of infant neglect and punished by local magistrates’ courts.

The infant welfare crisis through the reformer’s lens: eugenics as a paradigm

The eugenics paradigm also impacted societal definitions of good and bad parents. The role of working-class mothers became that much more important on a national level. Because parenthood was now a national, racial duty, and rearing children was considered a craft; there was even a National Parentcraft Competition organised by the Association of Maternity and Child Welfare Centres in the early 1910s. Although the eugenics paradigm made it rewarding and prestigious for parents to excel at raising healthy babies, those who failed to live up to their racial and imperial duty had to be punished. The failure to live up to the Infant Welfare Movement’s parenthood standards was criminalised and pathologised. 'The state could intervene' if they believed mothers were failing, because these mothers now owed their labour and their healthy offspring to the state. Working-class mothers who could not live up to the public health reformers’ standards were considered bad mothers and were even liable to fines or imprisonment for infant neglect. The most extreme eugenists even believed that the refusal of marriage licenses and even the sterilisation of those deemed unfit to procreate was justified.

Punishment, blame and shame: infant neglect as a criminal offence

An aspect of the Infant Welfare Movement often overlooked by historians is the protocol for policing infant neglect and disciplining those mothers who did not meet the expectations of reformers when they attempted to teach them new childrearing methods. But instead of helping mothers or babies, these repercussions only served to place the blame and responsibility for lowering the infant mortality rate on mothers, rather than the state.

Declaring a mother guilty of infant neglect was the state’s mechanism for punishing those who did not live up to its standards for proper eugenic motherhood. After the passage of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act of 1889, there were guidelines for identifying cases of infant neglect and protocols for punishing those accused of said crime. According to this legislation, infant neglect occurs when a guardian (someone over sixteen who was in custody, control, or charge of a child, (defined as any boy younger than 14 and any girl younger than 16)),

'willfully ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes such child, or causes or procures such child to be ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause such child unnecessary suffering, or injury to its health.'

Interestingly, this legislation failed to define exactly what constitutes neglect, leaving much of the decision to indict or prosecute a person for this crime up to individual discretion. This vagueness added an element of fear to the lives of the working-class women faced with the high standards and demands of reformers. Health visitors could observe a working mother’s every move, volunteers were carefully checking that babies were gaining weight each week, and all reformers were looking out for any problematic situations, surveilling the child-rearing tactics used by the working mothers. And even though mothers were now given such high standards to live up to as parents, they were not given material relief that would allow them to live up to such standards. There were no corresponding housing or wage reforms, and only some centres helped women feed their children or themselves. Still, these mothers had to fear the punishments for being declared neglectful: they would have to pay

'a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds, or alternatively, or in default of payment of such fine, or in addition to payment thereof, to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for any term not exceeding two years.'

It is curious why the proponents of this legislation thought that fining or jailing poor and over-extended mothers would have a positive impact on their ability to care for their child. Since financial deprivation made it so difficult for a working woman to adequately feed and care for her children, a fine would simply make it more likely that the children under her care would be 'neglected.' Furthermore, who would care for the child in the mother’s absence during a jail sentence, and who would bring home her wages, or perform her household duties if she were taken away? Ultimately, this legislation seems to be blaming and punishing mothers rather helping mothers to better care for their children. Furthermore, it certainly fails to address the material needs of working-class mothers, and the systematic causes of infant mortality, placing all the punishment on the guardians of children, who had limited power to alter their unhealthy environments.

HM Prison Holloway entrance, 1914

​HM Prison Holloway, 1914

Court records indicate that the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act of 1889 dramatically increased the policing of motherhood throughout Britain and London more specifically. In one record of Finsbury magistrates’ court minutes from November 1841 to September 1842 there were no recorded cases of infant neglect or crimes similar in nature (PS/FIN/01/001). In the Edmonton magistrates’ court minutes from October 1848 - March 1850, there were only 2 cases of crimes related to infant care recorded (PS/E/E/1/1). But in the convict nominal register of a women’s prison from October 1917 to October 1918, there were 36 cases related to infant care and 22 cases specifically of infant neglect - about 2 cases per month (CLA/003/PR/02/002). The register listed each convicted woman’s profession; almost all women were working-class, in charing, laundressing, or servant positions. One must conclude that either there were no instances of infant neglect in the middle and upper classes or the criminal justice system exhibited class bias in their policing of motherhood. Many of the women were also quite old, in their late 20s, 30s or even 40s, which most likely meant they had already had children, and other cases were extremely young mothers, who most likely could not have supported a child. Many of them served sentences from a couple weeks to a couple months, whereas some of them were fined. The explosion in infant neglect cases in the period after the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act demonstrates the effort of the state to punish mothers for infant mortality, placing the responsibility on them to raise healthy babies while refusing to provide adequate material support to these women. The criminalisation of infant 'neglect' reinforced that, in the words of one politician, 'at the bottom of infant mortality, high or low, is good or bad motherhood,' not financial or social deprivation.

Still, it might be true that some working mothers were genuinely guilty of neglect, and thus, deserving of repercussions. As a result, in my research I attempted to find descriptions of circumstances considered neglectful to get a sense of how criminal these mothers really were. Despite the difficulty of finding substantial archival material within court records describing the context of infant neglect cases, I was able to analyse a small sample size of cases to see how prosecutors described the crime. Interestingly, the reasons described for convicting women of this crime are often related to environmental factors, rather than the behaviour or character of mothers themselves. For instance, prosecutors recount the dirty conditions or the poor state of housing in which the babies were living. In the case of one mother, Mary McCarthy, the summary of her case in the summons records of her local magistrates’ court mostly consists of a description of the conditions of her house, which is used as the primary evidence that she is guilty of infant neglect. The account describes the number of rooms in her house, the condition of the bed ('filthy' with 'patches of excrement'), broken windows, 'floor filthy,' 'vermin,' etc. (PS/CLE/B/01/040). While these conditions do sound quite horrifying, to arrest or fine a working mother rather than fining the landlord or reflecting on the state of the housing system overall was a convenient way for political leaders to keep profiting from their exploitative industries while feeling like they were still addressing the infant welfare crisis.

Working mothers were constantly judged for the state of their homes, even for structural flaws that were clearly not their fault. Unfair judgment of this nature continued with the Problem Families campaign; much of the rhetoric around the inherent inferiority of this population described the 'dirty' and 'squalid [homes]' that they inhabited as evidence for their degeneracy ('Problem Families' pamphlet, 1947, SA/EUG/D/168/169, Eugenics Society Collection). When explaining why these families were so degenerate and burdensome to society, the Problem Family reformers noted that the homes of families 'have no decorations on the walls' and therefore must be completely dilapidated. This was an absurd justification for pathologising these families.

Although public health reformers and the prominent eugenists criminalised working-class mothers for the conditions of their homes and claimed that these conditions symbolised the negligence of mothers, these working women 'were neither financially capable nor legally responsible' for improving the conditions of their homes and slums in general.'


Ultimately, history must not forget the suffering of the working mothers who faced fines and jail time if they did not comply with reformers. They were left without material support from the state and were never given credit for the immense labour they performed. Although some might call the Infant Welfare Movement a success because infant mortality rates did see a slight decline, this was at the expense of mothers, who died at higher rates by the end of the movement.


Jane Muncaster from LMA was specifically helpful as a resource to me. She helped me understand how to use the sometimes-complex court records from this period, which allowed me to bolster my arguments with concrete data. I am very grateful for her help, and for all the staff at LMA who helped me use their archives. I must also acknowledge my advisor from the History Department at Dartmouth, Margaret Darrow, who helped me through every step of this project.

Original sources at London Metropolitan Archives

Finsbury Petty Sessions Division, Court Minutes: Special and Petty Sessions, 15 Nov 1841-1 Jul 1848 (LMA PS/FIN/01/001)

Edmonton Petty Sessions Division, Court Minutes, 5 Oct 1848-4 Dec 1851 (LMA PS/E/E/1/1)

HM Prison Holloway, Convict Nominal Register vol. 1, Dec 1917-May 1918 (LMA CLA/003/PR/02/002)

Clerkenwell Magistrates’ Court, Court Minutes: Charges (Mon, Wed, Fri), 23 Nov 1917- 15 Mar 1918 (LMA PS/CLE/B/01/040)

Further reading

Davin, Anna 'Imperialism and Motherhood' in History Workshop Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1, 1 March 1978

Dwork, Deborah 'War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918', (Abington: Roultedge & Kegan Paul, 1987)

McCleary, G. F.'The early history of the infant welfare movement' (London : H. K. Lewis & Co. Ltd., 1933)
Ross, Ellen 'Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918' (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

'The Violet Melchett Infant Welfare Centre Third Annual Report,' 1932-1933 (Wellcome Library Health Visitors’ Association collection SA/HVA/F.1/20)

Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act, 1889, chapter 44, ss. 1

'Problem Families' pamphlet, 1947 (Eugenics Society Collection SA/EUG/D/168/169)

02 May 2018
Last Modified:
12 June 2019