Caroline Flint MP on the bizarre and brutal history of illegitimate children

The Labour MP, and presenter of Radio 4 series The Death of Illegitimacy, kept her family roots a secret – but now she’s proud…

Labour MP Caroline Flint addresses delegates at the Progress annual conference in central London on May 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL        (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Getty, TL

I was born to a 17-year-old single mother. When I was two-and-a-half, my mum married. For the first ten years of my life, I had no idea I was illegitimate. I assumed, wrongly, that Flint was my natural surname.

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My mum was the centre of my world, and Nanny and Grandad Beasley were ever present. I’d toddle around their pub, the Jolly Blacksmith in Twickenham, and, later, sit guarding the penny sweets in their Wandsworth newsagents, which still bears their name today.

I’d no idea then how strong they were to stand by their teenage daughter Wendy, in 1961, and keep me close. I recall, at the age of ten, rummaging through a box of old photos and documents under a bed and the horror of finding an adoption certificate.

Doubts and questions coursed through me, as I thought, mistakenly, that I was adopted by both my mum and the man I knew as Dad.

It turned out Flint was my adopted surname. I was born Caroline Louise Beasley. So I was illegitimate, misbegotten, born out of wedlock. In my case, I never discovered who my father was.

The questions lingered. Who was I? Why did my mum keep me? Would her life have been better if she’d made a different choice?

I was drawn to work on The Death of Illegitimacy for Radio 4’s Archive on 4, because illegitimacy appeared time and again in my family’s history.

In the hundred years up to my birth, five women gave birth to illegitimate children. Today, around half of children in the UK are born to parents who are not married or in a civil partnership.

Clearly, there’s no stigma or fear of becoming a social outcast. It was not always so. In times past, society decided the fate of the child disowned by its father.

The big turning point was the introduction of parish registers and the Poor Law in the 16th century. As social historian Jane Robinson told me, as soon as parishioners had to pay for the upkeep of illegitimate children, attitudes hardened. Illegitimacy became not just a moral problem but an economic problem.

For many young mothers, the workhouse, like the one in Wandsworth I visited, built at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, was the only option. Others were forced to give up their children for adoption, often by homes like the notorious Catholic Magdalene Laundries or Church of England-run institutions.

Flint at the Labour Party conference in 2012 (Getty, TL)
Flint at the Labour Party conference in 2012 (Getty, TL)

Society could be unforgiving to wayward girls. It was heartbreaking to listen back to archive footage of young girls, woefully naive about sex, their children given or taken away because they were bastards. No two stories were the same, but powerlessness was common, and sadness, guilt, anger haunted parent and child for years.

Community attitudes to illegitimacy have not been straightforward over the centuries, and varied according to your status. I heard of 18th century accounts among the rural working classes of families encouraging courting couples to “try before they buy”. Sex before marriage was part of the ritual of courtship; supervised, permitted love-making known as “bundling”.

If the couple weren’t compatible, they went their separate ways. If the girl became pregnant, a marriage would follow without any stigma or concern.

The aristocracy is littered with bastards, claimed as an asset to ensure dynastic succession. From the Stuart era, the term Fitz was added to a surname to indicate illegitimacy. Fitzroy meant fils du roi, son of the king, Fitzjames – son of King James and so on.

Labelled? Yes. Legitimate? Certainly not.

One of the heroes of this programme is Lettice Fisher, who, at the end of the First World War, courageously set up the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child – forerunner of the single-parent charity Gingerbread – this year celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Within eight years her campaigning led to the Legitimacy Act, which meant a child’s illegitimacy could be erased by marriage.

The law is one thing, attitudes another. I met author Martina Cole, an ambassador for Gingerbread, who in the 1970s fell pregnant aged 18. Martina found herself shunned by neighbours and refused credit by shopkeepers.

Attitudes have changed. We don’t send away our “errant daughters” . Illegitimate children are not stigmatised. But even among confident, feminist women, like my fellow MP Jess Phillips, who found out she was pregnant with her first baby just a month after meeting her boyfriend, illegitimacy has left an impression.

This desire for security and approval may go some way to explain why marriage has never been more popular, even if many more people live together in a modern version of “try before they buy”.

I know that for me illegitimacy left a mark. For years, even as an MP, I wouldn’t talk about being a bastard; the daughter of the teenage Wendy Beasley. So many MPs appeared to come from perfect homes, with impressive connections and endless confidence.

For years, I kept my story to myself. I feel more confident now, but from those bearing witness in this programme, I learnt that, even today, illegitimacy is not nothing. Perhaps because, deep down, we all want to be accepted. To have a happy ending.

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Archive on 4: The Death of Illegitimacy is on Saturday 8.00pm Radio 4