By J. Keating
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Extra info for A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45
However, in practice this did not encourage radical change. Case law established the principle that the Court should decide in favour of paternal rights where possible. Before 1857, the only likelihood of a mother recovering custody was either by writ of habeas corpus if the father’s behaviour could be proved to be grossly immoral, or by Petition in the Court of Chancery. Death of the father also affected maternal rights; if he appointed a testamentary guardian this took priority over the mother’s rights to custody.
A government Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which reported in 1904, concentrated on making recommendations about improving child health through public health measures and educational practices, which was, as Deborah Dwork commented an indication of what was then considered possible or practicable. 46 A number of ameliorative measures were taken in the years before the First World War, such as ensuring the purity of milk, and in some areas supplying sterilised milk for young babies.
9 In the United Kingdom, prior to 1947 (when it became a registered adoption society) Barnardo’s as an organisation saw itself as the adopter, not the families with whom it sometimes boarded out children. For all intents and purposes it took for itself the custody and control of the children in its care. This usually appears to have been accepted by the children’s relatives, although in 1891 Barnardo’s was involved in two key cases10, in both of which a mother had agreed to give up her child to the Society but had then changed her mind.