Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The death of illegitimacy

Today, half the children in Britain are born to unmarried parents – but not so long ago I was seen very differently, explains Caroline Flint 

I was born to a 17-year-old single mother. Wendy married when I was young. Until I was 10, I had no idea I was illegitimate. I thought Flint was the name I was born with.

I was born Caroline Louise Beasley. My mum and nanny and grandad Beasley were ever-present. Years later, I was reminded that, as a toddler, I would potter around their Twickenham pub.

In 1961, for them to stand by my mum, Wendy, to keep me close, was a brave decision – against social convention.

Aged 10, I found an adoption certificate at home. Mistakenly, I was convinced I was a foundling. No, Wendy was my mum. But Flint was my adopted surname.

The name stuck. The relationship with ‘dad’ did not. After their divorce, it ended completely.

So I was illegitimate. I never did discover my father’s identity.

The questions lingered. Who was I? Why did my mum keep me? Wendy was full of life. Fun, popular, jazz-loving – would Wendy’s life have improved if she had made a different choice?

When BBC producer Lissa Cook approached me about presenting the documentary, Archive on 4: The Death of Illegitimacy, I was drawn to revisit a brilliant family history compiled by a cousin, David. A family from a small village called Burneside, near Kendal. Generations worked in the paper mill, also there today. It revealed that in the century up to 1961, five women gave birth to illegitimate children. I made it six!

Half the children today are born to unmarried parents. For most parents, there is no stigma. Yet marriage is still popular. Couples live together, maybe have children, and if the relationship lasts, many will marry.

Researching the history of illegitimacy, I learned that in the 18th century some rural communities took an enlightened approach. Young couples would be allowed supervised sex, known as bundling. If ‘compatible’, they would marry. If not, they would part with no stigma.

For many unmarried mothers, we found heartbreak. Socially outcast, forcefully separated from their child, destined for a workhouse; the programme has first-hand accounts exploring illegitimacy across 500 years; and in film and TV drama.

Every story has heroes. Lettice Fisher, a courageous early 20th century campaigner, established the forerunner of Gingerbread. Her campaigning, alongside the Women’s Institute, changed the law for illegitimate children.

I spoke with Martina Cole, crime writer and Gingerbread ambassador, who in the 1970s fell pregnant aged 18; and fellow member of parliament Jess Phillips, who coped with pregnancy just a month after meeting her boyfriend. Illegitimacy affected their life choices.

As a new MP in 1997, it affected me too. I kept my secret, not wanting my mum, or me, to be judged. Seems silly now, but deep down we all want to be accepted. This programme has sadness, has laughs, and yes, there are happy endings.


Caroline Flint is member of parliament for Don Valley. Archive on 4: The Death of Illegitimacy is available on BBC iPlayer. She tweets at @CarolineFlintMP


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Caroline Flint MP

is Labour MP for Don Valley and a former Europe minister and former home office minister

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