When unwed mothers lost more than benefits

When unwed mothers lost more than benefits

7 November 2012


THIS month Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, complained that problem families on benefits have too many children. But the problem of unmarried mothers and absent fathers is not a new one as scholars trawling old archives of the Down Recorder well know.

Nowadays lone teenage mothers and their children receive state financial support and accommodation, although due to recession these provisions are soon to become less generous. But in earlier times in Co. Down, the outlook for such young mothers and their babies was horrific.

Such was the stigma of illegitimacy in the 1700s and 1800s, that newborns were often deserted by their desperate mothers. These abandoned babies, known as ‘foundlings’, then became the responsibility of the local parish. In 1815 the records of Magheradroll vestry contain the item “£4.12s.1d, expenses incurred by Foundlings”. A considerable sum, (considering the Parish Clerk’s salary was then £5), and an indication of the numbers of abandoned infants.

Forty years later, much worse was to occur within Magheradroll precincts. With some it had become the practice for unwanted infants to be stifled, and then secretly buried in the church cemetery. This is a paraphrased version of a report in the Down Recorder edition of 22 October 1853:

“Certain disorderly persons were permitted to reign in an unrestrained manner in the parish churchyard of Magheradroll. It then became a hiding place (a very aceldama) for murdered innocents and others supposed to have come to an untimely end. Inquests were made recourse to without effect.

“A few days ago an infant was found under the most suspicious circumstances — and proved by witnesses chosen by many — that it must have been deprived of life. It was concealed in a hole, scraped in the side of a grave by some unnatural person or persons unknown.”

This newspaper report is referred to in two books: “The Down Recorder”, by Damian Smyth, Lagan Press 2004, p13; and “Index to the Downpatrick Recorder 1836-86”, by Jack McCoy, SEELB 1987, item 1604. The cemetery mentioned may have been the more remote Old Magheradroll graveyard on Crabtree Road. Aceldama was the potter’s field near Jerusalem, purchased by the priests as a burial ground for strangers, with the reward that Judas had received for betraying Jesus.

Ballynahinch was not the only town in Ireland to experience this kind of ongoing catastrophe. Surviving infants were forwarded by parish vestries to the Foundling Hospital in Dublin, opened in 1704 — where most survived no longer. About 2000 children arrived there annually, and 80% of them soon died there. Because of this disgraceful record, the government closed the hospital in 1835.

Nowadays in the 21st century, the Department of Work and Pensions deals with this problem in a much more humane fashion.

Back in the 1700s, Presbyterian congregations in Scotland and Ireland took the most stringent measures to protect the interests of children born outside wedlock. When an extramarital pregnancy was detected, the mother-to-be was summoned before the church Session, and asked to divulge the identity of the father-to-be. After the child was born both parents were required to appear in church to have the babe baptised, and presumably to accept responsibility for its upbringing. In the Ballynahinch Presbyterian congregation between 1702 and 1731 there were 20 such baptisms, of what were termed “natural” children.

But there were certain formalities the prospective parents had first to complete. They were required to appear in church, kneel on the Stool of Penitence, and confess their sin before the entire congregation. If either party were minded not to comply with these requirements, they would then be barred from attendance at church. As this would amount to complete social ostracism, the threat of it was a very effective means of compulsion.

In 1786 the Scottish national poet Robert Burns underwent this penitential process in his local Presbyterian church, for premature dalliance with his wife-to-be Jean Armour. The experience may well account for his abiding and well-advertised contempt of religious zealots.

By 1832 Ballynahinch Presbyterians had developed a more lenient approach: “Ecclesiastical censure is inflicted by public rebuke for Adultery, Fornication, Slander, and irregular Marriage — not before the whole Congregation but in the vestry, before the Session or Elders,” wrote one church Elder.

Couples in this predicament naturally sought any acceptable means to escape humiliation. And help was often at hand. There was a number of clergy in Co. Down, who had been removed from their pulpits for alcoholism or other failings, but who retained the legal right to perform weddings. Known as ‘Buckle-Beggars’, these ministers would certainly oblige a desperate couple — at a price. Some ex-clergy made a tidy living from the practice of clandestine marriages.

On Sunday, November 8, 1713 in Ballynahinch Presbyterian Church the Rev. James McAlpine baptised James, “natural” son of Neas R… and Helen D… (The surnames are still common locally, and so are diplomatically omitted here). Mr. McAlpine likely did not approach the couple in a spirit of wrathful condemnation. Ordained in 1692 at Carnwath in the Scottish Borders, in 1695 as a young clergyman he himself had chanced to originate from a one-parent family. Fleeing to Ireland in disgrace, he spent 17 years of repentance in Killyleagh from 1697-1714. He was restored to the Ministry in 1711, and installed in the Ballynahinch congregation in 1714.

These misfortunes happen in the best of families, and it is prudent not to point a finger, or stand in judgement. Mr. McAlpine received plentiful forgiveness from his own brethren in the Presbyterian clergy, and he may well have extended the same spirit of forgiveness to errant members of his new flock.

These and other stories about old Ballynahinch will be told by Horace Reid in two illustrated lectures in November:

A Short History of Magheradroll Parish Church on Friday, November 9, in Magheradroll Parish Hall, Ballynahinch, 7.30 for 8.00. Tea provided, £5 donation please.

Ye Poor’s Money, Presbyterian Charity in early Ballynahinch, 1710-34 will take place in Edengrove Presbyterian Church, Ballynahinch, on Thursday, November 15, at 8.00pm.

The event is organised by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, and is sponsored by the First Ballynahinch and Edengrove congregations.