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Response to Review no. 806

I am most grateful to Dr Grey for his positive and detailed review of my book A Child for Keeps. He makes a number of useful points throughout his discussion of it. In particular he highlights the problem of the lack of access to adoption and adoption society records which makes research very difficult for those attempting to write a social rather than political history of adoption. I would hope that at some point one of the big charities which carried out adoptions as a part of its child rescue operations will be convinced by a persuasive researcher to open up access to its records. I was not successful in this, but I was doing my research in the late 1990s/early 2000s and the 1920s are now even more distant from us. Alternatively, perhaps one of these charities will consider having its institutional history written by an academic researcher who could consider its adoption work within the context of its wider operations. However the records of the individual adoption societies, which dominated organised adoption in the 1920s and 30s, seem likely to remain a problem. None of these societies still exist in their original form; they have merged or disbanded, and their records are either lost, destroyed by fire or bombs, or buried deep in local authority social service record departments or county archives where access to them is denied indefinitely or for very long periods into the future. It appears it is very difficult to argue with public authorities where personal records are involved, however long ago they may have been created.

I was interested to note that his reading of my book and his other research leads Dr Grey to different conclusions from myself about the way that adoption has been perceived. He feels that it has been seen in some ways as far removed from the experiences of the ‘normal’ family. I agree with him that it was seen as a ‘side-issue’; one requiring ‘very little state intervention’, but I think that this was because it was seen as quite a normal part of family life, both before and after the first legislation. It blended neatly into the general framework of secrecy that was such a potent force in many families, affecting every aspect of family life, as the writers of The Family Story described.(1) Adoption was not much discussed but it affected many families and for a long time was seen as barely more than a transfer of property. As I wrote in the book, in many ways the family created by adoption was the ultimate ‘planned’ family. At a time when contraception was unreliable, awkward and still viewed with distaste and suspicion by many, and when issues of infertility were rarely mentioned, adoption appeared to offer a relatively complication-free solution to problematical issues of family creation. The fact that adoption within families was so rarely talked about was the same for all the other intimate issues affecting family life. Only since the 1960s – and even later – has there been the explosion of confessional and analytical literature about sexuality and family life which in its popularised form has altered the way in which all familial relationships are viewed and discussed.

Finally, I welcome Dr Grey’s implicit invitation to others to explore the history of English adoption further. It would be interesting to discuss with others the many complex and fascinating issues which arise out of this surprisingly under-researched area.


  1. Leonore Davidoff, Megan Doolittle, Janet Fink & Katherine Holden, The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy, 1830–1960, (London, 1999).Back to (1)