Gingerbread has supported single parent families since its first meeting on February 1918 – then known as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child.
We’ve come a long way in the past 100 years and so have the rights and needs of single parents. Find out how Gingerbread started, what we’ve achieved so far, and what we’re looking forward to over the next 100 years.
In the aftermath of the First World War, more women than ever found themselves without a partner to help raise their children. Single parent families received little protection from government, and many faced a life of poverty. Responding to the need she saw around her, Lettice Fisher, a former social worker and economist, decided to act. She formed the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child on February 1918.
The Council had two founding goals:
- To reform the Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts which discriminated against children born out of marriage, giving them fewer legal rights than those born to married parents and making it difficult for unmarried mothers to obtain maintenance for their children from the father.
- To address the high death rates for children born outside marriage by providing accommodation for single mothers and their babies.
Understanding single parents and their individual needs and experiences was key to the Council’s strategy. In the 1920s, the Council set up a Case Committee to provide single parents with tailored advice and assistance. At the same time, the Council campaigned to provide single parents and their children with an alternative to the workhouse – at the time many were forced to turn to workhouses for somewhere to live due to lack of financial support or employment options.
From workhouse to workplace: 1940-1970
In the 1940s, as a direct result of the Council’s influence, workhouses were finally abolished and unmarried mothers became entitled to receive benefits from the government, as opposed to having to rely on charity.
It wasn’t just finances that were changing, but also attitudes to work and home life. World War II saw women increasingly leaving the home to take up jobs left vacant by men fighting abroad. And even after the war was over, this shift in thinking meant new opportunities for many single parents. Lettice Fisher died in 1956 after years of committed service, and her memorial fund was used by the Council to finance education schemes and training programmes to help single parents make the most of the post-war economy.
Coming together: 1970s
Isolation – and feeling different or alone – has long been an issue for many single parent families. In 1970, Tessa Fothergill, a single mother living in London, decided to start a support group for other parents like her to help combat some of the loneliness she felt. The Sunday Times wrote a feature about Tessa’s group, prompting hundreds of single parents from all over the country to get in touch. From this, a new charity providing support groups was born. It was called Gingerbread – named after the café where the first support group met.
Meanwhile, in response to the increasing diversity of family life in the UK, and the wide range of reasons why mums and dads found themselves single parents, the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child changed its name to the National Council for One Parent Families.
Stigma and social policy: 1980s
The Finer Report, published in 1974, made 230 recommendations for improving single parents’ lives, across areas such as housing, income and the family courts. The Finer Report also called for the state to play an active role in making sure single parents received child maintenance – a proposal that eventually resulted in the creation of the Child Support Agency.
Yet by the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was talking about young girls getting pregnant in order to jump the housing queue. Amid public hostility to single parent families, the National Council for One Parent Families continued to fight against unacceptable levels of poverty faced by single parents by improving access to benefits and jobs. In 1987, after 69 years of campaigning, the Bastardy Acts were finally repealed. The Family Law Reform Act was introduced, which gave the same legal rights to children born out of marriage as those born within marriage. It’s hard to believe that, until 1987, stigmatisation of single parent families was part of this country’s legislation.
Mergers and making a name: 1990s to today
Throughout the 1990s, the two charities continued to provide services for single parent families – Gingerbread, focused on local support, and The National Council for One Parent Families, had a dual focus on campaigning and services.
In 2000, JK Rowling – bestselling author of the Harry Potter books and former single parent – joined the National Council for One Parent Families as an ambassador, later becoming our President.
Becoming a lone parent can bring poverty, isolation and the feelings that the world is judging you or that you are no longer a real family. But it can also bring intense happiness and pride. I am prouder of the eight years I spent as a single mother than of any other part of my life.
In 2007, the charities merged, creating one organisation with a powerful mix of campaigning experts, highly respected support services, and extensive grassroots reach among single parents. For the new charity, we decided on the name Gingerbread. It was a name many single parents already knew, which former single parents had known from the 70s and 80s, and which was recognised and trusted. Our strapline, ‘single parents, equal families’, described, and continues to describe, the essence of what we work towards through a mix of advice, practical support and influential campaigning.
Looking forward to 100 years
On February 14 2018, Gingerbread will celebrate 100 years of working for and with single parent families. Things have changed a lot over the decades. With our single parent members at the heart of our work, we’ve changed laws, influenced government and challenged stigma and stereotype.
Our expert advice and information services help thousands of single parents every year. Our training programmes support parents to reach their ambitions and increase their skills. Through our policy work, research and campaigns, our members’ concerns and experiences are taken to the heart of Westminster. And our community of more than 40,000 families from all across the country provides friendship and support.