In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Adoption and Fostering in the United Kingdom

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pre-19th-Century Adoption, Fostering, and Illegitimacy

Childhood Studies History of Adoption and Fostering in the United Kingdom
Jenny Keating
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0083


Adoption and fostering have always existed in the United Kingdom, in the sense of people taking other people’s children into their homes and looking after them on a permanent or temporary basis. However, adoption, the permanent removal of a child into another family, had no legal basis in the United Kingdom until the 20th century and was done on an informal basis. The closest concept to adoption was “wardship,” under which a guardian was given effective custody of a child by the Chancery Court, but this was little used and did not give the guardian parental rights. Fostering, where a child lives temporarily with another family, began to be regulated from the middle of the 19th century onwards, following a series of “baby farming” scandals. By the end of the 19th century, some poor law authorities and voluntary organizations were calling it “boarding out” and using it as an official alternative to putting neglected children in the workhouse or an orphanage. The First World War saw an increase in organized adoption through adoption societies and child rescue organizations, and pressure grew for adoption to be given legal status. In 1926 the first legislation relating to adoption was passed for England and Wales, and broadly similar legislation rapidly followed for Northern Ireland and Scotland. Since then almost every decade has seen new laws introduced that increasingly regulate the process of adoption in the United Kingdom, and although legislation for each of the three areas remains similar, there are some differences. The peak number of adoptions was in 1968, since when there has been an enormous decline in adoption in the United Kingdom. The main reasons for children being adopted in the United Kingdom had been unmarried mothers giving up their children for adoption and stepparents adopting their new partner’s children. Since the 1960s, social, cultural, economic, and legal changes have meant that neither of these are now major factors. Those children who are now adopted are mainly from local authority care because their birth family situation placed them at risk; a few are adopted from overseas but the figures for this remain low.

General Overviews

It should be noted that although there is an enormous amount of literature and academic writing on adoption, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it is mainly written from a contemporary social work and sociological perspective; surprisingly little relates to the history of adoption and fostering in the United Kingdom and nobody has written a thoroughly researched overall history or “textbook” or “encyclopedia” on the subject. Although not about adoption, Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt’s detailed two-volume history of childhood in England (Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1969 and Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973) is relevant, as is Hendrick 1994, an account of attitudes toward children and their welfare in England. Heywood 1978, a history of the development of child welfare services in the United Kingdom, is also useful background reading. Until quite recently most historical material on adoption appeared as chapters in social work or legal books or in histories concentrating on other areas, such as child abuse or the position of single women. Kornitzer 1952, a book on adoption practice, includes a chapter on the history of adoption, as did McWhinnie 1967 in a study of the outcomes of people adopted as children in Scotland. More recently, Montgomery 2010 is an overview of adoption in the United Kingdom. O’Halloran 2009 is a useful introduction to the whole issue of adoption, as it looks at it in an international context but has considerable material on the United Kingdom. Readers should also refer to the related entries in Oxford Bibliographies Online, particularly Adoption & Fostering; Adoption; History of Social Work in the United Kingdom, and History of Social Work in Northern Ireland. The first of these provides a useful introduction to the main issues in adoption from a social, cultural, and historical perspective, with a wide selection of references dealing with adoption across the world. The second deals with adoption from a social work viewpoint and discusses contemporary adoption, sometimes with a historical slant; it concentrates mainly on the United States, but many issues are common to most countries involved with adoption. The third and fourth entries look at the history of social work in the United Kingdom, and many of the references are relevant to adoption, which social workers dealt with to some degree even before the Second World War. Since the 1990s there has been growing interest in the history of adoption and more has been written on specific periods and issues, which will be described throughout this article.

  • Hendrick, Harry. Child Welfare: England 1872–1989. London: Routledge, 1994.

    An interesting book illustrating the way in which attitudes to childhood have changed and the way that has influenced how children are treated by the state as well as by their families.

  • Heywood, Jean S. Children in Care: The Development of the Service for the Deprived Child. 3d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

    Describes the development of welfare services for children, particularly disadvantaged ones, including fostering, and to a lesser extent, adoption.

  • Kornitzer, Margaret. Child Adoption in the Modern World. London: Putnam, 1952.

    A succinct introduction to adoption practice as it was in 1952; chapter 27, “A Matter of History,” gives a brief but useful introduction to the history of adoption in the United Kingdom up to 1952.

  • McWhinnie, Alexina Mary. Adopted Children: How They Grow Up; A Study of Their Adjustment as Adults. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

    This book is based on a study of fifty-eight adults living in Scotland in the early 1950s who were adopted as children, looking at their emotional and social development or “adjustment.” The introduction gives a relatively detailed history of adoption in the United Kingdom, including a separate section on its development in Scotland.

  • Montgomery, Heather. “Unwanted Children and Adoption in England.” In Childhood and Violence in the Western Tradition. Edited by Laurence Brockliss and Heather Montgomery, 83–97. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.

    Historical overview of adoption that, in a book about violence and children, places it in the context of dealing with unwanted children who in earlier or later eras would probably have been abandoned or aborted. It also discusses some of the wider issues that adoption raises.

  • O’Halloran, Kerry. The Politics of Adoption: International Perspectives on Law, Policy and Practice. 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-9152-0

    Encyclopedic book considering many aspects of modern adoption against the background of the legal framework in a range of countries, including England and Wales, but also Ireland, the United States, Australia, Sweden, France, and Japan, and in “an Islamic context.” Particularly useful for comparative purposes.

  • Pinchbeck, Ivy, and Margaret Hewitt. Children in English Society. Vol. 1, From Tudor Times to the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

    This and its companion volume (Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973) give a detailed history of childhood, providing a useful historical background to any research into areas of study involving children. This first volume deals with the period from the 16th to the 18th century.

  • Pinchbeck, Ivy, and Margaret Hewitt. Children in English Society, Vol. 2, From the Eighteenth Century to the Children Act 1948. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

    This second volume by Pinchbeck and Hewitt on the history of childhood also provides useful historical background. It takes the reader from the 18th century to the welfare reforms just after the Second World War.

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