Nursery World 90th anniversary: Acts of Parliament - Legal Landmarks

Monday, December 14, 2015

Initial reactions to many groundbreaking pieces of legislation have been captured through the pages of Nursery World. Hannah Crown combs through the archives to find them

Pauline Bercker from Leeds takes part in a demonstration in Trafalgar Square calling for equal pay for women on 18 May 1969

The launch of Nursery World coincided with a time of much social change. Just two years after the first publication, voting rights were extended to all women, and thereafter a set of hugely important Acts of Parliament followed.

These laid the foundations for modern society, reflecting the need to ensure safe methods of adoption, provide freely accessible health services, established equal rights for women and minorities, legalised abortion and homosexuality, and provided for increased recognition of the rights of children.

Here are some key references.


The Adoption of Children Act 1926 was the first in a series of adoption laws and replaced a formerly unregulated process with a legal route to give orphans and illegitimate children new parents.

On 10 March 1926, Nursery World’s then editor wrote: ‘The cult of the child gains ground every day. After the debate on the Children Adoption Bill several papers had leaderettes on the subject, and most of them were obviously written by men who had nothing in common with the attitude of Charles Lamb, who, you may remember, when asked how he liked babies, replied, “Boiled, mam!” One leader included this, “The human baby is not good as a toy. Kittens, puppies, and baby lions are all much better company. But there is something about a human baby which compels you to treat it as an end in itself, not as a plaything.” The general opinion seems to be that the Adoption Bill should add not a little to the sum of human happiness.’

Under the heading ‘Another happy adoption’, ‘Judith’ wrote in the issue of 23 March 1950, ‘I have an adopted baby, Linda, now 16 months old. We had our baby from a registered society and had to wait simply ages for her. In fact we had almost given up hope, when at last came a letter telling us of a baby girl five months old that might suit us. My husband and I went the next day to see her, and both felt immediately that she was “our baby”, and brought her home, much to the delight of our own little girl. The adoption went through the local court last year.’



The Abortion Act came into effect on 27 April 1968. It was hugely controversial, as a note from 2 July 1970 shows: ‘Nurses at the Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, have refused to take part in abortion operations. A spokesman for the management committee said they had opted out under the Conscience Clause of the Abortion Act.’

The clause still stands. An article from 5 October 1972 on anti-abortion charity Lifeline says: ‘When the question of adoption comes up, Miss Hevey and her staff give the honest facts concerning the difficulties of bringing up a baby alone, as well as holding down a job. It’s quite usual for a woman first to demand an abortion, decide this is wrong, then plan in advance to have her baby adopted. The majority of women wish to keep the baby once they have seen him.’

A social worker notes on 7 January 1982 that abortion still comes with a stigma yet ‘many girls still have the idea that sex is not something nice girls plan for and – as in all romantic novels – they wait to be swept off their feet. Contraceptive advice, even when it is clearly given, is often misunderstood, or changed to fit in with popular myths… it has become apparent that boys now accept little or no responsibility for contraception; they have the idea that it is up to the girl to take care of herself.’


The war sharpened women’s resolve on equal pay. In the issue of 1 February 1945, the chair of the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, Mrs Mavis Tate, says ‘Women are not asking only for benefits, they are asking to be permitted to make a full contribution to the post-war world in partnership with men,’ and that they cannot be true partners while treated as cheap labour. This was qualified enthusiasm, however. ‘Equal pay means that women would not be employed, as they are now, for work for which they are unsuited, but that both men and women would more easily discover where they excel.’

The Race Relations Act 1976 made it illegal to discriminate on grounds of race. In 1986, Nursery Nurse Tutors Anti-Racist Network formed to look at training students ‘from an anti-racist perspective’, we reported on 21 May 1987.

A piece in the issue of 16 March 1978 notes: ‘In recent years there has been a marked step forward in the provision of legal rights for the expectant mother in Britain. Now, she is entitled not only to the Maternity Grant of £25 and the Maternity Allowance of £14.70 a week (£82 in today’s money) if she is working, but she also has certain rights under the recently implemented Employment Protection Act. No longer can she be dismissed from her job solely because she is pregnant.’ However, in 1987 the Maternity Grant, which had remained at £25 since 1969, was replaced with an average £85 Social Fund Grant, which was criticised for being a real-terms cut.

The laws covered range from abortion to childcare; editorial on the reaction to the Adoption Bill (10 March 1926), below

A live-in mother’s help, Ellen, from Rotherham, was fleeced by her employer of £104.45 (equivalent to £260 today), a report on 5 February 1988 stated. This prompted her MP, Peter Hardy, to call for legislation to ‘formalise the employment of workers in a domestic situation’. Now anyone who works in a person’s home must have a contract, be given payslips, and be paid at least the minimum wage.


A group of 147 daycare organisations formed Law Reform for Children’s Day Care to scrutinise the Children Bill, later the Children Act, which created a single national statute covering all early years and childcare provision. A report from 26 January 1989 said the bill gave ‘local authorities the statutory power to provide day care services for children under five and over five, outside school hours, and to provide support services for childcare providers. We asked for the wording to be changed to make the provision of these services a duty? the amendments were not accepted by the Government.’

Back in 1936, on the announcement of a ten-year plan for children, the problems were more basic. ‘The plan has been formulated to cover the rebuilding of our elementary schools with the especial provision of nursery school conditions in the infants’ departments. A survey has been made of existing schools buildings and only 20 per cent have been found up to the new standard… Many of them are very far below it, and one country school was referred to in which the only water supply was a nearby pond.’

Now we have the Childcare Bill, which paves the way to extend the current 15 hours of ‘free’ childcare for three- and four-year-olds to 30. The six-clause bill, currently going through Parliament, has been criticised for its lack of detail by the House of Lords. On 25 September 2015 Baroness Jones told us, ‘We have received numerous representations from the sector saying that the Government proposals? will not work unless they address the funding gap as current free places are being provided at a loss.’


Before the National Health Service (NHS) existed, the Midwives Bill aimed to ‘establish a salaried service of midwives as part of the health services’, which was mentioned twice in 1936, on 16 May and 29 April.

A mother-to-be’s experience of the new NHS, which was born in 1948 via the National Health Service Act, was chronicled in a remarkably candid account from 26 October 1950 by a Mrs Campion. She starts with the process for having a check-up at St Albion’s Hospital (which no longer exists): ‘Once more the usual routine; give in specimen, get papers, undress, weigh myself (12 stone, oh lor’), have blood pressure taken, exchange well-worn quips with nurse, wait in a queue for cubicle, listening idly to the talk (“That Strachey [Labour minister]. I’d slap his ears down for him!”) go into cubicle, await doctor, suffer as usual, a swarm of student midwives. And it is as these last prod and pull and eye me for the dozenth time? I wish that ordinary human loving-kindness were taught to the young in hospitals along with? the nursing craft.’

On the big day itself, the journey to the labour ward is, ‘down endless centrally heated corridors… accompanied by a faint but sickeningly persistent smell of ether and disinfectant combined’. In the labour ward, a ‘workmanlike hush’ prevails. Mrs Campion describes her ‘cunning’ analgesia contrivance, the impression that the nurses are giantesses, and her growing sense of frustration: ‘Off I go, fighting myself, the doctor, the quilt, everything… “It’s a boy, and she wanted a boy. Goodness, how sick she’s being”.’ The birth achieved, there comes an anti-climax. A ward with ladies discussing their butchers, the offer of cocoa, herring for lunch.

Mrs Campion examines the financial aspects and finds that, using the hospital as she did, she is ‘out of pocket to the tune of £5 4s. 4d’ (£165) only.’ Meanwhile the health service is: ‘A machine that works, and will go on working? but it is a machine. To the individual ?there will always be the dilemma of the human versus the inhuman.’

Download the PDF

© MA Education 2019. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved