|An English `Magdalene Laundry` (Daily Mail)
13 April 2012
Phil never understood why his mother abandoned him. Only now has he unearthed the doomed love and bigotry behind her decision
By EILEEN FAIRWEATHER
PUBLISHED: 01:03, 13 April 2012 | UPDATED: 01:03, 13 April 2012
Phil Frampton’s birth, at a home for unmarried mothers in Cornwall almost 60 years ago, was attended by secrecy, shame and humiliation. It is hard to imagine, now, the sheer scope and scale of the disgrace his mother Mavis — an accomplished musician and teacher — endured for her ‘sin’ of giving birth to an illegitimate son.
But Mavis had done more than infringe the moral codes of the era; she had also transgressed a racial one, for Phil’s father was black and she was white. In the invidious social climate of the early Fifties Phil was doubly stigmatised: his mixed ethnicity, records show, was considered a ‘defect’ or ‘malady’.
He was taken away from his mother when just a baby, but his skin colour meant he was deemed unadoptable, so he spent his childhood shunted between often brutal care homes and brief foster placements, believing his mother had casually abandoned him.
Early days: A baby Phil being fed by his mother, Mavis, after she gave birth to him at a home for unmarried mothers in Cornwall
Phil, 58, now a lecturer and child welfare expert, charted the vicissitudes of his loveless early life in a best-selling memoir, The Golly in the Cupboard. But he only truly understood the cruel circumstances which caused his mother, a grammar school music teacher from a comfortable middle-class background, to cut all ties with him — when he made a BBC documentary about Rosemundy, the home for unmarried mothers on the rugged Cornish coast where Mavis had given birth to him.
Today, Rosemundy House is a beautiful hotel in the picturesque seaside hamlet of St Agnes.
But 58 years ago, when Phil was born there, it was known to some locals as ‘the pro home’ because the women there were considered little better than prostitutes.
Standing outside it all these years later, Phil felt an ‘overwhelming eruption of emotion’.
‘As I looked down from the cliffs, I watched the huge Atlantic waves below and wondered how many desperate girls had wanted to end it all there,’ he says.
Subsequently, by talking to other women who’d also had illegitimate babies there in the 1950s, Phil was able to understand the depth of Mavis’s own suffering and, many years after her death, make his peace with the woman who had given him life — then given him away.
What he uncovered was a shocking story of barbarism, ritual humiliation and almost total lack of compassion.
‘My mother, like the other pregnant women, was treated as the lowest of human beings,’ he says. ‘She was forced to repent for her sins in prayer for 30 minutes each day.
‘These women were expected to care for their babies for weeks after birth, sometimes months, and then give them up. By then many had bonded deeply with their children and it broke their hearts.
‘There was even a room at Rosemundy which the women were locked in after handing over their babies.
‘From it, they could see the adopters drive off with their baby. The stories I heard were heartbreaking — and they helped me to understand my mother so much better.’
Mavis Frampton’s story is an especially poignant one because, as Phil was to discover, she was desperate to maintain contact with the son she had been forced to abandon.
And her distress at losing Phil was, it emerged, the second tragedy to blight her young life. For Phil had not been the product of an inconsequential fling. Mavis, in fact, had been in love with Phil’s father, civil engineer Isaac Ene — who was from a wealthy and well-connected Nigerian family — but the young couple were forcibly parted because of the prejudice that surrounded mixed-race relationships at the time.
Mavis was a cultured young woman and a highly talented pianist — at the age of 19 she was made an associate of the Royal College of Music — and she was courted by Phil’s father for two years before she became pregnant.
After graduating from teacher training college, she had taught in a Birmingham grammar school, and often met old college friends at the city’s International Club. There she mixed with foreign students, and in 1951 met Isaac, 27, who was tall, accomplished and good-looking.
Heartbreak: Phil, smartly dressed in a shirt and tie, pictured as a young boy in care
He had been sent to England by his British employers to undertake research at Aston Mining College.
However, when he and Mavis began going to classical music concerts together, even her closest friends were appalled by the risk she was taking, so rare and deeply frowned-upon were inter-racial relationships.
Despite this, they fell in love — but when Mavis’s mother discovered their romance she wrote to both the Colonial Office and Isaac’s college, denouncing him.
Phil, of Chorlton, Manchester, who has pieced together these details after ploughing through records and letters, and tracing old friends and previously unknown relatives, discovered that Isaac’s company duly ordered him to return to Nigeria.
‘These women were expected to care for their babies for weeks after birth, sometimes months, and then give them up.'
In December 1952 he quit Britain in disgrace and sailed to Lagos. Mavis offered to move there with him, but Nigeria remained under colonial rule and marriage between a black man and white woman was not tolerated.
Separated by bigotry and racism, the couple had no idea then that Mavis was expecting Isaac’s child. And when the truth dawned, we can only guess at the extent of her mortification. She wore three corsets to disguise her condition, but finally confided in her headmistress.
The understanding head felt deeply for this vulnerable girl, and helped keep her secret — and her job — by pretending that Mavis was ill and needed to convalesce.
On March 21 1953 she duly travelled from her Birmingham home to the Cornish seaside to give birth in secret that July: she was 23 years old.
She still hoped, Phil now knows, that one day she and the love of her life would be reunited. They never were.
‘After I was born I was moved to a nursery in Devon and then to a Barnardo’s home near Birmingham,’ he recalls. ‘My father at first sent money for me, and my mother visited. But she stopped coming when I was one year old.
‘So I grew up in care. I was shuffled between five residential homes stretching over 300 miles and two foster homes. When I was 16 and still at school I ended up studying for my A levels in a bedsit for down and outs.’
Happier times: Mavis crouches to hold her baby Phil before the ordeal of their separation
Subsequently, however, he discovered that far from abandoning him thoughtlessly, his mother had fought extremely hard to keep him. His research unearthed a moving letter in which she’d told social workers: ‘He is all I have’.
But, as he realised on his trip to Cornwall: ‘The attitudes then to unmarried mothers could break even the strongest spirit.
‘The story of Rosemundy House made me realise that the humiliation, hardship and loss she endured would have left her with terrible memories.’
Life for the unmarried mothers was marked by hardship and deprivation, as Phil discovered from former residents. ‘The staff had coal fires that the women had to lay, but the mothers-to-be were denied heating and left to scour damp local woodland for firewood,’ he says.
‘Dressed in green tunics, each Sunday they were marched, prams and all, to church, crocodile-style, aged 12 to 40-years-old, through the village, a humiliating spectacle.
‘I met a mother who had given birth in the home 50 years ago who froze and broke down in tears, unable to cross the threshold into the church of her humiliation. I shed a tear myself as I thought of my poor naïve mother.
‘The women were mostly fed just bread and jam, and did heavy physical labour, cleaning the home. One mother was ordered to polish the banisters throughout early labour, to “instil discipline”.’
After she left Rosemundy, Mavis managed to resurrect her life.
Her head teacher allowed her to return to her job, and kept her secret. Isaac continued to write for a while, but eventually Mavis received a letter informing her that his family had insisted that he marry a Nigerian girl.
Family man: Phil Frampton, pictured more recently, with his two daughters
Despite her heartbreak, she travelled to Shropshire to see her toddler son at his latest Barnardo’s care home. She wrote pleading letters to the charity begging to be allowed to look after her child, even if it was only over Christmas.
‘It would be worth anything to feel he was mine again, if only for a few days,’ she wrote. But she was turned down by them.
Eventually, it seems, she gave up. ‘And when I was one, my mother finally broke and agreed to put me up for adoption,’ Phil says.
‘But as a black child I was classed by the matron as “a poor specimen of humanity” and I was never even offered to anyone for adoption. It was said that it was impossible to find a family to adopt or foster a black child in the region.’
Eventually Mavis met a Norwegian architecture student who agreed to marry her. But records describe him as ‘jealous of the child’ and Mavis felt ‘forced to choose’.
'The humiliation, hardship and loss she endured would have left her with terrible memories.'
She opted for the security of marriage and went on to have two other children, before dying of a brain haemorrhage in 1966 when Phil was 13.
He was only told of her death a year later, by staff at the home where he was living. He was given his first photo of her — but was so distressed and confused that he tore it up.
‘I’d sometimes imagined her and she was always like a princess, strong and beautiful. But the woman in this photo was thin, gangly, bespectacled and hesitant, with a faint, nervous smile. I was bitterly disappointed.’
His father Isaac also died, aged 56, before Phil could trace him. ‘As far as I know, he never returned to Britain,’ he says.
Phil transcended his painful childhood, attended grammar school — in Southport, where he was the only black pupil — and eventually university. He went on to found the Care Leavers’ Association and has devoted much of his life to helping others who grew up in care.
He says that although he now feels no anger towards his mother, growing up in care had a profound effect on him. ‘You learn to cope completely through your own resources,’ Phil explains.
‘You become very self-contained. And that can make it hard for people to get close to you.’
Today, he is separated but still on good terms with his ex-wife, with whom he proudly posed last month for photographs at their daughter’s wedding.
He has also forged links with his blood relatives and is now in regular contact with his half-sister and half-brother from his mother’s marriage, with whom he is close.
He hopes, too, that other mothers, who gave birth in similar secrecy and shame to Mavis, will now feel able to talk about their own experiences.
His journey to his birth place ended when the vicar of the church where the mothers were made to repent, apologised on his predecessors’ behalf. Such regret — for the humiliation and indignity inflicted by institutions such as Rosemundy — says Phil, is long overdue.