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Former Church of England maternity home should be investigated, says Tim Farron

24 October 2023


Parkside Cemetery, Kendal

Parkside Cemetery, Kendal

A FORMER Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, has called for a police investigation into the deaths of unknown numbers of babies at a former church maternity home.

The children were born to unmarried mothers at St Monica’s Maternity Home, Kendal, in Cumbria, which operated from 1918 to 1970. Mr Farron, whose constituency, Westmorland and Furness, includes Kendal, stepped in after hearing the story of one teenage mother, whose baby son, Stephen, died at the home in 1964 after just 11 weeks, allegedly after a lack of medical attention. Judith Hindley later took her own life after failing to come to terms with the trauma of her experience.

When her husband, Stephen, began investigating her case, he discovered that the baby was one of possibly dozens buried in an unmarked grave in Parkside Cemetery, Kendal.

“It’s appalling,” Mr Farron said. “I’m utterly heartbroken for Stephen, and for Judith, who passed away, and for all their family. It’s utterly horrific, and what this had revealed is that . . . in a cemetery that I know well, there are perhaps tens of babies, unnamed in an unmarked grave, who died due to poor care at St Monica’s in the 1960s in Kendal.

“It’s tragic and horrific to think what those women went through, and what they may still be going through. There needs to be a police investigation, and every one of those babies needs to be named and remembered, and justice needs to be done.”

The diocese of Carlisle, which ran the institution, has since apologised to Mr Hindley.

Mrs Hindley, then just 17, from Salford, Greater Manchester, was one of scores of unmarried young women sent away to gave birth to avoid the social stigma of bearing an illegitimate child.

The fate of baby Stephen was revealed last week in a BBC Cumbria documentary on the search by Mr Hindley, now aged 77. He said that his wife had told him that the home staff treated the mothers “very harshly. They were worked from morning until night. That went right up until they gave birth. It was like something from a Dickens novel — just awful.

“She told me that she begged them to let the baby go to hospital, but they wouldn’t. They said he would be dealt with in-house.”

He believes that her experience led to her being diagnosed as bipolar, and making several suicide attempts. She finally took her own life in 2006, near the cemetery. Mr Hindley said: “She always felt guilty. She always felt like she was a bad person. In moments of despair, she would say to me: ‘I don’t know why you would want to be with a wicked girl like me.’ That was ingrained in them from the home.”

Cumbria Police said that they had not so far received any official report that an offence had been committed, but that anyone with information about “possible criminality” should call them on 101.

A spokesman for Carlisle diocese said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr Hindley and his family. It is shocking to learn of such mistreatment, and we offer our sincere apologies and deepest sympathy. Huge trust will have been placed on those who supported the young women and girls at St Monica’s, and we are truly sorry if that trust was breached in the care of Mrs Hindley and her baby, Stephen, leading to her long-term mental-health issues.

“Our Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser reached out to Mr Hindley at the earliest opportunity, and he has since made contact to detail the account of his wife’s treatment at the home, and the lasting impact it has had. We are grateful for him coming forward, and fully appreciate how difficult and upsetting a process this continues to be for him and his family.

‘We are committed to continue to work alongside Mr Hindley as he seeks answers, and, furthermore, we are fully prepared to co-operate with other statutory agencies as necessary.”

Dr Michael Lambert, a research Fellow at Lancaster University, has investigated maternity homes such as St Monica’s. “Even by the standards of the day, it was completely substandard,” he told the BBC. “”Its unique arrangement — being funded exclusively by local authorities — meant there wasn’t enough money to go around. There were regular complaints about the standard of care, no trained midwives, lack of trained support.”

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