Rethinking the bachelor playboy: masculinity and single fatherhood in late-20th-century Britain by Emily Priscott

This blog post focuses on the changing status of lone fatherhood from the 1960s through to the 1980s. The extraordinary example of Peter Jeffcock, a bachelor who had adopted 12 children through the London County Council in 1959, was at odds with the bachelor playboy evident in popular culture through films such as Alfie, which  reinforced the impression in the 1960s that single men and children did not mix. During the 1970s the relationship between lone fatherhood and masculinity became a subject of increasing interest to sociologists and NGOs such as Families Need Fathers, while also filling many column inches in the British press. It took the 1974 Finer Report into One Parent Families and sociological research such as Dulan Barber’s Unmarried Fathers in 1975 to significantly change the conversation around lone fatherhood and masculinity, and the 1989 Family Law Reform Act (which granted unmarried fathers automatic access to their children) was a testament to how much had changed over the previous three decades.

Bachelor Fatherhood in the 1960s

Single fatherhood is an under-researched subject in social history. While much important work has been done to uncover the stories of unmarried mothers, putative fathers, as they were once known, have proved more elusive. They represent the hidden side of the ‘swinging sixties’ and its aftermath, a time of rapidly changing gender norms and living patterns. In looking at the changing status of single fathers, we can see the other side to the bachelor playboy archetype which blossomed as part of post-war consumer culture.

Peter ‘Uncle’ Jeffcock with this children

In 1959 Peter Jeffcock, an ex-RAF man and a life-long bachelor, fostered 12 children through the London County Council. As the journalist Olga Franklin would later remark in her sensational biography of Jeffcock, he was ‘not the most likely person to recommend himself as a foster parent to a local authority’. [1] Tall, handsome and the owner of a huge country house and estate, in many respects Jeffcock outwardly epitomized the mid-century masculine ideal. Yet his status as a bachelor father fundamentally breached the boundaries of masculine norms; while men were now encouraged to embrace a limited domestic role, Jeffcock’s ‘unworldly’ approach to starting a family, as Franklin described it, seemed like an act of defiance. [2] For Jeffcock, fatherhood wasn’t simply a by-product of marriage but a choice which a man could make for himself, and it was this insistence that set him apart.

In the blaze of media attention that followed Jeffcock, whom the papers considered a charming oddity, the shadowy figure of the lone father enjoyed a rare flash of publicity. At a time when unmarried foster fathers were vanishingly rare (if not virtually non-existent), Jeffcock represented a new type of man. Embracing his role with zeal and transforming himself from an eligible bachelor to a full-time father, he settled down to a life of contented domesticity, dedicating himself entirely to his children and stubbornly refusing to employ a nanny.

Jeffcock’s story was the basis of the BBC sitcom Batchelor Father starring Ian Carmichale, which aired in the early seventies.

From the start of her book, Only Uncle (1970), Franklin was at pains to stress how respectable this ‘imposing’ bachelor was in all other respects. While single fathers were often held to be irresponsible and promiscuous, none of the stereotypes applied to Jeffcock, who had freely chosen his role, and who could use his wealth and privileged status to give his children a secure and happy home. One morning, watching discreetly from a kitchen corner as Jeffcock made breakfast for his 12 children (whose ages ranged from 6 to 16), Franklin found herself completely at ease; she was, she thought, merely witnessing the unfolding of a conventional domestic scene, one which would have been familiar to many housewives. Later, as Jeffcock attentively styled his daughter Christina’s hair ‘with ribbons high on her head, her golden hair falling in soft waves’, Franklin observed that he was ‘a bit of a saint, really…a good man who is also a better woman than most women are’. [3] Yet, she conceded, he was also ‘eccentric’, a man who had actively chosen the life of a full-time father and homemaker. [4] Despite her glowing testimonial even the title of Franklin’s book about Jeffcock, Only Uncle, was equivocal, a hint that she still found it difficult to see him as an authentic father.

Jeffcock’s time in the lime-light was short-lived; when the dust had settled on his sensational story, the papers forgot about Peter Jeffcock. As a pioneer, he had set a flamboyant example, yet while he had defied many of the conventional masculine codes of his day, it was class privilege which had made it possible. His wealth, charm and supreme self-confidence had allowed him to defy conventions of one sort because others had protected him. He was also an exception which proved the rule. Along with the scarcity of men following his example, cultural depictions of lone fatherhood still portrayed it as either an unfortunate consequence of the new moral climate or a way of taming wild bachelors.

Michael Caine in the 1966 adaptation of Naughton’s novel

In Bill Naughton’s 1963 novel Alfie (and its big-screen adaptation in 1966), the carefree protagonist unravels at the prospect of fatherhood when his married girlfriend falls pregnant, yet her decision to abort the foetus precipitates an even graver crisis. For Alfie, a symbol of Swinging Sixties bachelorhood through his on-screen portrayal by Michael Caine, both events represent moral disasters which destroy his faith in the new permissive culture. Unlike Ted Kramer a few years later, Alfie is undone by his inability to embrace fatherhood and, cut adrift from responsibility, becomes increasingly trapped by a hard, hollow bachelorhood. As Dulan Barber’s sociological research would show a decade later, many young putative fathers would feel themselves similarly tied.

Perceptions and experiences of Lone Fatherhood in the 1970s

It was not until the 1970s that lone fathers were discussed as a social category. Sociological research and campaigns from NGOs such as Gingerbread had long challenged attitudes to lone motherhood, attempting to change the focus from sin and stigma to material disadvantage and discrimination. In 1974, however, the Finer Report into One Parent Families consciously adopted gender-neutral language to acknowledge the possibility that single parents might also be men. While mostly a question of principle (as women continued to head around 90% of single-parent households), this small gesture indicated an increasing interest in masculinity and men’s role in the family. [5]

This was a period of sharp divisions. While the ratio of never-married mothers rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most single fathers were either divorced or widowed. Additionally, the growing number of cohabiting parents jointly-registering births meant that cohabitation itself inherited many of the traits of traditional marriage, significantly blurring the boundaries between married and unmarried parents.

Received ideas remained remarkably resistant to change, however. Ann Oakley’s 1974 study The Sociology of Housework explored the relationship between traditional gender roles and the continuing dominance of the nuclear family, arguing that society reaped the rewards of women’s unpaid yet vital labour by using it to prop up patriarchal capitalism. Positioning men as breadwinners and women as carers, Oakley maintained, also diminished men’s responsibility for housework and childcare. [6] Yet collective ideas about fatherhood and men’s role in the home, however firmly fixed in legal and socioeconomic structures, no longer seemed set in stone.

Despite their rarity, lone fathers became objects of fascination to the British press during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as attracting increased attention from sociologists and NGOs. Not all categories of lone fatherhood were viewed equally, however, and within this context, never-married fathers were still seen as curiosities. The rare phenomenon of a bachelor with sole custody of his children contradicted dominant ideas about single men’s ‘lifestyle’, according to which the term ‘bachelor father’ was an oxymoron.

There were rare glimpses of other perspectives. In a 1970 piece for The Guardian entitled ‘Where do all the unmarried fathers go?’ Maureen O’Connor addressed the plight of putative fathers in wider debates about illegitimacy, commenting, ‘if you think that they make themselves scarce…then you may not think…the question important…But it is not unusual for young men to be bewildered and frightened by the unexpected financial and emotional implications of unexpected parenthood’. [7]

It was not until Dulan Barber’s Unmarried Fathers (1975), however, that the subject received serious study. Focusing on the feelings and experiences of men who had fathered illegitimate children, Barber’s research assessed the extent to which they conformed to prevailing stereotypes. Many of his respondents did seem to fit the popular image, having only sporadic contact with their children through a combination of family collusion and personal ambivalence. One respondent, Ned, whom Barber described as ‘the unmarried father personified’, was promiscuous, alternately possessive and ambivalent about his daughter and had a criminal record for petty crimes. [8] His experience was echoed by Boris, who had three children with different women. Recollecting these many pregnancies, Boris expressed what Barber identified as ‘two familiar masculine attitudes. That it is the girl’s fault she becomes pregnant and that abortion is a thoroughly bad thing’. Boris apparently saw no contradiction between his own promiscuity and his strong disapproval of abortion (which he held despite his admission to have procured abortions for ‘many’ women). [9]

In contrast, men who took an active role in their children’s lives were often lavished with praise from sympathetic strangers. They were also far more likely to be middle-class, their social and financial privilege often shielding them from many of the problems experienced by Barber’s other respondents. Luke, for instance, was a young, middle-class man with sole custody of his son who lived with his ‘liberal parents, who supported him financially. He also saw the injustice of the double standard which ‘ostracized’ single mothers while ‘laud[ing] and admir[ing]’ him, something which was ‘rather depressing… from a…women’s liberationist point of view’. [10]

Barber concurred. This essentially Victorian attitude was, he argued, completely at odds with the liberalising climate of the 1970s, and was both the result and further cause of many men’s refusal or inability to acknowledge their illegitimate children. In continuing to hold young men less accountable for illegitimate children than young women, this moral double standard effectively encouraged putative fathers to walk away. In principle, access could be established through the existing Guardianship of Minors Act, but this required the father both to take the initiative and, ideally, provide proof that the mother was somehow unfit.

‘Societal and legal shifts in notions of single fatherhood’

The Finer Report 1974

In 1974 (the year of the Finer Report) the NGO Families Need Fathers (FNF) was founded to fight for the rights of single fathers. With a mostly white, middle-class membership, FNF had an ambiguous status. Like Jeffcock, it illustrated the complexity of single fathers’ status in a patriarchal society, highlighting the ways in which social advantage and marginalisation could intersect.

In a letter to The Guardian in 1974 Keith Parkin, one of its founder members, outlined FNF’s mission statement. It was, he declared, ‘time society decided that children need two parents’, arguing that father’s rights were being ignored in custody cases: ‘The ability to give love, care and stimulation is not the prerogative of females alone’. [11]

Writing in The Guardian‘s sister paper The Observer, the columnist Mary Stott partially concurred. It was clear that many judges in custody cases held outdated views about men’s ability to care for their children, and that more nuance was now required. However, discussions about ‘“perfect father[s]”’ could also be problematic as they often unfairly vilified mothers. The legal system, Stott maintained, still often resorted to lazy stereotypes about the maternal instinct, while failing to protect women’s interests in an economic system that discriminated against them. [12]

To Jill Tweeie, this stark reality undermined Parker’s argument. Developing the point further in The Guardian, she wrote, ‘On the face of it, with women pressing ever more strongly for their own equality…[FNF] do seem to have a point’. It was, however, more complicated than Parkin allowed; women’s privileged position in custody cases, Tweedie argued, contrasted with their secondary status in most other areas, and until this inequality was properly addressed the law should continue to grant women sole custody of their children. [13]

The sense of injustice felt by FNF members arose from many lone fathers’ ambiguous mix of privilege and marginalisation. While lone fathers of all classes were often more economically secure than lone mothers, they seemed burdened by an unaddressed sense of emotional strain. Accounts of less privileged lone fathers who, like many lone mothers, could not afford regular childcare, often painted a picture of overwhelming schedules and frantic multi-tasking. ‘Because I work long hours…I take refuge in the well-ordered machine regime’, one lower middle-class man told The Guardian in 1976. ‘If any [part of it] goes on the blink the whole fragile machine grinds to a halt’. [14]

During the 1980s, many of the social security measures that had been introduced in the 1970s to alleviate poverty among single mothers were cut, and poverty and homelessness among both single men and women rose dramatically. In addition to this, by 1989 it was estimated that only 13% of the 61% of single mothers who had registered to receive child support from their ex-partners actually received it. [15]

The 1989 Family Law Reform Act, which granted unmarried fathers automatic access to their children and abolished the concept of illegitimacy, was a pragmatic solution to this, allowing the government to renounce its obligation to chase unpaid maintenance payments. However, it also demonstrated how much had changed. The 1970s had been a transitional decade in the story of lone fatherhood, and although old ideas remained entrenched, the 1989 Act ensured that received ideas about fatherhood would never quite be the same again.


Emily Priscott is an independent researcher. This blog article has been adapted from research originally conducted as part of her doctoral thesis at the University of Sussex (completed in 2019), which was subsequently adapted for publication by Vernon Press (2020). You can contact her at


[1] Franklin, Olga, Only Uncle: Peter Lloyd Jeffcock – the bachelor with a family of twelve (Hutchinson of London, London, 1970).

[2] ibid., ii.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid., 76-7.

[5] Stats. quoted in the Daily Mail, June 13th, 1984.

[6] Oakley, Ann, The Sociology of Housework (Penguin, London, 1974), 222.

[7] Guardian, June 24th, 1970.

[8] Barber, Dulan, Unmarried Fathers (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, London, 1975), 42.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] Ibid., 64.

[11] Guardian, June 12th,  1974.

[12] Observer, September 26th, 1979.

[13] Guardian, November 25th, 1974.

[14] Guardian, May 17th, 1976.

[15] Barker, Richard, Lone Fathers and Masculinities (Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, 1994), 152.