Daniel Shannon-Hughes unearths the sad stories of expectant mothers in the days before the NHS
The BBC’s award-winning television drama series, Call the Midwife, depicts childbirth in the early years of the NHS. But what was maternity care like for women before a free health service arrived? What if calling the midwife was beyond the dreams, let alone pocket, of many poorer mothers-to-be?
Interviews recorded with local women born between 1890 and 1913, held in the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop’s archive, tell of experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and maternal healthcare at the start of the 20th Century. They offer a glimpse of the often perilous and difficult experiences of motherhood.
The women featured in this article are of working class backgrounds, since the poor received almost no prenatal healthcare up until the 1930s.
An interviewee named only as Mrs Pettifer, born in 1895 in Markhouse Avenue, remembers: “There wasn’t the bother there are with the kiddies having their babies these days. I saw a doctor when I booked him up and I didn’t have him until the baby came. Nothing [else] at all.”
This was generally the extent of healthcare during pregnancy. Medical checkups were beyond the budget of most women. The 1911 National Insurance Act did include maternal health benefit paid to expectant mothers to cover doctors’ fees, but only for married women whose husbands had paid their ‘stamps’.
Most births took place at home and midwives were well known in the neighbourhood. Although midwifery was slowly being professionalised, until the 1930s it was still common for a local unqualified ‘handywoman’ to deliver babies.
Nellie Williams, born 1908, remembers: “It used to be a local woman. They used to call her ‘grandma’. She’d be about 60 or something like that. But she brought all the babies into the world.” Miss Judd, first name unknown, was born 1913 in Gosport Road, Walthamstow. Her mother was a midwife who “used to deliver all the babies down that road. She wasn’t qualified, she just done it ‘cos neighbours could go in and do that sort of thing in them days.
“While they were waiting for the doctor my mother used to get on with it and more often than not the baby was born before [they arrived].”
Florrie Stephens, born 1900, had a mother, grandmother and aunt who were all unqualified midwives. Yet Florrie received little sex education from her family. At 18 she asked where babies came from, and her mum replied: “See that line going from your naval down. They cut that out and take the baby out there.”
Florrie said: “I thought that was right because my mother had [for her work] needle and cotton, scissors.”
Ignorance around sex was common. Jenny Hammond, born in 1893 in Leyton, did not understand the facts of life until she married. “My mother never said a word. It came as a great shock to me. Never was discussed at all.”
Contraception was hardly discussed either, whether publicly or at home. Jenny added: “That was thought to be a terrible thing to talk about. [A woman in the Labour party] tried to get them to give birth control information to women through [Leyton] council. The council wouldn’t allow it. They thought it was terrible.”
In the absence of knowledge about and access to contraception, the most widely practised form of birth control was abortion. Illegal in England until 1967, women resorted to dangerous methods and drugs. Frequently these led to poisoning, injury, hospitalisation, long-term health problems and even death.
The other side to this ignorance was a high birth rate. At the start of the 20th Century women gave birth to an average 4.6 children. Having ten or more children was not uncommon, particularly among the lower classes. The physical strain of multiple pregnancies came on top of pressures of poverty.
Many women went hungry so their families could eat, even when heavily pregnant or recovering from childbirth. Nellie was in hospital in 1930 following a cesarean section because of a complicated birth. She said: “They’d come around for breakfast. I’d say to them; ‘can I have my egg hard boiled?’ They used to call me the hard-boiled patient, for the simple reason I used to save the egg for my husband when he came in to eat. That’s how hard up we were.”
Hospital was generally only for complicated births. It was too expensive and few hospitals had maternity facilities. Mrs Williams, first name unknown, tragically lost her first child in 1927 because nowhere could be found to treat her baby: “We tried to get her into hospital but they said septicaemia was poison and they wouldn’t take her in. The nurse ran all over the place with her… they wouldn’t take her in. She was only three weeks old when she died.”
In the period 1900-1920, more than one in ten babies died within six months of birth. The figure in Waltham Forest for 2009-2011 was 5.6 per 1,000. An unidentified interviewee from the Wood Street area recalls that in her family: “I was the youngest of sixteen. And all I ever remember at home was about six of us. I’ve seen memorial cards for the other babies. They were all buried in Chingford Cemetery.”
Infant mortality was a sad fact of life for the poor. Ill health caused by poor housing, hunger and hard labour, all linked to poverty, and the absence of maternal healthcare also caused miscarriages for many women. Moreover the toll of multiple pregnancies often compounded women’s poor health.
Only with the creation of the NHS and welfare state did things improve. Women could call the midwife and a doctor, and rely on the services of many others.
The women’s stories from a century ago show universal maternal healthcare, maternity benefit, and the legislation we have today, cannot be taken for granted. Indeed they must be protected.
Research for this article was supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop is a volunteer group who have been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed: