Necessity gave birth to mother of all caring professions

Two nurses attend to an arrival at the Simpson's special baby unit in 1968
Two nurses attend to an arrival at the Simpson's special baby unit in 1968
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CAPS pinned to their heads, capes billowing behind as they rushed on their way either on foot or by bike, their medical bags by their sides . . . there was never any doubt what was happening when a midwife was seen in the Old Town.

The BBC’s new Sunday night drama, Call The Midwife, based on the book by the late Jennifer Worth – may well tell the tale of midwifery in London’s east end in the 1950s, but the same story was being played out across the UK.

The famous exterior of the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion at ERI

The famous exterior of the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion at ERI

Certainly Edinburgh – Worth’s home for a time after she married – was no different when it came to babies being born into poverty.

The first half of the 20th century saw midwifery become a registered profession, and, in the main, women gave birth at home with no pain relief available.

However, by 1939, the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion was open – 60 years after the very first maternity services were offered by the royal infirmary – and by the time Worth was working in London, Edinburgh’s mothers-to-be were routinely being taken to hospital to give birth, away from the squalor in which many lived.

Historian and author Lindsay Reid, who lives in Fife and was a midwife for more than 30 years, has told the stories of midwives in her book Scottish Midwives: Twentieth Century Voices. She says: “Midwives were very well known and very well respected in the community. If one was out in uniform and carrying her bag she would be put to the front of the queue on buses. They had to carry loads of bags and go by bicycles or buses.”

The 71-year-old adds: “The midwives I’ve spoken to were quite amazing. Some spoke of the extreme poverty they came across in the 1950s but there was also a real sense of camaraderie and enjoyment of the job. Unfortunately, many have passed away but I hope my book, with their oral testaments, gives people a real insight into how it was to give birth at the start of the 20th century.”

Here are a few stories told by the Edinburgh and Lothians midwives to whom Dr Reid spoke:

• Ann Lamb, from Glenlivet, Moray, was 25 when she arrived in Edinburgh to train as a midwife in 1927.

“There was a place in Edinburgh to train, and you got to the Canongate and the Cowgate and all the poor quarters. This wasn’t the big place – the Simpson – but just up the road from it. The training was a year. It wasn’t long enough, but we managed.

“We went to lots of classes and out on the district as well. It was a hard training . . . sometimes you would go down the streets to see a woman and a head would pop out the window and ‘Oh nurse, come and help me’. You had never seen her before, you didn’t know her name, and up the stairs you went and delivered the baby. She would know who you were because of the uniform.

“There was no ante-natal care and the poverty was very bad. You had to boil the water when you arrived for the delivery and you carried everything in a black bag.

“They were very poor. There was only one sheet to deliver the mother on, so a firm was very good and gave us paper, white wallpaper, and we made a sheet of that. We had nothing much to work on, but I never remember anything wrong with mother or baby.

“They were very happy but they had nothing. I just can’t tell you what we witnessed at that time. It was terrible. There was a doctor who came if you were in distress about the delivery, but somehow it seemed all the babies just came out and there was no trouble. I probably did about 200 deliveries.”

• Molly Muir, born in 1907, trained to be a midwife in 1934.

“I trained in the first Simpson and after finishing training you came down to earth with a terrible bump.

“No-one was off in the morning because the babies had to be bathed, the mothers attended to and the bedpan round and swabbings. We started at 8am and worked till 8pm, with three hours off in the middle and one half-day per week. No days off.

“Night duty was busy. We had to keep the crying babies quiet so the mothers could sleep. Babies were in cots beside their mothers’ beds. If the baby cried, we lifted it and quieted it.

“I walked every morning from the Old Simpsons to Gorgie, which was my district. There I bathed my babies and dealt with my mothers for about two weeks post-natally. Most of them had a good neighbour who would help. Sometimes we were taken by surprise when a mother was in labour. The worst I had was a face presentation [where the baby was born with its head back]. There were very few deaths of mothers – only one that I knew of. We had just the odd stillbirth.

“You can understand why they wanted to have their babies at home when they had other children. Also, they would be up the next day although they were told to be in bed for two weeks after. Homes all had fathers and many of the fathers were very good at looking after the children.

“There was a lot of unemployment. One night I went to a case in the High Street, a 13th child. They had one room with two double beds where they all slept. The father was unemployed. That was when the High Street houses were really slums.

“We had a lot of lice and fleas. We didn’t have to delouse ourselves because we wore our caps closely on our heads and the whole idea was to keep the lice from your hair. I always remember that night. No blankets on the bed, just covered with old coats. We took a rubber sheet to put under the mother to deliver the baby, and in this house they only had one chair. I bathed the baby in a baking bowl and the next morning I went back with clothes for the baby.”

• Ella Clelland qualified as a midwife in 1958 and worked at the Vert Memorial Hospital in Haddington.

“I was on night duty and I called in a GP from Gullane. He had delivered this girl and her mother before her. He said all was fine but ‘we’ll have to apply the forks’. I thought, what’s he talking about, forks? I went off to boil his instruments and he’d called his son-in-law who was going to give anaesthetic. He asked me for castor oil and dropped two drops in her eyes to protect them.

“Then it dawned on me that he was going to use open mask chloroform, not a practice we saw often. I was ready to put her in stirrups and he said ‘Not at all sister, I have my own technique’. By this time I was very worried. We got her on to her side and I had to hold her leg. The GP was practising how he was going to put on the forceps, and I was now panicking. He put the blades in and he started at that side of the bed and did a manoeuvre and virtually walked all the way round the bed, and I was still holding her leg. We got a beautiful baby, not a mark on him, no tear, and a girl who woke up quickly from the bizarre anaesthetic.”

• Scottish Midwives, 20th century voices by Lindsay Reid is available priced £8.99 from {mailto: blackdevonbooks@btinternet.com|blackdevonbooks@btinternet.com}. Her new book Midwifery in Scotland: A History, is available at a discounted price of £19.95, plus £1.50 postage from Kea Publishing, 14 Flures Crescent, Erskine PA8 7DJ or e-mail {mailto: shp@keapub.fsnet.co.uk|shp@keapub.fsnet.co.uk}