Nurse, midwife and health visitor before and after the start of the NHS. Part Two. (2013)

Location : London, Leicester, Norwich

PART 2. 1952 – Call the Midwife!

then, after a gap, when my mother was ill and died, I started my midwifery
training in 1952. And I went to Leicester. I think the hospital was just called
Bond Street, Leicester. Anyway, it was a
most peculiar hospital, because it was made out of several houses put together,
so there was a big, long corridor on the top floor (it was only two floors),
and it was all uneven – you went down slopes and up slopes, and all sorts of
things (chuckles). And we had a very nice nurses’ home but we didn’t use
that very much because a lot of us were house in another sort of old cottagey
complex, right by the side of the hospital, and only a very few people slept in
this nurses’ home. And, sadly, the matron who interviewed me, had died in the
meantime, before I took up my training, so the Ass. Mat. was in charge for all
the time I was there, and she really was a most horrid woman. And again, we had
rotten food. And I actually got a boil there – I’d never had a boil before in
my life. And then one day, one of my colleagues and I went out, and we bought
ourselves some salad and really good food off the market, and we went into the
nurses’ home, the proper nurse’s home, and we sat and ate it. And when the Ass.
Mat. heard about that, she said that we were never to do that again. So that
was pretty awful. But apart from that, I seem to remember that I quite enjoyed
the training.

long was the training?

months, that was six months. You did two parts midwifery training – six months
in hospital, and then I’ll come to the other six months in a minute. So, I was
there for six months, and yes, we learnt all the basics about childbirth and
delivery and everything there. I quite enjoyed it there really. And as I say,
after mothers had had a baby, we had to push them along this wonky corridor
back to their room (chuckles). And in those days people stayed in
hospital for about ten days after they’d had a baby. I don’t remember too much more
about that. But you then did six months second part midwifery training, which
you could do in hospital or on the district, and I wanted for some reason to do
it on the district. And Norwich was one of two places in the country I could do
that, so that’s how I came to Norwich, under the supervision of a very nice
midwife. The first thing she told me, when she met me was “Remember, when
we go into other people’s homes, we are always their guests.” and I have
never forgotten that in all the years I’ve been going in and out of people’s
homes. I think the very first case that I went out to, I got myself into a spot
of trouble from the doctor who was there, because it was a forceps delivery and
I was not used to having a doctor set up sterile towels and things in a small
bedroom (chuckles), so I managed to catch the corner of one (laughs).
He wasn’t that mad, but he just pointed it out that that wasn’t the right thing
to do. But, under [the midwife’s] guidance, I soon got quite comfortable about
delivering babies. So I did that six months.

think I can remember one funny thing that happened then was she was off duty,
and another midwife was standing in for her, and I got called out to a patient
who was very near to where our nurses’ home was – that was at 4 Earlham Road,
where the Plantation Garden is – well that house, there. We didn’t know
anything about that garden being under it there, that was all covered up. But
that house was our nurses’ home. We had a very good cook there too. And I went
out to this patient, who, as I say, lived very near to there. And the baby came
so quickly that I had delivered it before this relief midwife walked in. And
she walked in, sort of amazed, and sort of as if I ought to have held the baby
back ’til she came! I didn’t quite see how I could have done that! (laughs).
It was fine anyway.

I really enjoyed that six months working under her guidance. She obviously gave
less and less guidance as we went on. So, in the end I passed my midwifery
exam, I became a qualified midwife. And I went on living at 4 Earlham Road for
a bit. And in those days we were on call 24/7, and we had 24 hours off one
week, and 48 hours off the next week. And I think I should have mentioned
earlier, that when I was doing my nurse training, we probably only had a
fortnight’s holiday a year. By the time I was doing midwifery it might have
gone up to three weeks a year, I can’t quite remember, but it gradually went up
as I went on working, to a month, and then eventually to this marvellous six
weeks. Now, when we were doing midwifery, we did not get any time in lieu for
bank holidays or anything like that. We tried to work it out that if you worked
Christmas Day one year, you did not work it the next year, but you obviously
couldn’t always work that out, and I have been called out in the middle of my
Christmas lunch to resuscitate a baby. Fortunately by the time I got there it
didn’t need resuscitating (laughs). It was alright.

apart from that I really, really enjoyed it, because you really got to know people.
We got to know them antenatally – we had very good antenatal clinics. In fact,
I think in Norwich, we were far in advance of the rest of the country, with our
antenatal clinics. They came to several talks, antenatally as well. From when
they first booked, we saw them on a six-weekly basis, and then it got to
fortnight, and then when they got to 36 weeks, once a week after that. In those
days mothers could book a doctor if they wished, but they didn’t have to book a
doctor, so we did not always have doctors booked. So you could be out at any
time of the day or night, on your own, with the complete responsibility of the
two people’s lives – the mother and the baby. And, one thing we did have was
gas and air – right from when I first started training we had gas and air. We
carried the gas and air on the handle-bars of our bikes, and our big cases with
all the other equipment in (the forceps, and we used to give enemas in those
days too, to mothers before they had their babies if there was time, and syringes
and well, everything else we needed, kidney dishes and everything), on the
back. It was actually quite a heavy case, because it was a big leather case, a
very strong case in itself before you put anything in it. When we got home
after a delivery, no matter how tired we were, that all had to be cleaned out,
and we had to boil all the instruments up again at home, and put clean linings
in the cases. We weren’t responsible for the laundering of these linings or
anything like that, but we had to put clean linings in. We also boiled all the
instruments up in the patient’s house, before we delivered the baby, but of
course, they all had to be perfectly clean already, in case you didn’t have
time to do that.

read that one of the minimum requirements (particularly thinking of the East
End and the ‘Midwife Era’), was a useable toilet, and running water. Did that
apply in Norwich as well?

well, running water definitely, a useable toilet mostly, but we still had in
Norwich then, some back-to-back houses where they literally had only one toilet
for six houses. Now, I do not remember ever delivering a baby in one of those,
but I certainly went out to a miscarriage, in one of those one day. There were
all sorts of things that happened that are a bit strange, whilst you’re in
midwifery. For instance, the first thing I better say is, a lot of the GPs were
excellent obstetricians as well, and one in particular stands out in my mind,
who was absolutely brilliant. But there was another doctor, who was quite an
elderly doctor at the time, who we absolutely worshipped. His name was Doctor D.
And he was doing a forceps delivery in a house which was very old, and it did
have quite a big room in it, and I think part of it was a bakery. And, he’d
given the anaesthetic to this woman and it wasn’t her first baby either, so I
can’t remember why she needed a forceps delivery. [Actually I gave the anaesthetic under his supervision – chloroform I
think.] And I suddenly said “What are all those spots on her
arm?” and he just looked at me and he said, well, “Fleas.” And
I’d never come across fleas before (laughs). That was my first induction
to fleas! But she was a very nice person, yes, I enjoyed visiting her. But that
was just one of those things in those days.

I delivered babies in all sorts of houses, from quite wealthy people, to the
poorest of the poor. A lot of people in those days did not have central
heating, so we were managing with very smelly oil stoves, or sometimes in
bedrooms there was a little corner grate. I expect modern people haven’t seen
corner grates, but I know we have them in our house at home, and of course
they’re very small, so they don’t give out a great deal of heat. And, talking
about water, there was one time, and I was there probably in 1962, when they
say was the last coldest spell, when a lot of the taps were frozen, and people
were getting the water from standpipes. And, at that time we had to tell
everybody, when they were getting nearly to be in due, to keep their baths full
of water, so that we would have plenty of water to use, for the delivery. And
they did too, yes. I am now presuming that they all had baths – I can’t
remember what happened if any of them didn’t have baths. Because some of them
would not have done; they would have had tin baths still, even in that time.
But the majority had baths.

other strange thing about that time, is of course, they were building council
houses, and so quite a lot of people of these slum-clearance houses, into
council houses, but they had very, very little furniture to put in them, so
they looked extremely bare. And I can always remember, once being sent
somewhere right off my particular district, to a further away part of Norwich,
where there were new council houses, and they had no sheets or pillow cases on
the bed, and I’d never met anybody who hadn’t got that before. And then after
the delivery, the husband brought me a cup of tea – I mean, it was ritual to
bring the mother and the midwife a cup of tea after the baby was born – but he
didn’t bother to ask if I took sugar or not, and the tea – you could have stood
the spoon up in it! (chuckles) And of course, I don’t take sugar! (laughs)
But, on that occasion I couldn’t get the car to start, when I left. Now, not
only did that husband come out and give me a push-start, but men from all the
houses all round came out. They all gave me a push to start off the car. That’s
how people were in those days.

we were on our bicycles and when we were in our uniforms, we were completely
safe. We were totally, absolutely and utterly safe when we were in uniform. And
our uniform then, unfortunately in those days, we did not wear trousers, and we
only had these thin dresses, so we could get quite cold at times, but we could
have cardigans over them. And we had grey coats and grey hats, more like the
ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] hats, I think, in shape. And, it was
most essential that you wore your hat, and if I was caught by our midwifery
supervisor without one on, I was in trouble. And I hated wearing hats! (laughs).

the whole that was a very great time. There were some sad things that happened,
but mostly it was glad things. And everybody loves you if you bring their new
baby into the world, and you feel part of the family at that time, and I don’t
think there’s any better feeling on Earth than to deliver a fit and healthy
baby to parents. At that time fathers did not come into the room when the baby
was being delivered, but when I got towards the end of doing district
midwifery, this had started to change, and so one father was present at
one delivery. And, of course the doctor, who was present with me at that time,
thought that was a rotten idea, and this flipping father went and passed out (chuckles).
He gave the doctor a good chance to say ‘I told you so’! (laughs) But we
did have fathers coming to one of the antenatal classes by that time, so they
had a little idea of what was going on, so that they could support their wives.
We’d be talking early ’60s by now.

sad things – the worst, really awful thing that happened to me – and this is
where I think Miranda Hart was an excellent actress, where she did the bit with
the breach delivery on her own. It wasn’t a breach delivery when I came into
trouble. The baby’s head was showing, and the mother was pushing like mad, when
she suddenly collapsed. And, no telephone, no mobile in those days, no phone in
the house, so apart from trying to deliver a live baby, which I managed to do,
I had to get the husband to go and ring the doctor, who was not booked and therefore
might not have even known this person was pregnant, to come as quickly as he
could, without making the husband so scared that he couldn’t go to the phone.
Anyway, it worked, because I think it was the doctor’s lunchtime and most
doctors worked from their homes in those days, so he was there pretty quickly.
Meantime I just did exactly what we’d been taught, which was just to push on
the abdomen when the contractions came, to push the baby down, and I did
manage to deliver a live baby. And of course, I was very worried about the
mother, because we didn’t have oxygen or anything to give mothers. In fact at
one point we did start taking round tiny canisters of oxygen that we could give
a baby if we needed to but obviously not for the mother. And we didn’t have
paramedics or anything like that in those days. So the doctor came out and
assessed the situation, and then he called the consultant from the hospital,
and the consultant from the hospital came out. Her lung had collapsed, so the
consultant asked me if I would stay until the ambulance came, and of course I
said yes, I would. [She actually had a
pulmonary embolism.] So she went off to hospital and I think that,
probably, relatives looked after the baby. But, as I wasn’t her midwife, I was
relieving somebody else at the time, of course I didn’t know what happened
after that. But I did hear later on from her midwife that she did survive, so
that was something. But that was the worst experience I ever had. I think
Miranda played that brilliantly because you just do exactly what you’ve been
taught to do, you just don’t let any nerves or anything show at all. It was a
huge responsibility.

other thing that was a huge responsibility was that we used to have two things
drawn up; we used to have Ergometrine drawn up for the mother to give after the
baby was born, and we used to have vitamin K drawn up for the baby. And if you
were there, in the middle of the night, all by yourself, and perhaps had been
up the night before as well, it would have been very easy to give the baby the
Ergometrine, in which case you would have killed it, so it really was a
terrific responsibility. And when you hear these cases of the wrong thing being
given – I never did do that, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult to do.
The length of time you spent in somebody’s house varied tremendously, because
if it was a first baby, you might be there for quite a long time. Obviously in
very early labour you went away again and then went back later. But sometimes,
with some first babies, you were in the house an awful long time, maybe even as
long as 12 hours or more. And a lot of labours took more than 24 hours anyway,
and some of them had to go into hospital eventually. Most of that time you’d
have been on your own. Obviously it was the doctor’s decision to send the
patient into hospital.

two occasions I was accompanied to a confinement [the concluding state of
pregnancy] by the police. On one occasion it was because the mother was not
booked, nobody knew she was having a baby. And, the husband had delivered the
baby already and he’d even cut the cord. And the reason why the police escorted
me there was because, I’d gathered, that somewhere upstairs, in a bedroom,
there was a room full of furs and things, and the police were after them. And
the police said they’d got to promise that they’d give me free access whenever
I needed to call in the next ten days (because we used to visit for ten days
then). And the other, was for a brothel I had to go to. The first time I went
to this brothel was because one of the prostitutes had become pregnant. I mean
there was no pill in those days. I was greeted by the brothel owner – I’ll just
call her Kitty – and the first thing she said to me was that she’d eaten
midwives for breakfast! (laughs) I was a very young midwife in those
days, but even so, I was not put off by her. Eventually it came to this girl’s
confinement, and the baby was delivered satisfactorily, but soon after that it
was taken into care, so that was the end of that one. Well then, again, I was
escorted by the police to this brothel, and this same girl had had a baby,
which she said she’d had so suddenly, and it had been pushed out so quickly
that they couldn’t do anything about it. Well, when I saw the baby I just
didn’t believe it, because that baby was a beautiful little girl and she looked
as if she had breathed, I have no idea what happened about the inquest, or a
post-mortem or anything, I never heard anything about that. So, that was that
one. But then Kitty’s own daughter was expecting, I believe it was her third
baby. But whatever one said about Kitty, she loved her daughter and she loved
her grandchildren. And I actually spent all night with her daughter, having her
third baby. Well, after that, Kitty couldn’t do enough for me (laughs).
I was in her really good books after that! (laughs)

you think that Kitty actually had delivered some of the babies herself?

I think she probably had, I just don’t know. It’s quite possible that she had.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised. You see there was nothing these girls could do,
because there was no pill and their clients weren’t going to use a sheath, were
they? No form of contraception, nothing to save them. And this poor girl, I
mean, I’d gathered she’d been brought up in the gutters somewhere, in one of
the big towns up north, and she’d had no life at all. I don’t expect she ever
did have any sort of life. It’s absolutely appalling.

other thing is that I was too naive at that age. If I was called out for a
miscarriage, it never occurred to me for one minute that it might have been an
induced miscarriage. Probably some of them were. I do remember one miscarriage,
which is now rather awful when you’re looking at it in the light of today’s
advances, because this lady was not yet 28 weeks pregnant, and a baby was not
considered viable until 28 weeks pregnancy, and she might have been 25 or 26
weeks. And this baby, a long, skinny thing came out and he was breathing and I
put him in a kidney dish and we just watched him sort of gasp and breathe his
last. Whereas today she could have been in hospital and the baby could have
been in an incubator, and that baby might very well have survived. So that was
rather an awful thing. But most of the deliveries were a joy, and it was great
to be with the family at that time when they were delivered.

were you actually involved with the removal of children from young girls?

it was the health visitor and the social worker that would have been involved
with that. I’m sure the health visitor must have known beforehand that she was
expecting the baby. And the social services would have been involved with the
removal of the baby. Yes, that goes on to when I was health visiting. When I
was first health visiting, of course there were far more mothers at home with
their children than there are now. And they did a survey to find out who was
referring most children to the social services, and it was actually health
visitors who were doing it. And I don’t know what’s happened to the health
visiting service now, quite honestly. Don’t know how they’re trained or
anything. We had very close links with the social services; in fact the last
social worker I worked with was absolutely brilliant.

you can see, actually, some things haven’t changed for the better?

things have ­not­ changed for the better. I can’t say that mothers should
be at home, looking after their children, but I think if they want to, they
certainly should be able to, they should have enough finance to be able to
afford to if they want to if they want to look after their own children.

went back into hospital for three years during midwifery when I got too tired
on the district, and I didn’t enjoy that at all, because I felt it was like
battery hens actually. We didn’t know anybody before they came, we didn’t know
anything about them. And I did not enjoy that, and that’s why I decided to do
health visiting. Because when I was doing district midwifery, we had a very
good health visitor who covered the same areas as I did. And I realised she
knew far more of the background and the lives of the people than I did, so that
encouraged me to do my health visitor’s training.

1967 – health visitor
and school nurse

we’re now well into the ’60s?

I became a health visitor in Autumn 1967, so I’d obviously started training as
a health visitor in Autumn 1966. And I went to Leicester. I don’t know what
health visitors do for their training now, but I went to Leicester University,
and we had lectures from a sociologist and a psychologist, and also very good
lectures on child development from a woman paediatrician who had a young child
of her own, so she understood children perfectly. And of course, we had sister
tutors that gave us other lectures. The other thing was that we were trained to
be health visitors and school nurses. So we had to be able to give talks
to school children, and we were monitored doing that as well. One of the
professors who gave us lectures, I think it was the one who lectured us on
sociology, he said that at the end of nine months, we had learnt more than a
lot of university students learnt in two years (chuckles). It was pretty
hard-going. I was with another friend – we lodged together in an old lady’s
house – and we came home at weekends, and we spent most of the weekend writing
essays. So, we weren’t like university students, we didn’t have all the time
off they had, and when we were there, we were either having lectures or, one
day a week, we went out with a health visitor, which was quite interesting in
Leicester, because I hadn’t come into contact much with the Caribbean/black
population, so it was quite interesting to meet a more varied sort of

then we came back to Norwich and we spent three months working on the district
under the supervision of a health visitor, before we took our exam, and then we
became fully qualified health visitors. Well, I mean we had taken all the
written exams while we were still at Leicester. And then they just had to say
that we were qualified. And the first ten years I think we were employed by the
local authorities, still, so I was employed by Norfolk County Council. And we
were school nurses and health visitors which meant I saw them from when they
were just ten days old, and some of them I knew about after they left school
even, and if I met their parents I could ask how they were doing, which was
very, very nice.

had clinics, mostly in church halls or village halls, and we used to have
voluntary helpers who came to our clinics and made tea for the mothers and us,
so as well as coming and talking to us, the mothers, you know, had a nice
little conversation, it was a little afternoon outing for them as well. We
visited them at their home at first of course, and we visited them as much or
as little as they needed visiting. Now there seem to be too many laws laid down
about when they should visit, and when they shouldn’t. Well, we had some
families who hardly needed health visitors at all, in fact some from whom I
learnt quite a lot about bringing up children – tips I could pass on to other
people, and of course, other people who were, well, totally dysfunctional
families, and those people used to get a lot more input from me and I
think from my colleagues as well. And, in fact, I did something that upset the
doctor I was attached to, severely, because I used to go to several of them on
a Friday afternoon, deliberately to make sure they’d got enough money to feed
the children on for the weekend. Only when it came back on him with something,
he said “Why ever did you have to go on a Friday afternoon?” (laughs).
Because not so many mothers went out to work or if they did, they certainly
didn’t go out so early, it was much nicer – you could really see them grow up,
and I loved child development and I loved watching children grow up. And, in
fact, when I went to a health visitors conference, there was one test we were
given just for fun – somebody got up and stated exactly what a particular child
do, and then we had to guess the child’s age, and I was the only one there who
guessed the child’s age accurately (chuckles). So, I loved watching
children grow up.

can’t really criticise today’s colleagues because I haven’t met them and I
don’t know what sort of training they have, but from some of the things they’ve
said to my great-nieces, and a friend of mine’s daughter, I really think they
do make some very odd remarks. I didn’t tend to be too prescriptive about what
they should do and what they shouldn’t do, except when it came to very definite
things like when they should be immunised etcetera. I was more likely to say,
if somebody had got a particular problem, “Well have you thought of trying
such-and-such or such-and-such, that might work”, because, in my view, all
parents, and all babies, and all children are different to everyone else, and
you cannot make a law that says you’ve got to do this, that or the other with
your child. I just don’t think that’s right. In fact I’ve had this with my two
great-nieces recently, because one of them has a husband who comes in at a
regular time every evening, so they can get their little boy down and settled
to bed at a set time and then have their evening meal after that; the other one
has a husband who is a herdsman on a farm, and he often doesn’t get in ’til
half past seven in the evening, and she sometimes helps him clear up, and
leaves the little girl in her buggy whilst she’s doing it, and so she has a
completely different sort of routine. She was saying to me on the phone one day
“I can’t get into a routine like my sister does, Auntie”, and I said
“Well, she’s in the routine that suits her, and you’re in the routine
that’s right for you, and there is no one right that suits every
individual.” As long as the child is happy. That is the main thing – as
long as the child is happy. We had very good liaison with people like the
speech therapist, we had an excellent speech therapist. And the doctor I was
attached to at the time was saying that middle-class parents really didn’t need
health visitors. Well I can assure you that some professional parents did, because
if they’d got worries with their children, they wouldn’t want to tell their
friends in case the friends thought the children were backward. But they would
tell me, and I can remember one case – a little girl we referred for
speech therapy, and in fact there was nothing wrong with the child at all. She
was three, it was all in her head but she hadn’t decided to speak yet, and in
fact she was a very intelligent child who’s been through university since then (chuckles).
But that was a speech therapist who found that out in no time at all. And in
another case a speech therapist might have found out that the child was
slightly deaf or something, and referred the child on. Because we used to do
hearing tests when the children could sit up – it wasn’t like it is now with
all the modern equipment, which I do know about because I’ve got hearing aids
myself – and we had the babies sitting up, and two of us went, and we had a
rattle, and one or two other things that made noises as well, sort of slightly
behind the baby. One person would be in front of the baby, distracting the
baby, and another person behind. But one little boy was so bright that he
managed to out-manoeuvre us, and it wasn’t until much later on, when he was
about four, that he was discovered to be profoundly deaf. And his parents and
his brother were nearly going up the wall because they couldn’t work out what
was the matter with him, and I went and sat in his parents’ house one day and
looked out of the window – he was playing on a tricycle outside, and the things
he was imagining he could do with that tricycle, well I thought “There’s
nothing wrong with that child’s intelligence whatsoever”, and I referred
him to the speech therapist and she very quickly got him on to an audiologist,
and he was profoundly deaf. But he’d been so clever – he’d defeated everybody,
even the teacher in school he almost defeated, because if she looked at him and
said “Simon, go and close the door”, he would do it because he’d
taught himself to lip-read (chuckles). But I did meet that mum quite a
few times, even after he was an adult, so I knew how he was getting on.

was a very varied job then!

a very, very varied job. But now, if the education people take over at
age two, I wouldn’t enjoy that at all. I was health visiting for approximately
20 years and for about the first ten it was the local authority, and after that
it was the National Health Service. And then school nursing was passed over to
somebody else, so we just did health visiting. And I still enjoyed it, but I
think I enjoyed it more when I was doing school nursing as well.

strikes me that you preferred to be in a situation where you had a large remit
and a lot of decision-making.

it didn’t worry me because if I was in school all day, which I was sometimes
was (because when I first started we did actually did have to do some nit
nursing as well, but they pretty soon stopped that – we had to teach parents
how to do that themselves; they could go to the chemist and buy something), but
if I was in school all day, and there were one or health visiting visits which
needed to be done that day, I was quite happy to go off and do them in my lunch
hour. And there was one school I visited where they had a very good cook, where
they always invited me to stay for lunch, and that was lovely! (laughs)

The health service then and now

when you compare your career with the careers people have now, what would you

say although we worked far more hours, I think it was much better because we
had much more contact with people as individuals. One thing one of my
great-nieces tells me now is that she doesn’t even see the same health visitors
twice, so nobody can give her consistency. And if that is really happening then
I’m sorry, I think it’s bonkers. So I think from that point of view, we were
much better. Even though we worked harder and got tireder, I think it was much
better. But of course, the other thing you do have to remember is that there
were not many married nurses or midwives. There were some married health
visitors by the time I was heath visiting, yes, but there weren’t many married
nurses, and in fact I don’t remember a single married midwife. Because they
simply couldn’t have coped with a family with the hours we worked. And I remember
one married staff nurse when I was in hospital, who was in casualty, and that
was the only married person I knew! (chuckles) That’s partly why so many
of us haven’t got married I think. Then of course, the other reason is because
after the war we’d lost several million men, hadn’t we, of the sort who would
have been of the marriageable age to us. But we didn’t worry about it. I’m
quite happy to be an aunt, a great-aunt and a great-great-aunt (laughs). [I
have no regrets – I did exactly what I chose to do.]

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.

Comments are closed.