Call the Midwife
by Jennifer Worth
CALL THE MIDWIFE is a wonderful and totally invaluable piece of social history written by a natural story teller.
The midwives of St Raymond Nonnatus were an order of nuns, fully professed and bound by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Nonnatus House practice covered Stepney, Limehouse, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, Cubbitt Town, Poplar, Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel. The midwife-nuns worked tirelessly through epidemics of cholera, typhoid, polio and tuberculosis, long before Penicillin or MMR injections were a fact of life. In the 1940s they endured the intensive bombing of the docklands, delivering babies round the clock in air-raid shelters, dug-outs, church crypts and on the platforms of underground railway stations. These nuns worked amongst the poorest of the poor who could never afford the fee for a doctor to attend the delivery of a baby. Until 1902, when the Royal College of Midwives was established, and secular midwives were trained and regulated, maternal mortality stood at around 30-40% and infant mortality at 60%. The trained nuns of Nonnatus House were devoted to bringing safe childbirth to the poor of London.
Their area was densely populated. Dock labourers and their kin had lived there for generations. Families were close and children were brought up by a widely extended family who lived within a few doors of one another. Doors were never locked except at night and children made free of each others’ houses. They played safely in the small back street where no one owned a car, a television or even a patch of garden. Bomb sites marked DANGER – KEEP OUT were their adventure playgrounds. It was a rough area and there were pub fights, brawls and knifings, but children and old people (and midwives) went unmolested. Dock labourers worked hard and for long hours and only the unions kept them from severe exploitation. They married young and no girl would ever live with her boyfriend: if she became pregnant there was extreme pressure from both families for the couple to marry. Divorce was rare, domestic violence common, contraception very unreliable and most men refused absolutely to wear a condom.
Girls went out to work, but once they married and the babies started coming, anything other than raising a very large family in a very small house was impossible. Laundrettes were unknown and bathrooms very rare – one cold tap and an outside lavatory was the norm.
In the 1960s came the Pill and childbirth fell from 80 or 100 deliveries a month to four or five and slum clearance shattered the extended families. But it was in the 1950s, while the docklands were still fecund and fertile, prodigal and profane, that a 22 year old girl from a respectable county family arrived at Nonnatus House to complete her training in midwifery. Her name was Jennifer Worth and this is her story.