“In honour of the International Day of the Midwife 2016 Midwives Chronicle: The Heritage Blog of the Royal College of Midwives were delighted to launch The Midwife’s Tales Oral History Collection. This unique and colourful series of oral history recordings and transcripts were collected and preserved by Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap while researching and writing their book, The Midwife’s Tale: an Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife.

Now held by the archive of the Royal College of Midwives (U.K.), these interviews with midwives, mothers and their families provide a wonderful insight into early and mid-20th century attitudes towards pregnancy, birth and sex education, as well as detailed and personal reflections on topics ranging from childbirth to post-natal care… The interviews were recorded in the 1980s and early 1990s, providing us a contrast between early and late 20th century attitudes to midwifery, childbirth and the training of midwives in the United Kingdom. During research for their book, Billie and Nicky interviewed mothers as well as midwives and nurses, in order to gain a well rounded picture of pregnancy, childbirth, and pre and post natal care before the NHS.”

Extract of an interview with midwife Florence Wright covering her experience as a midwife, including her training (1938-1939) at Peckham Salvation Army Mother’s Hospital, and memories of her own mother’s role as an untrained midwife in Great Yarmouth.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/9

Extract of an interview with midwife Eve Osborn, recorded in 1986. In this extract Eve describes her experiences working as a midwife on the district in Bexleyheath, in the London Borough of Bexley, during the Second World War.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/8

Esther Silverton was born in Portsmouth in 1916, and trained as a nurse, then midwife, during the Second World War having been largely deprived of educational opportunities earlier in life. Apart from an initial spell in a small maternity hospital, she worked as a district midwife in the working-class area where she grew up, and continued to work as a district midwife after having children. The interview extract below features Esther describing her first delivery as a newly qualified midwife, which took place in an Anderson shelter during an air raid!

Interview reference: RCMS/251/7

Extract of an interview with midwife Mary Wroe covering her experiences as a community midwife. Mary was born in 1908 in a Yorkshire mining village. She was a miner’s daughter and trained as a midwife in 1931 before returning to her home village to practice as an independent midwife. One of the reasons Mary chose to work independently was because she was married. At the time hospitals would not employ married midwives unless they’d been widowed. Her extract covers the kind of equipment she needed to do her job and how her local community saw her.

Interview reference RCMS/251/17

Interview with mother Alice Forrest who gave birth to a son via Caesarean Section in 1937. In this interview clip she speaks about the delivery of her baby in hospital, prenatal exercise, and the attitudes in hospitals towards women who had induced miscarriage. Alice was born in Dulwich, South London in 1903 and was from a well-off, middle-class family.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/1

This interview features mother Edie Martinson who was born in London in 1902 and came from a working-class home. She married in 1920 and had five children between 1920 and 1935, two of them dying in early infancy. Edie had various jobs throughout her life, including washing-up, waitressing, cooking and factory work. This extract from Edie’s interview covers her experience as a young working mother in London including preparations put in place for giving birth in the home and making arrangements for childcare.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/3

The second extract from the interview with retired midwife Esther Silverton recorded in August 1985. In this extract Esther describes the religous tradition of ‘churching’ new mothers, and the relationship between midwives and doctors.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/7

This interview features an extract from an interview with ‘handywoman’ Lily Good.  Lily was born in East London in 1894, the ninth of 18 children and the daughter of a trained midwife. She worked as a handywoman in the London Borough of Bexley for over 50 years and had eight children. Her neighbours would call her to attend them in childbirth, to nurse injuries and to lay out the dead. She was interviewed in 1990 and in this extract she describes what childbirth was like in her community during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and touches on topics including baby clothing and pain relief during labour.

Interview reference: RCMS/251/22

In Britain around the time of the First World War ‘handywoman’ was the name for a woman who attended births, nursed the sick and laid out the dead in her local community. During this period childbirth was not viewed as a medical process typically requiring a doctor and poorer families could rarely afford the necessary medical fees.

Before the Midwives Acts of the early 1900s made it illegal for uncertified women to attend women in childbirth, a handywoman’s main responsibility was midwifery. The medical knowledge and skills these women had were typically passed down from mother to daughter and some handywomen were responsible for overseeing the births of several generations within the same community. While handywoman occupied a vital role within their districts, the lack of medical regulations, formal training and oversight concerning childbirth and post-natal care could also put their patients at risk.

One of the early aims of the Midwives Institute (which later became the Royal College of Midwives) was to replace handywomen with trained professionals and to elevate the status of midwifery as a respected career for women. Under the 1902 Midwives Act no person could ‘habitually and for gain’ attend women in childbirth without the presence of a doctor unless they were a qualified and registered midwife. By the 1930s only a small number of handywomen remained active, most having been replaced by qualified midwives.

A selection of extracts focusing on the question of what it takes to be a good midwife. After sharing anecdotes from their decades of training and experience, five midwives reflect on the strengths and personal qualities someone would need to succeed in midwifery.

Interview references: RCMS/251/6; RCMS/251/7; RCMS/251/19; RCMS/251/5

Transcripts and descriptions of the interviews are freely available online on the Royal College of Midwives website: https://www.rcm.org.uk/midwives-tale-oral-history-collection-transcripts

Audio Interviews Reference copies are accessible at the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 27 Sussex Place, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RG Email: archives@rcog.org.uk

Digital copies of interviews, for research purposes only, are also available remotely through the archive. Write, call or email the Royal College of Midwives to make an enquiry, or to order digital copies (free via Dropbox) for personal and non-commercial research.

© Copyright permission is required for commercial use of audio and/or transcripts. Transcripts and audio files are copyright of the authors Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap.