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 By the 1930s only a small number of handywomen remained active, most having been replaced by qualified midwives.