The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times
By Jennifer Worth
Penguin Books $18.50
This is the true story of a young woman of 22 years who served as a midwife in England during the 1950s.
She was trained and worked out of a Catholic convent in the heart of London, serving in such areas as Stepney, Limehouse, the Isle of Dogs, Cubitt Town, Mile End and Whitechapel.
These were areas of great poverty and large families.
Sites of devastation from the bombing, and the streets, were the playgrounds for the large numbers of children.
The docks were close by and the employment was often casual.
Fighting and drunkenness were common, but the midwife doing her rounds through the streets was treated with respect and greeted cheerfully.
The midwives, from the convent called Nonnatus House travelled from job to job by bicycle, often going many miles in a day.
Homes had to be assessed by these women, to establish whether home births were reasonably safe; sometimes they were not and then a hospital delivery was warranted. Money shortages meant most babies were born at home.
She tells of one family who had 24 children and the author delivered the twenty-fifth: a preemie not expected to live. How the baby survives is an amazing tale.
There are many interesting characters and stories told here, but the book is also a reminder of the great difficulty of life in Britain after the war.
The author describes the great crowds of people jammed into substandard housing, some of which had been condemned for habitation, but lived in non- the less.
The women in the convent are equally interesting, brought from many walks of life to do the job at hand, either from a religious conviction, or like the author, because she loved nursing.
Sister Monica Joan, a very elderly nun, had been well born, and now, after a lifetime of service needed more care than she gave. Her eccentricity is treated with respect and kindness.
Sister Evangelina, was born and raised in these same streets she now served. She knows the people; their cheeriness and their heartbreak.
Her care of old Mrs. Jenkins, who lost her children and her wits in the workhouse, is a tale right out of Dickens. These were not the days of welfare and medicare, the poor suffered in unimaginable ways.
The tales of prostitution are very distressing.
This life, of delivering babies, in all sorts of conditions, is not without humour, and Sister Evangelina is not above using flatulence jokes, to loosen the tension in a family crisis.
There are many lighthearted times related by the author.
In the 1950s these women delivered 80 to 100 births a month, by 196’s (and the pill) that number had dropped to four or five.
The people of these areas were poor but valiant, coping as best they could; the nurses and midwives made their lives very much better.
An interesting and heart wrenching tale.
Peggy Freeman reviews books for the Advocate.