I recently asked for memories of midwifery and midwives locally, as we haven’t much historical record in that vitally important area. To my immense gratitude, David Oakley – an exiled Walsall Wood mon whose comments here have done so much to illuminate our history – has come up trumps.
David has written a beautiful piece, just as he did regarding the House of Prayer, which I’m sure will bring memories flooding back to many readers.
It’s also a stark reminder of what life was like before the NHS. I think we ignore this at our peril.
Thanks to David, I really am indebted.
Your recent comment about the Brownhills midwife, Mrs. McCarthy, set me thinking about Walsall Wood midwives and the whole business of pregnancy in the 1930s, pre-dating the NHS and other methods of care and assistance that have become available in the intervening years.
My own mother gave birth to five babies in the interval between 1927 and 1940, including me, all delivered by Nurse McGuire of Beechtree Road. The other local midwife was Nurse Lee from Shire Oak.
Both rode bicycles, with details of the next baby to be delivered securely fastened in the ‘black gaberdine bag’ which was mouinted on the carrier. The birth saga began in our house in the following manner…
My mother began to visit the clinic held at the Methodist schoolroom (now the church), every Wednesday afternoon. As mom was a little anaemic, due to poor diet and hard work, she would often arrive back home with a tin of Prenatalac, or Emalac or Colac, which I think was supplied at a subsidised price. There was no free medication in those days.
These were milk-based preparations with perhaps a few vitamins thrown in. Nearer the time, a sealed letter was sent to Nurse McGuire, by hand, and the nurse would make a casual appearance soon after that. Us kids were always sent out of the room. Dr Roberts would make an appearance sometime before the birth, don’t know how he knew, but I suppose he had a close liaison with Nurse McGuire on such matters. Meantime, mom’s bed was moved downstairs.
Wheh the birth was imminent, although we kids never knew that , someone would take a message to Nurse McGuire, and mom would be working very hard to do all the jobs in the home to leave everything OK during her confinement, which consisted of ten days, back then.
A neighbour was always on hand to assist with the birth. Most localities were very fortunate in having a lady who was used to doing that. Mom knew the early signs of labour and sent a message to the nurse, who already alerted by the earlier message was, with the aid of her bicycle, often back at the house before the messenger.
For a daytime birth, we kids were sent out to play, for a night birth we were tucked up in bed, until we heard the wail of the newborn baby. Sometime after that, Dad would come into the bedroom, or call us in to the house if we were outside. We would troop in, a little hesitantly, and approach the bed. There would be Mom in a fresh nightdress, looking tired but happy, cradling a little person in her arms. We would kiss mom, then would kiss the baby’s head, both smelling of Dettol and Johnson’s Baby powder, to welcome the tiny sibling into the family, although I confess that my thoughts would be concentrated on just where would he sit at the dining table. Things were getting somewhat crowded.
Nurse McQuire, pleased and triumphant at a successful delivery, more of a friend of the family than a nurse would then launch into her own homily of caring for mom while she was confined. She would utter dire threats to anyone who defaulted on the domestic jobs needed to keep things running – Nurse McQuire was a big woman in every sense and was well equipped to carry out these threats. But try as we might, things soon got pear shaped. Mom had been heard to say more than once, ‘A well isn’t missed until it runs dry!’ Our well soon ran very dry indeed !
Dad was not very clever at housekeeping and was a rubbish cook, and for ten days chaos reigned. The ten day confinement to bed was perhaps okay in some households, but didn’t work for us. After two or three days, mom, looking helpless from her bed, took things into her own hands to restore domestic order and used to get up, in nightdress and dressing gown, to perform essential tasks, darting back into bed when warned of a visit from either the nurse or the doctor.
I don’t how Nurse McGuire was reimbursed, but the doctor sent in his bill for attendance. Happily, this was always accepted in instalments and he employed a ‘doctor’s man’ as we called him to tour the village taking weekly repayments for his professional services.
Need I say that by the time one debt was repaid, another was on the horizon.