Call the (real) Christmas midwives

By Moira Petty, Friday 21 December 2012

As we look forward to BBC One’s Call the Midwife seasonal special, four veterans of the Fifties era recall their own yuletide deliveries, when forceps and a few coppers for the phone box were tools of the trade.
Mary Cronk with a small client in 1960In 1960, midwife Mary Cronk has a nose encounter with one of her little clients

In the Fifties, as the BBC One drama series Call the Midwife so compulsively chronicles, home births were commonplace, unlike today. The midwife was a respected figure, pedalling furiously to the expectant woman’s side with her famous black box containing not much more than basic pain relief, forceps, scissors and a towel, soap and nail brush. The mystique of her role was strangely enhanced by the absence of sophisticated medical equipment, or, often, not even access to a home telephone should a crisis arise. Her absorption into the family, whom she would visit for up to 14 days after the birth, was natural and heart-warming.

‘I always felt birth was a miracle and never became blasé,’ recalls Mary Cronk, who trained as a midwife in 1955 and was awarded an MBE in 1998 for services to midwifery. ‘And to have a Christmas baby was really lovely.’

Tapping into that sentiment, BBC One has filmed a Christmas special of their hit period drama. Mixing spirituality with the messy but uplifting business of giving birth in impoverished East London, the show reflects the Christmas message. Expect tears, laughter and a seasonal sprinkling of snow.

Mary remembers those Christmas births. ‘We midwives used to compete as to who would deliver a baby on Christmas Day, so I was torn in two directions after I had my own three children. I was called out once on Christmas Day just as I was about to dish up lunch to the family and I thought, “Oh no!” The labour was well advanced and I was away for only two to three hours. When I came home, the washing up was waiting for me.

‘The mother said, “I’m awfully sorry to call you out today”. The other children were excited and wanted to show me all their Christmas presents. Then grandma took them out of the room. They came back in later to see the new baby and clustered around to help me bathe it. One passed the cotton wool, another the soap, the third the baby powder. It was simply a lovely thing to be part of.

‘One Christmas baby was named Noel. Families would often offer me a Christmas drink, maybe a glass of sherry, to wet the baby’s head.’

Jennifer Worth’s memoir, on which Call the Midwife is based, is a snapshot of midwifery at a time of monumental change. The newly established NHS ran a campaign in the Fifties to encourage women to give birth in hospital. However, securing a bed was often difficult so home labour was not unusual for low-risk mothers until well into the Sixties.

‘Midwives had amazing autonomy until midwifery services began to be accessed through the GP,’ explains Billie Hunter, Professor of Midwifery at Cardiff University. ‘She had great status and was very visible in the community. In the aftermath of the war, it is easy to think that women were press-ganged into having their babies in hospital but actually many working-class homes were grim.’

Doing the ‘on the district’ part of her training in Paisley, near Glasgow, Mary was quickly made all too aware of the deprivation. ‘I would make an ante-natal visit to see if the surroundings were suitable.

‘A bathroom with hot and cold running water was a luxury. They would drink out of jam jars or cups without handles but would always manage to borrow a cup and saucer for the midwife.

‘They would also need to beg a sheet for the birth as the bed was often covered only in blankets and old coats. We would spread tarred paper, the equivalent of today’s plastic sheets, on the bed and later wrap the placenta in it for burning.

‘Quite often a young neighbour would appear asking if she could stay because there was a legend that if the afterbirth popped and crackled, someone else in the room would have a baby within a year.’

Mary’s portable kit included urine- and blood-testing equipment (‘very rough and ready’) and, in the days before ultrasound scans and the like, a foetal stethoscope. ‘We were taught how to listen to the baby’s heartbeat. I also carried shillings for the electricity meter and pennies for the phone box.

‘I tried to encourage the father to be there but it was frowned upon. His place was in the kitchen, making the tea, or he’d have already gone out. The women were quite stoical and those having home births seemed to suffer less pain. I comforted them, held them and was very empathetic.’

Mary, who practised as a district midwife in Twickenham and on the Isle of Wight before moving to Sussex as an independent midwife, delivering more than 1,600 babies, adds, ‘The skill in midwifery is knowing just when to be hands-on and when to sit on your hands.’

Retired midwife Mary White, vibrant at 88, has vivid memories of her ‘on the district’ training in Norwich in 1947 and how she would be greeted with the cry: ‘The midwife has arrived!’

‘Babies often came at night. Once, the phone rang at 4.30am and an anxious granny told me to hurry. I set out on my bike with the two nitrous oxide cylinders [gas and air pain relief] clanking in my handlebar basket. Every time I turned a corner, the cylinders would swing to the side and nearly unseat me. I passed a policeman who stared at me.

‘My “patch” was a new housing estate 20 minutes’ ride away. I saw granny madly waving her apron. Protective newspaper had been put over the mattress and a sterile biscuit tin of pads and dressings was ready. When the baby was born, he was weighed in a nappy using a spring weighing device.

‘His two sisters came in to welcome him. What a joyous occasion! The following morning at 5am I was on another call when I met the same policeman. “Can’t you sleep?” he called out.’

This particular call turned out to be extraordinary. ‘When I delivered the baby, I soon realised there was a second baby there, hiding behind the other. It was much smaller than the first and looked about six weeks premature.’ Mary diagnosed a rare case of superfetation, in which an egg is fertilised when a woman is already pregnant, resulting in babies at different stages of gestation. Both baby boys survived.

Mary, who is writing her memoirs, joined Queen Mary’s Maternity Home in Hampstead, north London.

Apart from a consultant who visited weekly, the establishment was entirely run by midwives. ‘I took a class for fathers, demonstrating the use of gas and air and they’d think I was going to fall off the couch. I’d tell them to give their wives breakfast in bed and look after them.’

The Fifties regime could not have been more different than at today’s maternity units. ‘First thing, all the day and night staff gathered around the piano for hymns which wafted along the corridor and set us up for the day. All our mothers stayed in bed for the first seven days after giving birth and they breast-fed every four hours from 6am to 10pm – there was no feeding on demand.

‘We swabbed down the mothers, did a breast inspection and made beds. The babies were in the nursery and we would change their nappies and sit in a row bathing them, letting them sit up and gurgle at each other.

‘The mothers were given the most marvellous food, encouraged to rest in the afternoon and there were limited visiting hours, when children weren’t allowed and no one was permitted to sit on the beds. After a week, the mothers would go to another department to learn to look after their babies but they’d be in dressing gowns all day.

‘Christmas was an amazing time. We put on our own show for the mums and dads. I remember matron and a six-foot-tall, Dutch sister dressed as premature babies, and doing a ballet. Once, I had to deliver a Christmas baby and then get into my padded costume to play the mother of triplets in our version of The Mikado.’

After she married in 1953, Mary spent Christmas with her family. ‘Until I had my twins in 1957, it seemed very quiet and I would sigh and wish I was back at Queen Mary’s,’ she smiles.

Marriage soon after she completed her midwifery training in 1958 meant that Sheila Booth, now 78, didn’t actually practise as a midwife; such were the social attitudes of the time. But she fondly recalls that year based first at the General Lying-In Hospital, attached to St Thomas’, London, and then ‘on the district’ in the Old Kent Road area. ‘I was out on my bike in all weathers in an inadequate gabardine mac and beret. Although we were young girls, carrying analgesics such as pethidine, often in the middle of the night, we always felt safe. Children would be playing in the tenements and I’d prop my bike in the passageway and they’d offer to look after it.

‘At the Peabody Trust flats, families would share one tap on the landing but it never detracted from the magic of the birth. During our training, we needed to document 10 hospital and 12 home births – there were plenty of the latter. It seems strange now but most GPs didn’t do midwifery then but I had to summon one if a mother got a perineal tear and needed stitches. If there was an emergency, we would summon “the flying squad”, specially-trained staff including a doctor. As I cycled off on a call, I would pray not to encounter a haemorrhage.’

Two years earlier, Audrey Muir, now 78, had arrived at the same maternity hospital as Sheila to begin midwifery training, but for her district training she lived in Poplar, East London, with the nuns of St John of the Divine, the order that trained Jennifer Worth and provided the inspiration for Call the Midwife’s nuns.

‘The house went round in two different directions. I’d think I was on my own and then Sister Margaret Faith, who looked after our pastoral care, would suddenly appear and say: “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” We ate with the nuns although it was a bit difficult on their silent days. After Sunday lunch, the nuns joined us for recreation and we sat around knitting, sewing and chatting.’

There were four pupils at any time, one pair three months ahead of the other, taught by Sister Jessica (played by Pam Ferris as ‘Sister Evangelina’ in the series).

‘I worshipped the ground she walked on,’ says Audrey. ‘She was kind and so at ease with the mothers. It was a bit of an experience going out with her in her car in the frequent thick fog as we kept wandering over to the other side of the road.’

Audrey was on call six days a week and felt invincible in her uniform. On her first home delivery, as instructed, she sent the husband to a phone box to ring the tutor midwife once the labour had progressed.

‘Then the baby’s head appeared with the cord wrapped around it. My instruments were boiling on the cooker downstairs and I was yelling for the neighbour, who had popped in, to bring the scissors up. She was deaf and it nearly turned to tragedy as she couldn’t hear me. Luckily, my tutor appeared and cut the cord.

‘Another time, I came out of a home after delivering the family’s sixth child and a neighbour asked if it was a boy or a girl. I’d been there all night and I was so delighted by the safe outcome that I just couldn’t remember that vital detail.’

Audrey was with the nuns at Christmas, although not on call. ‘They kept silence on Christmas Eve, although we didn’t have to. After midnight mass, we’d go back for mince pies with them. On Christmas morning, Sister Margaret Faith brought me a cup of tea in bed.

‘“I don’t drink tea,” I said, and she teased me for being ungracious. The nuns cooked a wonderful lunch and then we did a little play, an entertainment for them.’

Her words conjure up a more innocent, kinder world. But it seems that Audrey – who later went to Africa to work in general nursing – will be one of the few not glued to Call the Midwife this Christmas.

‘I don’t have a television,’ she says.

See listings for the date and time of the Call the Midwife Christmas special on BBC One.

For information on the history of childbirth, visit

This interview originally appeared in Saga Magazine . For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.


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