A ‘Phoney War’: Nursing Notes, September 1940

This month’s post comes from the September issue of the 1940 volume of ‘Midwives Chronicle & Nursing Notes’.

September 1940, a year after the beginning of the Second World War, saw the end of the ‘Phoney War’ in England and the beginning of the Blitz, which would see much of the country’s pivotal cities strewn with bomb-holes, rubble and smouldering piles of rocks and bricks which had once been the homes and work places of thousands of people. It comes as no surprise then, that the discussions of the Midwives’ Institute were occupied with the problems brought about by the war in relation to pregnant women and the midwives whose job it was to care for them.

From case registers held in the archive of the Royal College of Midwives we know that midwives did attend births in air raid shelters, and in this volume of the journal, midwives were told that they could expect a fee of £1 1s when summoned to attend a woman in labour in an air raid shelter. However, this fee did not apply to whole-time municipal midwives, or doctors either. Representatives of the midwives questioned parliament about suggestions that first aiders should be given instruction on attending confinements, a move which they felt was both dangerous and unnecessary.

Another matter which occupied the midwives at this time, was the proposal by the Ministry of Health to introduce ‘National Dried Milk’, ‘a full cream powder with a standard fat content of 26 to 27 per cent, but without any added iron or other preparations’. This milk was to be made available at a ration of one pint per head from the Milk Officer or local welfare centre, and only to those holding Ministry of Food milk permits. Today we would utter our amazement at the advice to add sugar to the dried milk, particularly in the first months of infancy, but in 1940, criticism from the National Baby Welfare Council was levelled at the lack of additives to the new product: it was not considered an adequate replacement of the baby foods already provided by welfare centres, which were usually modified and included flocculent curd, an adjusted fat content, Vitamin D and iron.

This volume also mentions the question placed to the Minister of Health, Malcolm MacDonald, by Dr Edith Summerskill, a prominent physician and feminist, concerning the training of midwives in the use of Minnitt’s apparatus for the relief of pain during childbirth. This had been recently sanctioned by the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, but Mr MacDonald’s reply to Dr Summerskill revealed that only 44 out of 188 local supervising authorities in England and Wales had made training arrangements, and that he had no power to give direction to the authorities to do so.

An interesting note on the efforts of the Royal College of Nursing to assist nurses evacuated from Paris and St Helier, Jersey brings to life the practical support of the colleges for their members, particularly in providing hospitality for the refugee nurses and placements at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

The journal ends with a final note from the Executive Committee of the Midwives Institute: discussions at a meeting the previous month agreed that ‘arrangements should be made for expectant mothers to cease work in the factory four weeks before confinement and not return to work until eight weeks after the birth of the child.’ That is what I call contributing to the war effort!

By Penny Hutchins

RCOG/RCM Archivist


A good example of a wartime midwifes’ case register can be found in the papers of Elsie Walkerdine, 1938-1941, held in the RCM Archive [Archive reference: RCMS/114]


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