The Rocky Road to Legislation: Nursing Notes, December 1903

This month’s post comes from the December issue of the 1903 volume of ‘Nursing Notes: A Practical Journal for Nurses’.

1903 was a busy year for the midwives: the Midwives Bill had succeeded in traversing the rocky road to legislation in 1902, leaving a wild administrative tangle to be sorted and established before a force of registered and competent midwives could be sent out to battle the issues of maternal mortality and puerperal infection. This was a time of campaigns from many quarters for the rights of professional women, and the pages of the Nursing Notes records the role that midwives and nurses took within these separate, but combined, campaigns.

So, to start with in this issue, we see the midwives taking to the stage at the Annual Conference of the National Union of Women Workers in November 1903. Jane Wilson, President of the Midwives’ Institute between 1894 and 1911, presented a paper on the essential differences between midwives and nurses (a theme, interestingly, which was touched upon in one of the seminars at the recent RCM Annual Conference in Brighton) and declared that the effectiveness of the Midwives Act would depend on how supervision of registered midwives was carried out. Outlining a scheme for the formation of a ‘National Council’ for training, she listed her ideal personal qualifications for a midwife, including ‘intelligence, self-command, upright conduct, distinct liking for her work and no regard of it as a means of livelihood.’ Also at the conference was Alice Gregory, a District Midwife in a busy mining area in the heart of rural Somerset since 1896, who spoke about the evils wrought by the old class of midwives ‘especially through their drinking proclivities’.

Jane Wilson was also represented at a meeting of the Nurses Council in November, with Rosalind Paget reading out a note from the Midwives’ President as a contribution to the debate ‘Is the modern nurse better trained for nursing work than her predecessors?. In this note she declared:

‘Here is a man’s dictum on Nurses: “If I were a woman of robust health, rich or poor, and I had no fascination for men, and matrimony had no fascinations for me, I would become a nurse. The great, the only problem to solve in life, after all, is happiness, and the only possible way to be happy is to feel that you are wanted…”’

It is evident to me just what the women who campaigned so hard for the recognition of midwifery as a trained profession might have thought about such a character assassination!

Amid articles commenting on the importance of the need for reform for hospitals, discussion of vivisection and the progress of the Cancer Research Campaign, is a plea to London Midwives to canvas their county councillors about the essential need for the supervision of midwives to be undertaken by one central authority rather than under the London Borough Councils. This comes as regions over England and Wales strove to make arrangements for the new regulations introduced by the 1902 Midwives Act, with the Midwives’ Institute believing that it was essential that London took the lead as an example. The position of many midwives as voters was thought to be a good incentive for the county councillors to listen to their case.

The Midwives’ Institute Club in Buckingham Street, the Strand published its Christmas opening hours in the journal (a brief closure of four days!) and advertised the services available to members, such as revision papers and classes for the London Obstetrical Diploma Examination to be held in February, and the supply of papers necessary for enrolment under the Midwives Act. The Club proudly declared its popularity, quoting figures of 1133 visitors for October 1903 and a sell-out lecture given by Dr Herman on uterine displacements, which found many members unable to hear at the back of the room ‘by the tea tables’ and a considerable number unable to gain entry to the lecture room!

Although the 1903 journal does not contain any pictures, it still carried advertisements, ranging from milk and cream deliveries to sanitary specialties. A particularly eloquent advert for winter outfits from the Debenham and Freebody’s new catalogue of Nursing Requisites included a ‘most charming’ variety of gowns, cloaks, caps, bonnets and aprons ‘possessing an elegance that is often lacking in uniform dresses. The bonnets are especially pretty…’

Penny Hutchins, RCM/RCOG Archivist

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