This month’s post comes from the August 1979 issue of ‘Midwives Chronicle & Nursing Notes’.
On opening up this issue of the Midwives Chronicle, I was immediately struck with childhood memories, in particular by an advert for Gold Cap SMA, the milk formula for babies – my dad had lots of these empty tins in his shed filled with screws, nails and other bits and pieces which I delighted in exploring as a child!
I was the eldest and my mother clearly chose not to breastfeed (hence the many pink tins of SMA in Dad’s shed!) and this illustrates the issues being discussed at the conference on breastfeeding held in London in June 1979, looking at the reasons why new mothers were not choosing this method of feeding their newborns in a ‘dramatic decline in breastfeeding habits in Britain’. One of the main criticisms was the lack of knowledge by professional staff in promoting breastfeeding as well as the ‘rigidity in hospitals’ – babies at this time were often kept in nurseries rather than at the side of their mothers.
A lack of facilities for breastfeeding was also mentioned, and comparisons made with the good example found in New Zealand where ‘shopping centres provide special areas for nursing mothers’ – difficult to imagine now when most public places have a private room available to mothers wishing to nurse their babies. Advocacy of feeding on demand was also a new thing in 1979, although an established practice now. An interesting generalisation is made at the end of the article about the type of mother to breastfeed:
‘The professional classes, although they now had an awakened interest to breast feed were handicapped by their intellectualism; the manual classes, if they did attempt breast feeding, were generally much more successful. Women who breast feed usually finish their education much later, live in South East England, and are in the higher social bracket.’
This volume also contains reports of important developments in the training and role of midwives in the UK during the late 1970s.. A report from the Nurses and Midwives Whitley Council to the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability states that the fundamental problem was low pay, with women in nursing and midwifery receiving 72% of the average gross earnings of all men – male nurses received 80%. There are also facts on the ways nurses and midwives ‘subsidised’ the NHS when using their own cars for duty, leading to demands for an increase in petrol allowances.
In the year before she was to take up her role as General Secretary of the RCM, Ruth Ashton, a Senior RCM Tutor, contributed an article on the development of programmes to prepare midwives for the education of parents in childbirth and parenthood. This paper had been presented by her at the 2nd International Congress on Patient Counselling and Education at The Hague, Holland in May 1979, which Miss Ashton had been able to attend as a result of winning part of the 1978 Johnson and Johnson Travel Award. Two residential courses had been developed, during which midwives were encouraged to participate fully, and which looked at the needs of midwives in terms of training and the needs of parents, encouraging the midwives to plan their own courses assisted by audiovisual equipment.
Finally, the launch of a series of articles by the RCM Librarian, Mary Toase, encouraged midwives to use libraries ‘to keep up with all that is new in research and practice, in trends and opinions…’. Quoting the admirable fact that Miss World 1962 was in fact a librarian, she dismisses the image of a ‘blue-stocking type with a bun and a silence notice above her head’ (a sentiment which the current RCM librarian would be keen to support!), she runs through the library services available to midwives, producing a select reading list from the library at the RCM. Users of the RCM library today can consult a much more sophisticated online catalogue together with the added advantage of e-journals.
And in the obituaries, the name of Elsie Walkerdine leapt out at me, as her case registers for the years 1917 to 1959 are held in the RCM Archive (Reference RCMS/114). She is described as a ‘friend and confidante of many families…only 4ft 10in tall…a familiar figure in the Deptford area, for she believed in walking everywhere. So popular was she that her retirement in 1957 was extensively featured in the Press and on television and newsreel.’ She died in May 1979 at the age of 86 years, and her case registers are highly valued for the details of deliveries carried out in air raid shelters during the Second World War.
Penny Hutchins, Archivist