Ending ‘ceaseless drudgery’: Nursing Notes, January 1931

This post comes from the January 1931 issue of Nursing Notes & Midwives’ Chronicle, Vol XLIII, No 57.

The new year of 1931 brought little hope to many of the women living in Britain: the ripples of the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929 extended to Europe, where undeveloped and archaic industries were the first to feel the brunt of the recession, laying off many British workers, male and female, particularly in the North. The more affluent South, which had jumped on the bandwagon of meeting the demands for new and shiny consumer products such as cars and appliances, were able to better themselves, and take advantage of the new housing which the 1930s was to bring and the trendy new ideas about fresh air and exercise. It was in this atmosphere of hardship and poverty combined with the developing North/South divide, that the journal of the Midwives’ Institute sought to bring midwives together all over the country, and this issue is very much one of celebration and commemoration, praising the efforts of midwives and nurses past and present.

From the first pages, the editors of the journal remind the readers about the great achievements of the Midwives’ Institute as the Jubilee Fund was launched to celebrate 50 years of the organisation. A new headquarters was to be the reward for all this endeavour, with the building in Buckingham Street becoming too small for activities and threatened by the scheme for the new Charing Cross Bridge. Readers are reminded that the journal ‘Nursing Notes is the only voice our inarticulate profession has of making its views known…we are the only organ that makes the midwife our first consideration…’

It is a matter of debate of just how ‘inarticulate’ the midwifery and nursing profession were, the leaders of the Midwives’ Institute being composed of strong campaigning women with their roots in the Suffragette movement of the late 1800s. And two of these women are celebrated and mourned in this edition of the journal. Dame Mary Sharlieb died at the end of 1930 at the age of 85 and was one of the founders of the Institute as well as its Vice-President. A proficient surgeon, particularly in abdominal surgery, she had strong views on contraception and sexual indulgence, as shown in correspondence with Chairman of the Central Midwives Board, Sir Francis Champneys held in the Archive of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Reference S68).

The celebrated Florence Nightingale had died twenty years earlier in 1910, but an announcement by the British Red Cross Society to observe 12 May, her birthday, as Red Cross Day, brought her back to the pages of Nursing Notes. The annual Fynes-Clinton Memorial Lecture of the Midwives Institute was given by a Mrs Salmon, a relative of Florence Nightingale who gave personal anecdotes about ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ in her lecture on the life of Florence Nightingale. (Red Cross Day was later moved to 8 May, where it is known as World Red Cross Day today)

Discussing current midwifery issues, the journal looks at the recently published Interim Report on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity by the Ministry of Health, and the editors call for consistent attendance by doctors at antenatal clinics and births and for the payment of post-certificate (registered) trained midwives. More about this report and its outcomes can be found among the papers of both the RCM and RCOG, and in particular in the papers of Professor Miles Harris Phillips FRCOG, who was a member of the committee (Reference S97).

Copyright of the RCM
Maternity ward, c.1920-1930

I will finish with an interesting report on an initiative by the National Baby Week Council, which brings us back to social conditions in Britain at the beginning of the 1930s. An essay competition was set for schoolgirls during National Baby Week in 1930, posing the question ‘Plan what you consider to be a model housewife’s day for a family consisting of a mother, father and three children, girl aged 4½, boy aged 2½, and a baby of eight months.’ It is recorded that the results of these essays, written by girls of an average age of 13, were obviously based on actual experience at home with ‘evidence of ceaseless drudgery’. It should also be remembered that these girls were unlikely to have been from the poverty-stricken households of the vast unemployed areas of the North, but from areas where education for older girls was more common. The editors compound the view that ‘The task of the woman who is mother and housewife, with no help, is a severe one…’


Penny Hutchins, Archivist

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