The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection

In honour of the International Day of the Midwife 2016 we are delighted to launch The Midwife’s Tales Oral History Collection.

This unique and colourful series of oral history recordings and transcripts were collected and preserved by Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap while researching and writing their book, The Midwife’s Tale: an Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife.

Now held by the archive of the Royal College of Midwives, these interviews with midwives, mothers and their families provide a wonderful insight into early and mid-20th century attitudes towards pregnancy, birth and sex education, as well as detailed and personal reflections on topics ranging from childbirth to post-natal care.

With over 40 hours of interviews and accompanying transcripts, this collection brings together a variety of viewpoints and experiences from women and their families during an era that saw two world wars, the transformation of the British healthcare system, and radical changes across the lines of class and gender. The interviews were recorded in the 1980s and early 1990s, providing us a contrast between early and late 20th century attitudes to midwifery, childbirth and the training of midwives in the United Kingdom.

Interviewees featured include:

  • Katherine Lambert and Margaret Anderson, sisters who both took up nursing, and later midwifery, providing midwifery services to mothers in Essex and delivering approximately one thousand babies between them.
  • Lily Good, a handywoman who was born in 1894 in East London and who worked in the Borough of Bexley for over 50 years.
  • And Esther Silverton who was born in Portsmouth in 1916, and trained as a nurse, then midwife during the Second World War, having been largely deprived of educational opportunities earlier.

Join us in celebrating these remembrances and the women who shared them with us.

Extracts from the collection:

For the month of May this blog will be posting extracts from the collection covering themes including:

  • Midwives in training
  • The practice of midwifery
  • Wartime midwifery
  • Stories of childbirth

Listen to the first of these extracts here:

Florence Wright (midwife)

Extract of an interview with Florence Wright covering her experience as a midwife, including her training (1938-1939) at Peckham Salvation Army Mother’s Hospital, and memories of her own mother’s role as an untrained midwife in Great Yarmouth. Interview reference: RCMS/251/9

[Click Read More for a transcript of this interview extract and details of how to access the collection]


Interviewer:    Right. It must have been very exciting for you, going off to do your training.

Florence:         Oh, very fearful. Very fearful, yes.

Interviewer:    A bit daunting?

Florence:         Yes. Because you always felt as though you were inferior, not having had the- you see, although you had other experience that those nurses hadn’t had.

Interviewer:    A lot more experience of life.

Florence:         In the family and life and that, you didn’t have the head knowledge of the others. However…

Interviewer:    But you soon caught up.

Florence:         Seemed to.

Interviewer:    Your experience of life and difficult life must have been very useful to you.

Florence:         Yes. Well I suppose it helps to build character doesn’t it?

Interviewer:    Mm. It must have helped you when you were looking after people in similar circumstances.

Florence:         Yes. Well I’ve always got a feeling, you know, for the underdog, kind of style.

Interviewer:    Yes. I suppose some women coming into midwifery haven’t got a clue about that sort of thing, have they? Because they tended to be more privileged women, didn’t they?

Florence:         Yes. Yes, exactly. I mean when I went to training college and I realised then how inadequate I was, because there were older cadets there that had had good jobs, they were well-known in business and the music and reading and that, it all helps doesn’t it? So in those kind of cases you start off at a disadvantage. But you don’t realise it until you’ve changed from one circumstance to the other. I didn’t realise that I was underprivileged ((laughs))

Interviewer:    But it must have made you a very different sort of midwife.

Florence:         I never had a room of my own until I went there, you see, and I was 20, 21. So I never knew what it was to be private. And I think everybody needs a bit of privacy. I think all children do.

Interviewer:    So did you love it when you suddenly got that…?

Florence:         Oh, I thought it was marvellous. A room of your own, and you have some privacy. Of course I wouldn’t have valued it the same had I not had it, would I? I mean if you’ve known this kind of luxury all your life you don’t appreciate it when you have it, do you?

Interviewer:    No, I suppose for some of those women, coming into nursing midwifery, it must have been like coming down into hardship, wasn’t it, rather than gaining.

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    Was there good comradeship between the midwives that were training?

Florence:         Yes. We did have a very good fellowship because we used to have… at the Mothers’ Hospital there was always morning prayers, all the nurses used to come down for meals, for breakfast, and they’d call a roll to make sure everybody was there, and then have short prayers and then we’d go to the wards after that. And every Tuesday night we had a meeting in the staff sitting room, and different sections of the staff would do these meetings, so there was always that, you see. I mean in the Salvation Army wherever you go you always know somebody and you’re quickly made welcome, so you’re never likely… you see you never need to be-, you know somebody that’s been there before, or have known them before. I think you do need something out of your own home, I think whatever circumstances you’re in.

Interviewer:    Did you find your really particular love for midwifery?

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    Or was it just another side to the general work that you were doing?

Florence:         Well I felt, you know, fully stretched, if that’s what you mean. You know, I was fully stretched doing midwifery. But my mother was always amazed that I ever went in for midwifery because when she used to have the babies and the napkins would be in the, you know with the tap running on them, I used to always feel sick and heave ((laughs)) She used to say, “I never can understand how you’ve taken on that work because you never would look at the nappies when they were there.”

Interviewer:    She must have been proud of you though.

Florence:         Very deserving though, isn’t she, wasn’t she?

Interviewer:    She sounds quite a character. She must have been very proud of you.

Florence:         When I first wore a uniform, you had to ask permission, you know, now you don’t, of my mother. So I didn’t really get any sympathy. She said, “Well if you start wearing it you’ll have to wear it all the time, every Sunday. No putting it on one Sunday and taking off next time.”

Interviewer:    Really?

Florence:         Then when I said I was going to… you know, applying for the training college so she said, “Well make up your mind what you want to do, but don’t come crying home here if you don’t like it.” It’s what happened. I daren’t go home after that! ((laughter)). And then when the suggestion came up that I should do nursing I wrote and told her, so her reply was, “Well, I thought you wanted to be a Salvation Army officer.” But she didn’t realise I could combine the two, you see. “Now you want to be a nurse, you know, you can’t make up your mind what you want to do.”

Interviewer:    I see, she thought that was…

Florence:         So I didn’t have it easy. ((laughs))

Interviewer:    She wasn’t exactly giving you a lot of encouragement.

Florence:         Oh no. But I suppose that was the right approach, actually.

Interviewer:    Well she was leading you to it, wasn’t she?

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    And within the Salvation Army, if you became a nurse, could you still go up through the ranks, as it were?

Florence:         Yes. And if, when I went to do general training that still counted as years of officership, you see, for promotions and that.

Interviewer:    And so you went through and got promoted.

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    What did you become in the end?

Florence:         Well I’m a Brigadier now.

Interviewer:    A Brigadier, my goodness, that sounds very top ranking.

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    Yes, is that the top of the profession?

Florence:         No, after that… people in big positions, you know, who have a lot of oversight of other departments and that, they can become a colonel, a lieutenant colonel or colonel and then commissioner.  Commissioner is not a highest rank. Then we’ve got a woman general.

Interviewer:    Where does a major come in?

Florence:         That’s only the…

Interviewer:    Is that before brigadier?

Florence:         Yes. They’ve changed the ranks over the years, you see, and the uniform and trimmings and everything has been changed. So there have been quite a lot of changes.

Interviewer:    Were you involved in training midwives at all?

Florence:         Yes. These students, you see, that came, I had a lot of… well, mostly practical training, not necessarily classroom training.

Interviewer:    No, but hands-on work?

Florence:         Yes.

Interviewer:    What would you say were the qualities that a midwife should have in her work, or in her attitude?

Florence:         Well she’s got to be fond of, you know, being human. A bit of humour. I suppose it takes some brains. You need to be strong and healthy too, doing it in practice. And you’ve got to really want to do it, I suppose that’s the thing. You’ve got to have certain medical knowledge, haven’t you? But the practical side is the best, rather than book-learning.

Interviewer:    Yes. I think a lot of it’s about patience as well. I think they forget that a lot these days, that actually most women will give birth if you trust them to get on with it, won’t they?

Florence:         Yes. The thing is, you see, we tend to interfere too soon, don’t we?

How to Access the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection

Transcripts and descriptions of the interviews are freely available online on the Royal College of Midwives website:

Audio Interviews
Reference copies are accessible at the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
27 Sussex Place, Regent’s Park
London, NW1 4RG
Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm
Phone: 020 7772 6309

Digital copies of interviews, for research purposes only, are also available remotely through the archive.
Write, call or email us to make an enquiry, or to order digital copies (free via Dropbox) for personal and non-commercial research.

Copyright permission is required for commercial use of audio and/or transcripts. Transcripts and audio files are copyright of the authors Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap.

We would like to thank the people who made releasing this collection possible: Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter, the interviewers and authors of The Midwife’s Tale; the interviewees and their families; Reuben Hunter-McHardy, for digitising the original audio cassette tapes; and Penny Hutchins, former Archivist of the Royal College of Midwives, for cataloguing the collection.

Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter, The Midwife’s Tale: an Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2013

Book-coverThe book published after the collection of these oral histories is available for purchase in bookshops and online stores (RRP £14.99). Reference copies of the current and previous editions are available at the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s