A retired midwife delivers an exuberant and detailed account of her first solo delivery.
Esther Silverton 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 in life. Apart from an initial spell in a small maternity hospital, she worked as a district midwife in the working-class area where she grew up, and continued to work as a district midwife after having children.
The interview extract below features Esther describing her first delivery as a newly qualified midwife, which took place in an Anderson shelter during an air raid! She was interviewed by Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap in 1985.
Taken from the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives
Interview reference: RCMS/251/7
Click below for a transcript and details of how to access our full collection of oral histories
Esther: Well this particular delivery of mine which was really the highlight of my life. I’ll never forget it actually, to me it’s wonderful. She sent me out one day and said now I’m not going to give you any work to do this morning, I’m going to do the work but you’ve got to go round to three mothers that might deliver and you’ve got to get very familiar with how you find the roads at night because as you know it’s pitch black. Really get familiar with it, find the house, knock on the door, see the mum and tell her that you’ll be coming in the night should she want you and they’d got to phone in, they knew what to do. That took me a morning to do those three because I had to find them and get really familiar with the roads and thinking well if it’s lightish what will my landmarks be? If it’s not light, how will I find it you know I had little tiny bits of paper with a little torch and I could just see to write myself little notes. You see, no one else to ask. There wasn’t a soul about it was dead in the night.
Esther: So that particular night I went to bed all apprehensive. Now what was bed? Bed was under a Morrison shelter, do you know table shelters? They were a sort of iron and they were in a room you see and there about this height and they were dark, very dark green and they’re very, very strong you see like metal. Down the side there was more metal and there was a bit of strong mesh for air as it were. Then there was a hole where you got underneath and the back was all filled in and there was mesh at the other end. Well, you were supposed to lay two lengthways on those but of course where I was billeted outside there was mum, Pam, lovely girl, they were doing an important job and didn’t have to go to war, her brother and her sister had gone out you know, fighting. So there was mum, dad, Pam and me. Well there was four of us you see, so how, what could we do? Well we decided that we had a great big huge table in that room as well. So dad got under the table every night ((laughing)), what protection that would be I don’t know. Mum, Pam and I got underneath but we couldn’t lie lengthways as it wasn’t enough so we had to lay widthways that meant to say our feet were out. So we took a two-hour stint, two hours apiece of being awake to call the other one in when the raids came on. And you had to all lift your legs in because as we said it’d be no more of a laugh with your legs chopped off ((hearty laughter)). So you couldn’t say you were- from there on you had your legs out, see and then we said we might-, you had to sit up to keep awake so my start was from 12 to whatever the time was and then the next one took over, well you’d wake and say ‘come on thoroughly wake up and get awake now and you carry on.’ Well we did this you see every night. Well, this particular night when the phone went it was my job to go out that night and I was asleep and she said ‘nurse the phone is ringing, I expect it’s for you’ so I had to get up and answer the phone and it was for me. One of these, right well I had to get all around the back of the house to get my bike out and lock it all up you know. Get meself out and I had to go right along the side of the park and take a bag with me and different things and when I got by this park there was the warden. He said ‘get off that bike they’re falling fast’ he said ‘listen to them all coming over.’ I said ‘I can’t, maternity case’ and rode on, ever so cocky. Right I went on and then these doodlebugs keep stopping, they’re terrible, when they stop they switch on down you see and then they fall and of course they shatter roads. They just-, a road went like a pack of cards, it all went in like cards, the devastation
Interviewer: You could hear them coming then?
Esther: Oh yes, the swish. They stop, they were coming over as a noise of a plane and then they stop and then when they stop you had to do something because it was this swish and you wouldn’t know where they were dropping and then you see they’d drop anywhere. Well, many a time I’ve been near them and you just lay down flat in the road, so I just fell off my bike, laid there, but I mean say traffic, there was no traffic about, but if there had been, they wouldn’t see you in the middle of the road on a dark night; they’d have rolled over you. So that’s what happened and I went on. When I got to this house finally, because they knew what a dreadful night it was, shocking, one of the worst nights they’d had. When I got to this house and I moved along and fumbled me way along and found the door and put me bike I suppose in the gate and took the lamp off to have a tiny look to see if it was the right number and I knocked and nobody came. I was ever so frightened and so I pushed the door and it was open. So, in I go, well I knew where mum was you see, so I fumbled my along to try and find her and I couldn’t find anybody. Suddenly dad came in from the garden and he said ‘oh good, I’m glad you’ve come nurse, we’re all in the shelter.’ He said ‘what a terrible night.’ So he said come in so I get into the kitchen you see, ‘we can’t have any of her nice stuff’ he said ‘that’s all upstairs and I’m too frightened to go up and get it’. I said ‘oh never mind they’ll have the balls for the kitchen don’t worry, go upstairs for goodness sake’. Because he’d got four children, four little girls and then the bottom of the shelter he’s made it like two shelves for the little girls, two were on one shelf and two were on the other; one either end. Lovely little girls they were. Anyway there was mum laying on the bunk and there was another bunk empty, which dad had so I just got and looked at her to see and I said I think what we’d better do is to get everything to the shelter that we can think of and then you won’t have to go out. If the water’s cold, it’s just cold and that’s it. So he said well before it started to be too bad, I brought down that great big just which you put cold water in, they hold eight pints. You know the old jugs and basins on the wash-downs? Well, coz they were marvellous, great boon, well they had one of those jugs, no basin and he said I’ve got that. I said well fill that with water and I’ll get down in this Anderson you know right down and you pass everything down to me and I’ll take it and when we’re finished you can come on down you see. He said there’s an upturned bucket there you can sit on for a seat, so got a bit of a rim around me. Anyway he got to give me this water and just as he was about to give it to me, the doodlebug had stopped and it was coming down and we could hear it swishing, any minute it was going to drop. I mean you don’t know it could only drop the-, further away you see, shatter a road, two roads from you. And so what did he do? He was so frightened he fell and he tipped eight pints of cold water over me. Head to foot. I was absolutely drenched. Right, course he cried, he was in such a state coz there was I dripping wet, from head to foot. So I just laughed, what could we do and it was all mud underneath because it was earth you see, it made it into a slop. Mum said well you can’t stay like that, I said well no I’ll have to get some fresh clothes on because I was really wet. So of course we lost all the water and had to get more water so she said you’d better go up in the kitchen as my clothes I dropped eight of them on the floor, all my maternity clothes. So I dressed in her maternity clothes ((hearty laughter)) didn’t care whether dad could see what I was doing or not. I undressed in the kitchen, the dad was there and said ‘I won’t look!’ and I said ‘you can’t see anything if you did!’ It was pitch black, he can’t see me, ‘where are you?’ I just looked round and said ‘I’m finding the clothes!’, what do you want, oh nothing so funny in all my life, so I go down in her maternity clothes and he had to proceed with some more water you see. I don’t think I ever got any hot water beginning or end. Anyway, these little children-, oh he’d made little curtains across this-, the little children kept looking at me-
Esther: We carried on and mum was still in the lowest bunk, dad was wonderful, he was in a terrible state what he’d done to me. ‘That’s nothing’ I said. Anyway she was marvellous and the baby was born, it was a boy, told me she was going to call it Richard if it was a boy. And I said, well you’ve got a Richard. I said ‘children, you’ve got a little baby brother’ and do you know, it was just like in the comic cuts, they all pulled the little curtains back, this is true, they pulled the little curtains back and had a little look out. I said ‘I’ll bring the baby over and show you in a minute’ and they were awake all that time. I took the baby over, pulled the curtains back and they went to sleep and you never heard another word. About four o’clock in the morning, the doodlebugs stopped because it was light. It was daylight, dawn coming, they didn’t come by over then. That was my most wonderful delivery. Well anyway, all on my own, I mean when you think of it, that wasn’t bad was it?
Interviewer: No, it wasn’t. God.
Esther: Then of course it takes a long time to clear up when you’re down in a place like that, you know, where do you start? We got mum over onto the clean bunk and did all this, that and the other and of course my midwife had said ‘if you don’t want me in the night for any reason’ she said ‘let me know about half past eight in the morning and we’ll sort out the work’. Well of course, time I’d finished all there and everything I’d forgotten about my clothes, you’ll never believe this I mean how elated I was. I put my coat which was a navy blue gabardine mac in those days and a storm cap. I put them on top of her as I was see and left her and went on. It was about seven in the morning when I’d finished and I thought I must tell me midwife I’ve had my first baby. So I went by her door, I had to go by and knock and she looked out of her bedroom window and she said ‘what’s the matter nurse?’ I said ‘nothing I’ve delivered a baby.’ She said ‘well I don’t want to know at seven o’clock in the morning!’ I said ‘oh but it’s lovely!’ And then she said ‘what have you got on?’ because she saw these clothes hanging down. Oh, I said ‘I’ve got the mum’s maternity clothes’. They were so big, and they just dropped below my mac! So that was that day for me. Anyway because I had to go back at half past eight and explain to her what had happened but I mean, oh dear, oh dear that was a wonderful delivery you can imagine can’t you. I was absolutely elated.
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Audio from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection of Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap (Copyright of the authors)
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