During research for their book, Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap interviewed mothers as well as midwives and nurses, in order to gain a well rounded picture of pregnancy, childbirth, and pre and post natal care before the NHS. This extract from The Midwife’s tale Oral History Collection features an interview with mother Alice Forrest who gave birth to a son via Caesarean Section in 1937. In this interview clip she speaks about the delivery of her baby in hospital, prenatal exercise, and the attitudes in hospitals towards women who had induced miscarriage. Alice was born in Dulwich, South London in 1903 and was from a well-off, middle-class family.
Taken from the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives
Interview reference: RCMS/251/1
A full transcript of the extract is available below:
Alice Well what’s this bit you wanted to know?
Interviewer Well, I just wanted to know what it was like when you actually had your son.
Alice Had me baby – right.
Interviewer Your baby, yeah.
Alice Well, we’ll say that I go in the hospital, I went in the hospital that was in Dulwich, and er I had to wait and wait and I – three times I went into false labour. That was terrific, I might tell you. I don’t know if you know labour pains but….
Interviewer Yeah, I do.
Alice They’re murder, aren’t they? Then, of course, on the third attempt, when – ‘cause they keep on putting needles in your botty to bring on the false labour, and I thought I was gonna to get the baby and er it was slowing down and then, of course, I heard the doctor – he swore. He said, ‘This child is determined to come standing up.’ Of course, we found out afterwards, I told you, they reckoned there was a piece of bone right across the – the baby couldn’t get out, you see. Of course, he was a big baby, 9¾. It was a big baby for a little me, which – I’m not big now, you know, but I was very slim when I got married. I only had a 19 waist. Mind you, the size of me – well, first they said, ‘I think it’s twins.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’d be all right, I don’t mind.’ I says, ‘No good worrying about it.’ I went home and I said to my mother, ‘We’ll have to go knitting faster.’ Because we were knitting all the things we could knit, you know. ‘Best keep on knit, knit, knit.’ Then, of course, we could see why it was afterwards. It was the baby keeping on chopping and changing all over the place. They’d find his heart here and they’d find it up there. So – and then I had to have an x-ray, and they didn’t like x-raying me really. I got fixed under the x-ray machine, and this is the funny part ((laughs)) of it – I’m lying under the x-ray, you know, all naked of course, and I got fixed. I’m shouting out, ‘Help, help.’ ((Laughs)) There was nobody there. Nurse had gone and said, ‘I won’t be a minute.’ I said, ‘Right-o nurse.’ Who should come in but a fellow like as if he was working on the road? He said, ‘Don’t worry girl, I’ve got six kids, don’t worry.’ ((Laughs)) I’m lying there and I said, ‘Oh give me something.’ Because I’m going like this. It was up here you know? Oh, I’ll never forget it. Anyway, he hadn’t fixed this blinking bolt thing at the side of me and – of course I was all right. Nurse come running, ‘Oh, oh, how could I leave you like – I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry dear, as long as I’m all right.’
Anyway, they got the picture and then all of a sudden they said, ‘Well, you’re going to have a Harley Street specialist.’ I said, ‘Oh good.’ So of course I had the Harley Street – and er when I saw me baby I couldn’t – oh he was absolutely gorgeous, really beautiful. She said to me, the Sister, she said, ‘We’re very, very pleased.’ She said, ‘I’m very, very pleased about this birth because it’s so beautiful and clean.’ She said, ‘You must have drank castor oil by the bottle.’ And I was. I was drinking – ‘cause when we had a nurse in, she was rather strict, and she said, ‘If you don’t take this castor oil I shall hold your nose.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to nurse, I’ve been drinking it ever – before I came in here.’ ‘Oh, let me see you do it then.’ Of course, I drunk it right down. So she said, ‘You don’t want any orange.’ Because we used to sprinkle orange, you know. So I said, ‘No, that’ll be all right.’ Down it went. The Sister said to me, ‘It was the most beautiful birth and I’m very, very pleased with it.’ Of course, it was a general call in the hospital because they hadn’t had a birth like this I – oh within years, what I could hear of it. So, as I say, the baby was born and all of them were saying that it was perfect and all that?’
Interviewer So it was actually a Caesarean when he was born.
Alice Yes, yes, that’s right, when he was born. Of course – well I’ve still got the whatsit down here. I had a bet with the doctor, before I was on the table. He’s saying, ‘Now, what would you really like?’ I said, ‘A little girl.’ Because I always think girls are more closer somehow. He said, ‘All right, but I’m going to say it’s a footballer.’ I said, ‘All right.’ So, of course, it was a footballer. Well, he was just beautiful. He’d just got one mass of thick, curly black hair and bright blue eyes. Oh and when I looked at it, ‘cause of course I couldn’t hold it, and – of course in those days, with a case like mine, you’re laid in the bed and they put a cradle over you, see, and sheets and blankets and whatever. I can remember the nurses, two nurses, starting, ‘Come on. Wake up, Mrs Forrest. You’ve got twins, Mrs Forrest. Wake up.’ ((Laughs)) Of course, I did – I come to and er she said, ‘Oh, thank goodness.’ She said, ‘You’ll never believe it, but one of your nurses got told off for crying.’ I said, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Because they thought that what you’d been through, just to try and get this baby, and you’ve done everything possible to have it.’ You know, I really wanted it, because over in the other bed to me she’d been taking God knows what and the baby was all burned. Oh it was terrible.
Interviewer Had she been trying to get rid of the baby?
Alice Yeah, Mmm. She’d only got one child and it seemed terrible to me. I’d been talking to her, you know, and of course – but I didn’t know this at the time, because the nurses just ignored her sort of thing. They’re so cross about anything like that. Her husband was upset. Good thing, it died, you know, dead. There’s the doctor saying to me, ‘Now, you haven’t been doing anything silly.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve not, that’s just it.’ I said, ‘I want this baby.’ I said, ‘I’ve been doing everything you’ve told me as regards going for a walk and….’ My husband made sure we did. After tea we’d go for a nice walk all through Dulwich park and I’m doing all the exercises and one thing and another. Sister was saying to me, ‘Well, you’ve got one of the most beautifulest babies and we’ve got a lot of students coming down to see you.’ I think nearly all the students from – what’s the hospital? Denmark Hill, you know.
Interviewer Oh yeah, King’s.
Alice They came down and they said, ‘Lovely baby, beautiful baby.’ She said, ‘You’ve got the biggest baby from the smallest mother in the ward.’ But they did, they treated you lovely. Not like today, which I hear when they have a Caesar. They’re in and out in no time.
Accessing the Collection
Full transcripts of all interviews are freely available on the RCM website: https://www.rcm.org.uk/midwives-tale-oral-history-collection-transcripts
To listen to the full collection, visit the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists or email to request free copies of interviews for non-commercial research purposes.
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
Audio from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection of Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap (Copyright of the authors)
Photographs reproduced from the archive of the Royal College of Midwives.
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