This week’s extract from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection explores the difficulties experienced by poor and working class mothers in London during the 1930s and 1940s. The interview below features Edie Martinson who was born in London in 1902 and came from a working-class home. She married in 1920 and had five children between 1920 and 1935, two of them dying in early infancy.
Edie had various jobs throughout her life, including washing-up, waitressing, cooking and factory work. This extract from Edie’s interview covers her experience as a young working mother in London including preparations put in place for giving birth in the home and making arrangements for childcare.
Taken from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives: Interview reference: RCMS/251/3
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.
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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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Click below for a full transcript of this extract
Interviewer Going back to when you had your babies at home, did you have to get the room ready beforehand?
Edie Oh yes, big do. You always had to have-, well, you had to have enough things. You had a nice piece of blanket or two or three- enough sheets. We didn’t have piles like we have these days but we had three or four nice sheets, fresh curtains to go up. Everything had to be got ready, buckets and bowls, plenty of hot water. You had to, er- Yes, it was quite a performance and two of everything for your baby. They used to wear belly bands and this- It’s different to what they do today. I don’t know whether they still have belly bands.
Interviewer I know what you mean, binders.
Edie Yeah, they put a ‘pinny’ over the navel and bind it and terry towelling nappy. Most people never had under 12, unless you were very poor you had six but I always had 12, got me 12 terry towelling. That’s why you needed such a lot of- Everything was washed, there was no throwaway nothing, no tissues or no throwaway. Everything was wash, wash, wash. You had a blanket underneath, brown paper. No, your brown paper on the top, then your blanket, then your sheets. Once you were in confinement it was all taken out and they would burn the afterbirth in the grate.
Interviewer They burned it? I was going to ask you that.
Edie They burned it in the grate, yeah. Someone would make the midwife a nice cup of tea after she’d done her job.
Interviewer When you were actually giving birth to the baby were you sort of lying on the bed?
Edie On the first one I remember plain I was knees up, pulling. I think the same position each time, always on my side pulling. Yeah, I was always on my side pulling with the birth, never on the back because you see pictures on the telly, on their back, don’t you? You couldn’t have kept still long enough. You want to bend over when you’ve got a pain, don’t you, naturally. No, my four, I lost my daughter at 46 and Joan. I had five altogether but, erm, they were all born in a crouching position on the bed, every one. Even with David I got on the bed at the last minute and- I remember my sister just covered me up.
Interviewer Did you have to have stitches any time? You ever tear?
Interviewer That was lucky.
Edie I was fairly wide-hipped I suppose, ain’t it. It was the small narrow-hipped girls get trouble, don’t they? They say it’s the small narrow-hipped girls that get the trouble. Well, not trouble but any case they get injections now, don’t they, and drugs, don’t they? You’ve got a child, ain’t you?
Interviewer Oh yes. He’s 18 months, he is.
Edie What are you writing with this-?
Interviewer Yeah, it’s a book about what it was like having a baby then, yeah, so I’m interviewing women like you that had their babies then.
Edie Do the stories differ much?
Interviewer It mostly differs with how much money you had, like whether you were middle class or working class.
Edie I was poor. I shouldn’t have been poor. My Dad had plenty. My Dad had plenty of money. We never should have been poor really. I told you what he gave us for our first week’s wages after we left him: “30 shillings and take that chest of drawers.” That’s why I walked out and left him. Then I had that extreme poverty doing washing, all day long washing.
Interviewer That must have been such hard work when you were pregnant.
Edie I suppose it was hard but I had me baby with me. I had me baby with me when that happened, yeah. It must have happened- uh I must have been working a bit with me Dad for a while because I’d only just had this baby when I had that poverty and I used to take her out in an old-fashioned wooden pushchair, little bit of carpet seat. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one. Very old fashioned, a little bit of carpet on the seat and I had to take her down, put her out in the yard, put the pram in the doorway, a copper in the corner. She liked the copper and they were Italians. They had great big sheets. They had very luxurious beds and she’d keep throwing things out the window.
Interviewer What was it about taking the baby to the kitchen?
Edie That got them things I remember on that bit, is it?
Interviewer Yeah. What was that bit about taking the baby?
Edie Oh, when I went to- yes! That was Freddy who had that wasting disease. I was working in Drury Lane at the time.
Interviewer In the kitchen.
Edie The crèche closed for holidays and I had to put him in a little box beside me in the kitchen and we used to keep putting his dummy in to serve or something and that’s how we got over the week or fortnight’s holiday when the crèche was shut. Our missus used to contribute to that crèche. They said “We’ve got a place in at nine pence a day.” Nine pence a day we used to pay there and I used to have to come right up from Dulwich on a tupenny tram to get the baby in. Do you know, I was still in Essex Road with one baby holding and one in a sarong in a foggy morning at half-past seven to get up to the Kingsway by eight o’clock, get it in the crèche, but sometimes I had to think to myself “Oh, poor babies”. It’s wrong, weren’t it? Well, it was wrong, never being kept up. My husband was a labourer. My first husband was a labourer and if he had six pence over he’d have a bet with it or if you left half a crown on the mantelpiece he’d- when you’d gone out it would be gone. That was the only half-crown you had and then wonder why- My son said- my boy said “Well, Mum he wasn’t intelligent enough for you.” He knew his Dad. I said “Well, I wasn’t intelligent but I had a lot of, erm, a lot which I learned through life” and I think I always wanted nice curtains, cushions, flowers. As I say, I didn’t- the first one, east end boy, labourer. Second one, he was out of work when I met him and all he ever worked for is cigarettes. We’ve had a lot of money go. I’ve been in business a lot, ain’t I? That latter part of my life I was in business. I had a boarding house at Ramsgate with a café on the seafront and the rented rooms above. That was the hardest job in my life, that was. That was the hardest job. I used to crawl up the stairs like that, you know, and I remember saying one night “Oh god, is it worth it?” And every job I had I made hard. I wouldn’t just put Spam and chips on or corn beef. I used to make a whole menu because I’d worked with a menu on Drury Lane so I used to put nice menus on. As I say, it could go on. This one, what I think on, what I’ve known and what I’ve lived through, I could go on and on and on I think forever. I’ll tell you one thing though, I’m a different person today than when I was young.