Esther Silverton (part 2): The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection

This week’s glimpse at The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection is a second extract from the interview with retired midwife Esther Silverton recorded in August 1985. In this extract Esther describes the religous tradition of ‘churching’ new mothers, and the relationship between midwives and doctors.

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. 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.

Taken from the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives

Interview reference: RCMS/251/7

Full transcripts of all interviews are freely available on the RCM website:

Click below for a transcript of this extract.

Interviewer:   Let’s talk a little bit about the women after they’ve had their babies. Did the women ever get, you know-, obviously they were quite lonely when-, during the war when they were pregnant, after the babies were born did the women get ‘the blues?’ Did they get depressed or?

Esther:           Yes, I think it’s something that goes with not time that’s generally. That’s right and it’s oh yes, course they did, the same as they do now. I mean as I say it’s not time that’s a factor it’s after whatever it is that produces it, so whether they’d be here or there it will still happen to them you know.

Interviewer:   Which women used to go into hospital, at the time you delivered the babies at home?

Esther:           What booked for hospital? Well they tried to put those that had er over five I think. Er but in the time when I did it but I mean to say only very-, babies that had any great problems. They were nearly all on District in my time you see. It was the exception having to go in then it was the norm to have at home until it gradually phased out the other way. Well, they would go in if they’d had a previous whatsit problem with their first baby. If they’d had one on District and it caused a great problem or they were a very long time getting pregnant the second time they might have them in or if they’d had a haemorrhage or usual things, if they were at risk they probably would be in and they would have liked to have a lot of babies in that I had on District. They wouldn’t go, you know ‘I’m not going in, I’m going to have you again’ Ten, eleven, twelve or thirteen I said oh, you’ll get me shot. ‘Oh well, we’ll see.’

Interviewer:   I’ve heard about- the midwives we went to see last week, were talking about ‘churching’.  Did you have that here as well?

Esther:           Oh yeah. Oh yeah, beautiful.  In fact they advocate it now.  See I’m a church person see, practising.  Churching is a lovely thing.  Churching is getting-, I was churched even with my stillborn as well, because I felt I still had to give thanks to myself. Very sad occasion to go, I went on my own to church on my day off but I was churched with both my other children.  In fact the whole idea was you were always churched before you went out, before you did anything, left your home you were churched.  That’s the first thing they made arranged before the baby’s christening, the mother would make arrangements through the church and she would go, usually you’d allow her to go about, well not supposed to go until baby’s ten days but she said I have to get up, get out at ten days, just go round to the church and give thanks and they felt they were around and free to go.  It’s a lovely idea really because we’ve got lots to be grateful and thankful for coming through a confinement, we all place ourselves in some little jeopardy don’t we? I’m glad somebody thought so, I hadn’t thought of that, it’s lovely.  Very nice.

Interviewer:   It doesn’t happen so much now.

Esther:           It happens in the hospital still we have a churching day in our hospital, churching afternoon and when I was there in GP unit, it very, very seldom fell to me to do anything about it because I was only evenings.  I took over evenings, you see. But when I used to go round talking to the mothers and one thing and another, and I don’t know how sometimes we used to be caught up they’d either approach me about it or something had happened in conversation and I’d say something and the mum would say ‘well I would love to be churched, I’ve been churched with my other children.’ I say well you can be churched in the hospital before you go home, I’ll make the arrangements, so I’d get on the V and get through to the priest and I’d say what afternoon now are you churching and we have a couple of patients that would like to come.  So I said I might find some more I think it’s lovely.  Particularly if they go together, it’s rather nice.  And of course, it’s in the common prayer book, it is a sacrament, the sacrament of churching, it’s like a sacrament of baptism or confirmation or communion or marriage.  They’re all sacraments of the church. That’s two older midwives, I bet.

Interviewer:   Yes, oh yes.

Esther:           Not sure anybody knows what churching means these days.

Interviewer:   No, I hadn’t heard about it. They told me about it. I must ask you what you think about the midwives and the doctors.  What was the relationship between the midwives and the doctors like? Would you say?

Esther:           Well in the olden days, in my days it was fabulous; absolutely fabulous.  I’ve just met a patient, forty years ago who’s come back from Australia and she had it written down in our open evening, her daughter wrote to her about it and said you know that her mum and dad were coming home, dad had driven.  I delivered one of those when I looked after that one, oh I must do something about this.  So I got in touch with somebody who’d got a street directory because she said she was coming to her sister, found out the name, then looked in the directory and found the person’s name, well two people in the directory.  So I rung up, one was obsolete the other one was out so I thought tomorrow morning, Sunday when I come from church I’ll go and find that one, so I thought I’ll go to the house, ask if I could speak to this lady and they said ‘oh she isn’t arrived yet, she’s over from Australia who would you be?’ I stood there and I thought well she won’t know me she’s her sister so I told her who I was and she said ‘oh she’d be delighted to see you, do come again.’  So this is what goes back to, we got talking and we were saying because she had to have um forceps in the house with her first baby and I was saying-, she said do you remember those two doctors and I said do I remember them, two little tiny doctors, I remember them coming out and I said do I remember what I said to them and what they said to me?  I said ‘oh I do hope I haven’t brought you out unnecessarily’ and doctor said ‘when the midwife sends, it is always necessary.’

Interviewer:   Ah, that’s wonderful isn’t it?

Esther:           That’s the standard everywhere.

Interviewer:   So you were an equal to the doctors, they respected you.

Esther:           That’s what he said ‘it’s always necessary.’  It’s lovely the olden doctors on the District were super.  You knew them as your friends, they allowed you in cars, sometimes one of them would say to my mum her doctor wasn’t mine, and she’d go down and he’d say, ‘saw your daughter on her rounds,’ he’d open his window to tell my mum.  I was on a bike see and you missed a lot when you came off the bike.  Although it was hard work, you knew all the people along, all the shop keepers knew you as a nurse going along on your old bike, trailing along.  Patients would be outside the houses sometimes and ‘how are you, have you got time to come in and have a cup of tea on your way back?’ Things like that.  We’ve lost a lot in the car.

Interviewer:   How did people get hold of you when-, if a woman was going into labour, how did she get hold of you?

Esther:           They used to come to the house, they had to come to your house, because you worked in areas, not all over the place like you probably do now.  You worked as I say in a specific area and then on your door when you went out, you tied a notice to say where you’d gone to.  If you were doing your nursings you put them in order, the approximate times then of when you’d be back finally.  Right, then on your rounds they’d pick you up you see in the middle of the night you’d hear somebody knock on the door and you’d say a lady wants to speak to you and you’d go and it’s another delivery, or could you come.  I’d say well I won’t be able to come just yet or I can leave this patient and come to you and then come back again.  Things like that you see; it’s how it used to work.

Interviewer:   So you often had to leave women in labour to go to another one?

Esther:           Oh yes and you were single handed you had nobody else community midwives hadn’t started then you see, not to come out with you like.

Interviewer:   So did you ever have a BBA?

Esther:           Um, not many, yes I did I must admit I have had a BBA or I’ve been sent to a BBA too.  Not many BBAs, you’d be surprised. Mind you we were dashing about like hooligans I can tell you that, from road to road it was terrific.  In the middle of the night trundling along you know. The thing was, you didn’t know whether to take your full bag with you.  What you used to do was put your mac on over you know your clothes and you’d think now how am I going to take my full bag, am I going to need it before I need it at this one, you know.  You used to have to try and get two sets of everything into it so you could move them along.

Interviewer:   That must have been heavy on your bike.

Esther:           Yeah it was.  Oh yes.

Interviewer:   How many babies do you reckon you’ve delivered?

Esther:           Oh I can’t remember how many I’ve delivered?

Interviewer:   In a week?

Esther:           Well that would vary, one weekend I had the most priceless weekend of all was seven, in a weekend.  Single handed and that’s when I had that big baby.  And I had- the only time I’ve done it twice but the only time I’ve been so desperate I was drunk, drunk tired.  There is such a thing.  You can be drunk on drinking say ten pints of water can go on drinking you know and get drunk.  You can be drunk tired and I was.  Only once.  That was that particular weekend and I delivered seven and I never went to my bed for four nights and four days and you used-, I was fed in the houses with bits of toast and never went for my meals at all.  I went from one to another, sterilising bowls in the houses as well on the round and when I got home on the last day, my legs were so swollen up to here I could not put them on the bed.  And when I went in, my mother said ‘at last you are home, where have you been?’ You know it was about seven in the morning, she heard me coming in and I said ‘oh mum, I don’t think I can get up the stairs.’ I dropped my bag in the hall, she came down, she pushed me up said I’ll go down and make a cup of tea, I always remember this story.  And when she came up I was laying on the floor she said that I have to get on the bed because I’m going to sleep.  I said ‘I’m too tired.  She said ‘let me get some clothes off for you, she helped me undress, pushed me onto the bed and I never woke up for 48 hours.  I never passed urine, I never woke for food, I never did anything and my mother was so frightened she rung in to find out if I was alright.  First she rung my supervisor because she’s just in a coma, so my supervisor said ‘well she’s been having lots of deliveries and everything’ she said, ‘go over and get her midwife then, get her down and see what she thinks.’ No she said she’s not in a coma, she’s just in a deep sleep.

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

Find out more about our collections on the RCM heritage blog:

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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