Our penultimate extract from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection is taken from an interview with ‘handywoman’ Lily Good. In Britain around the time of the First World War ‘handywoman’ was the name for a woman who attended births, nursed the sick and laid out the dead in her local community. During this period childbirth was not viewed as a medical process typically requiring a doctor and poorer families could rarely afford the necessary medical fees.
Before the Midwives Acts of the early 1900s made it illegal for uncertified women to attend women in childbirth, a handywoman’s main responsibility was midwifery. The medical knowledge and skills these women had were typically passed down from mother to daughter and some handywomen were responsible for overseeing the births of several generations within the same community. While handywoman occupied a vital role within their districts, the lack of medical regulations, formal training and oversight concerning childbirth and post-natal care could also put their patients at risk.
One of the early aims of the Midwives Institute (which later became the Royal College of Midwives) was to replace handywomen with trained professionals and to elevate the status of midwifery as a respected career for women. Under the 1902 Midwives Act no person could ‘habitually and for gain’ attend women in childbirth without the presence of a doctor unless they were a qualified and registered midwife. By the 1930s only a small number of handywomen remained active, most having been replaced by qualified midwives.
Lily Good was born in East London in 1894, the ninth of 18 children and the daughter of a trained midwife. She worked as a handywoman in the London Borough of Bexley for over 50 years and had eight children. Her neighbours would call her to attend them in childbirth, to nurse injuries and to lay out the dead. She was interviewed in 1990 and in this extract she describes what childbirth was like in her community during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and touches on topics including baby clothing and pain relief during labour.
Taken from The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives
Interview reference: RCMS/251/22
Click below for a transcript of this extract and details of how to access the collection.
Interviewer 1 Did your mum used to wear a big apron?
Lily Oh yes.
Interviewer 1 When she did the babies?
Lily Oh yeah, always wore aprons.
Interviewer 1 A white one?
Lily Well, all the young women used to wear aprons then. Never walked about without an apron on.
Interviewer 1 Wouldn’t they?
Lily No, had to mind their Ps and their Qs. Yes. They had to do as they were told.
Interviewer 1 Yes. Did you do as you were told?
Lily Sometimes. ((Laughter)) I used to tell them to do as they were told and all.
Interviewer 1 Did you?
Lily Yes. I used to say to the father sometimes, you know, I’d say, “You mind your own business; you’ve had your share”. ((Laughter)) I used to say to them, “You mind your own business; you’ve had your share”.
Interviewer 1 The fathers weren’t there at the birth, were they?
Interviewer 1 Never?
Lily No. I think… well, I don’t know; but still there you are. If he puts it there why can’t he see it? See what great work he’s done. ((Laughs)) True, isn’t it? See the great work, oh yes, the father. Still things are different now.
Interviewer 1 Yes, everything is different.
Lily Everything’s different now to what it used to be.
Interviewer 1 What about the other children, were they ever around when the babies were born?
Lily Not in the room, no.
Interviewer 1 A neighbour took them off or something?
Lily Well, it depends what type of place you had, you see. If you had plenty of room the kids would go in the other rooms and play, you see. There you are; that’s how things go.
Interviewer 1 Were there more neighbours to help?
Lily Well, not really.
Interviewer 1 You don’t think people helped each other out more?
Lily No. They’d say get on with it. You have to get on with it, don’t you? They don’t make a fuss when it’s there; but they make a damned fuss when it comes away. It goes in a little beat and comes out a dead weight. ((Laughter))
Interviewer 1 It’s true, yes, it is true.
Lily They smile at the first beginning, ooh yes, grand. But when it starts ooh ah, ooh, ah, yes. Never mind about the ooh ah; shoot it out. ((Laughs))
Interviewer 1 What did you do to help women with pain?
Lily What did I do?
Interviewer 1 To help them?
Lily I used to do lots of funny things. I used to put my arm around them sometimes and say, “Now, you’re going to the toilet, aren’t you? There’s a good girl. That’s right”. And I used to press their stomachs, you know.
Interviewer 1 Did you?
Lily And say, “Where’s the pain? There?” You know. I used to say, “Well, how long are your pains? How long between?” Perhaps an hour, half an hour; I’d say, “You’ve got some more to go through first”. I’d say, “You must have a Lincoln pain before you have the baby”.
Interviewer 1 A what?
Lily A Lincoln pain. That’s got your guessing.
Interviewer 1 It has!
Lily A Lincoln pain – they might call it a different name now – so, a Lincoln pain, you have a pain and just as you think it’s going back it comes, double fold.
Interviewer 1 Double peak?
Interviewer 2 Linking.
Lily Comes back, you see. And of course when they have their second pain with the Lincoln pain the head starts to show, you see.
Interviewer 1 I know what you’re talking about.
Lily I don’t know whether they call it the Lincoln pain now.
Interviewer 1 They don’t.
Lily Perhaps they call it good old England. I don’t know. ((Laughter))
Interviewer 1 I’ve never heard that before.
Interviewer 1 I’ve never heard it before, Lincoln.
Lily No, I don’t suppose you would; but it was always you had to have a Lincoln pain.
Interviewer 1 Where it goes in peaks? Yes, I know.
Lily You had a double one. Just one going on is all this, “Ooh, here it comes again”. ((Laughs))
Interviewer 1 I wonder why they called it Lincoln.
Interviewer 1 I wonder why they called it Lincoln.
Lily I don’t know.
Interviewer 2 I should think it’s linking; linking together.
Lily Always a Lincoln pain.
Interviewer 1 And then they’d start pushing.
Lily And then the head starts to come through, you know. That’s if they lift the shutter, you see. But of course if the shutter don’t lift the baby can’t come, can it? It’s like a person cuts your tongue out: if you cut your tongue out you can’t talk. ((Laughter))
Interviewer 2 Sounds a bit drastic.
Lily That’s true, isn’t it?
Interviewer 1 So, when you caught the baby, what did you do to stop tearing?
Lily The what?
Interviewer 1 Stop them from having a tear.
Interviewer 1 Did you just hold the baby’s head as it came?
Lily Well, not always.
Interviewer 1 So it came slowly?
Lily We had, um… let the baby’s head come through, and then you hold the baby’s head of course, you see. Then you say, “Well, how long have you got, mate? You going to lay there all the time? Come on, get cracking!” Yes, we used to massage the woman’s stomach, you know; just give her a press down again, you know. Then I’d say, “Come on, don’t lark about with me. That’s it.” ((Laughs))
Interviewer 1 And then what did you do when the baby was out?
Lily What did you do?
Interviewer 1 Yeah.
Lily Well, you had to wipe its eyes and mouth out, don’t you? Then before the afterbirth comes, you see, you have to time the pressure, the blood pressure. You hold the tube.
Interviewer 1 The cord, yeah.
Lily Yeah. And you hold it and you count the beats. When it’s so many beats you think it’s okay. You hold it about four inches away from the baby, you see. And you should hold it. And then you double it over like that, you see. And you hold it like that for a while. I don’t know how they do it now; but then you used to use flaps in those days. You’d put it round like that. But you don’t cut in that loop; you cut in the cord.
Interviewer 1 I’m with you. Is that before the placenta comes out? Before the afterbirth?
Lily Before the afterbirth comes?
Interviewer 1 Yeah.
Lily Oh, you would cut the cord before the afterbirth comes, yeah.
Interviewer 1 What did you do if the afterbirth didn’t come?
Lily The afterbirth didn’t come? It had to come; you had to force it, didn’t you?
Interviewer 1 How did you do that?
Lily Well, press on the stomach. Say, “Come on, go to the toilet, quick as you can. Not the front; the back”. ((Laughs))
Interviewer 1 You got them to push?
Lily Yeah. And not only that, in those days they used to fix towels to the bottom of the bed, you know, a roller towel. They used to put them on the bottom of the bed and they would give it to the mother in her hand, and they’d say, “Now, hold that, and when you feel a pain coming on think you’re horse is going to have a jump and pull” and that would help to pull it down. So, there you are.
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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.