The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection: What does it take to be a good midwife?

For our final look at The Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection we’re bringing together a selection of extracts focusing on the question of what it takes to be a good midwife. After sharing anecdotes from their decades of training and experience, five midwives reflect on the strengths and personal qualities someone would need to succeed in midwifery.

But before the video we have a brief statement from the authors of The Midwife’s Tale who, through extensive research and hardwork, captured these unique and illuminating tales of pregnancy, childbirth, and women’s health during a pivotal time in British history.

“Between the years 1982-1992, we interviewed women who gave birth in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and midwives who provided care in pre-NHS England. The women (and one man) who we interviewed were all born around the beginning of the 20th century and their stories are often ones involving poverty, struggle and resilience in an era of profound social change. As we re-visit these stories through this collection, we still find them as moving and inspiring as we did more than three decades ago when we first heard them.

We hope that the collection will encourage people to read The Midwife’s Tale and explore the way we carried out the interviews and how we decided to organise the stories around the professionalisation and development of midwifery in pre-NHS England. We are reminded though, that there is a wealth of material that did not make it into The Midwife’s Tale. We trust, therefore, that others may be able to explore unpublished areas of interest within the collection through our sharing of the original interviews and archival materials.

As is obvious from listening to the recordings we were not researchers with a clear research plan; neither were we intending to write a book when we carried out most of the interviews! We were simply practising midwives with a passionate interest in talking with elderly women (including midwives) and learning about their lives and experiences of childbirth. We hope that this means that the collection will appeal to those who share a similar curiosity about women’s lives and childbirth as well as those who are engaged in more formal historical research.

We are delighted that this collection has been made accessible online and thank the RCOG archivists for all the work they have done to make this possible. In particular, we thank Carly Randall, whose creativity and skills have brought the resource to a point where it is ‘alive’ and delightfully user-friendly.”

— Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter. June 2016


Taken from the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection in the archives of the Royal College of Midwives
Interview references: RCMS/251/6; RCMS/251/7; RCMS/251/19; RCMS/251/5

Click below for a transcript of these extracts:

Elsie Kirk

Interviewer: I wonder if you’ve got any tips for young midwives nowadays?

Elsie: I don’t know! ((laughingly))  Things have changed so much.

Interviewer: But having a baby hasn’t really changed, it’s still the same.

Elsie: Oh yes, that’s quite true.  Well, I think they’ve got to be in sympathy with the patient to start with, and have patience, that’s the chief thing, not try to hurry things, let nature take its course.  Some people say it’s only the babies you like, but of course it isn’t, it’s the mothers as well, and you can help to enjoy the baby with the mother.

Interviewer: What do you think it needs to be a good midwife?

Elsie: Well, kindness for one thing, you have to be in sympathy with your patient, and patience, a love of the job, and of course the ability to recognise anything abnormal, that’s very necessary.  We had a, my mother craft classes, of course, we’d do private, but at one occasion I had a woman who was having a second baby, and she was very, very nervous because she’d had a difficult time with her first baby, and she asked if she could come…

Elsie: …so we let her, and eh, as it happened, I was with her when she had this second baby, and she had a rather difficult second stage, and do you know, she had a 12 pound baby. If I’d realised it was going to be so big I might have sent for the doctor to put her on forceps, but she did deliver it normally and she wasn’t frightened, she’d gained, she had confidence in me, you see.

Interviewer: That’s very important, isn’t it?

Elsie: Very important.


Esther S

Interviewer: Have you got any tips for midwives nowadays about anything you’d like to pass on?

Esther: Well I think the midwife in her own mind should remember that the mother is important to her, you know?  Not let-, she is the most important person, the midwife she isn’t, the mother is the important person.  And there again, I think the baby takes over too as it’s seen.  In that case though it’s the mothers that have changed not the babies as I said to you before.  The baby never alters, it’s the mother that alters but the midwives are important too because her attitude to her patient sometimes, they’re so much more learned than we were.

Esther: I mean the training is so much better as regards what we had, it’s so much deeper but it’s become very mechanical, it’s all machine-wise to what ours-, ours was all just practical daily work and knowledge.  But we hadn’t got the knowledge that you midwives have got.

Interviewer: I think you had a different sort of knowledge though.

Esther: Well, it was different, yeah, practical knowledge but not such, I mean as I say I couldn’t compete with another midwife now what with all these machines and everything and her knowledge.  But I probably could lay out the room and deliver a baby where she wouldn’t have got which end to start you know?

Esther: Because she’s never had that training. What else can I say? But I think you have to be their friend, this is how I found it.  Even now if you can befriend a mother and get her on a level with you, you know, an understanding you’ll do far, far better in keeping that- never being too familiar without keeping your patient you know too much of the ‘I’m the midwife and you’re the patient.’


Kath and Margaret

Interviewer: This is a difficult question: what do you think you need to be a good midwife?

Margaret: Patience. ((Laughter))

Interviewer: She’s right.

Kath: I think it’s, I think it’s, I think it’s, um, I think it’s liking the mother, you know. When somebody comes and sits on your couch and says, your, your, um, yes your couch, and says they’re going to have a baby, and, and somehow or another you take over and you think oh, this is, this is…

Kath: …you’re going to see something come into the world from this mother. And you get extremely fond of your patients – some of them you don’t; but mostly you have a feeling for them, don’t you?

Margaret: Oh yes, yes.


Elizabeth C

Interviewer: What do you think you need to be a good midwife?  What qualities?

Elizabeth: Patience, tact.  Not to say the wrong thing.  ((Laughingly)) One pupil said, “ugly little bugger he’s the picture of his father” ((both laugh)).  I was going, ah country girl, you’re not allowed to say he’s the picture of his father. Picture of his father. Mother wasn’t too pleased at hearing that.

Interviewer: I bet she wasn’t.

Elizabeth: You want patience and tact and sympathy. If you’re going to do it satisfactorily.

Interviewer: Do you feel it was a vocation for you?

Elizabeth: Oh, it was a vocation for me. I was in my element. People say, oh, you can’t have done. I say, I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the – up at nights. You were doing something, you see. Once the fun began, you didn’t feel tired.

Interviewer: That’s right.

Elizabeth: You might come in, in the morning and just fall into bed.

Interviewer: Yes, you find energy from somewhere you didn’t know –

Elizabeth: You found energy you didn’t know you had.


How to Access the Midwife’s Tale Oral History Collection

Descriptions Online

Full descriptions of the collection are available via the Royal College of Midwives Archive Catalogue hosted by the Archives Hub (scroll down to reference RCMS/251).


Full transcripts of all interviews are freely available for download from the Royal College of Midwives website.

Audio Interviews

Reference copies are accessible at the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

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


Digital copies of interviews, for research purposes only, are also available remotely through the archive.

Write, call or email us to make an enquiry, or to order digital copies (free via Dropbox) for personal and non-commercial research.



Copyright permission is required for commercial use of audio and/or transcripts.

Transcripts and audio files are copyright of the authors Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap.


We would like to thank the people who made releasing this collection possible: Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter, the interviewers and authors of The Midwife’s Tale; the interviewees and their families; Reuben Hunter-McHardy, for digitising the original audio cassette tapes; Penny Hutchins, former Archivist of the Royal College of Midwives, for cataloguing the collection.

Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter, The Midwife’s Tale: an Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2013

The book published after the collection of these oral histories is available for purchase in bookshops and online stores (RRP £14.99). Reference copies of the current and previous editions are available at the library of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

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