Fantastic Finds: A Mystery Midwifery Certificate from the 18th Century

You never know what you might find delving through a backlog of museum accessions. But that’s what makes it fun.

Earlier this month, our Museum Curator for the Royal College of Midwives Heritage Team uncovered a beautiful (if somewhat battered) 18th century midwifery certificate awarded to a Mary Burford of the City of London Lying-in Hospital. The certificate is dated 15th April 1779, which makes it the oldest item in the RCM Archive collection!

A new additon to our Archive: Mary Burford’s midwifery certificate, dated 1779

The text reads:

This is to Certify that Mary Burford has been regularly instructed and duly qualify’d in the Art of Midwifery at the City of London Lying-in Hospital.

In Witness wherof we sign our Hands

Nath[aniel] Hulme

Rob[er]t Maclannery

Ann Newby, Matron

But who was Mary Burford and how did the RCM Museum come to own her certificate? Unfortunately, the certificate arrived at our Museum sans paperwork and, if its age and wear is any indication, any memory of it arriving at the College is probably long gone.

As the Royal College of Midwives was not founded until the late 19th century, our Archive holds no details of Mary, her training or her career. But we have reached out to other archives who may be able to help trace her history (Watch this space!)

For now, we can tell you a little about the context of the certificate.

The City of London Lying-In Hospital

The City of London Lying-in Hospital opened in 1750 at London House in Aldersgate Street. Its full name was the ‘City of London Lying in Hospital for married women and sick and lame Outpatients.’ The hospital moved in 1751 from London House into Shaftesbury House, also in Aldersgate Street before a new purpose built hospital was opened in 1773.

City of London Lying-in Hospital: views of the front elevation and the courtyard elevation. Engraving by Benjamin Cole. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mary Burford’s certificate features a line drawing of the façade of Shaftesbury House in the background with three young children and two adults (one nursing). Underneath is a quotation from Bible, Jeremiah 4, verse 31.

‘For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child.’

‘Travail’ is another word for ‘labour’ and the verse is usually interpreted to mean that the first experience of great pain is usually the worst, as the sufferer has no prior experience to compare it to.

During this period all babies born in the City of London Lying-in Hospital were baptised publically in the hospital chapel and records of these baptisms provide a treasure trove of information for family and population historians. The hospital raised funds by taking collections during public baptisms and by inviting high earning donors to sermons, plays and musical concerts held on the grounds.

The Rare Books Collection of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists holds one of these sermons dated 1767.


Pages from ‘A sermon preached at the parish church of St. Andrew, Holborn, on Thursday, March 26, 1767, before the President, Vice-Presidents, Treasurer, and Governors, of the City of London Lying-In Hospital for Married Women, at Shaftesbury-house in Aldersgate-street’ by John Nicols.Credit: RCOG Library

Nathaniel Hulme

The first signatory of Mary Burford’s Certificate is Nathaniel Hulme (1732 –1807), Hulme was appointed physician to the City of London Lying-in Hospital in 1768. His seminal work Treatise on the Puerperal Fever was written based on his experiences there.

Silhouette Portrait of Nathaniel Hulme M.D., annotated with his name. RCOG Archive reference RCOG/PH13/27.

Ann Newby

Ann Newby is another interesting figure recorded on Mary Burford’s certificate. Mrs Newby was Matron of the City of London Lying-in Hospital from 1773 after being promoted from Assistant Matron. She served there for 36 years and received the silver medal of the Humane Society in 1803. She was credited with saving the lives of over 500 infants during her career and engaging in charitable programs to provide clothing for the hospital’s poorest patients. She died in 1813.

A Little Extra Care

Over the centuries, the certificate has weathered poor storage conditions on top of general wear and tear. The certificate has been attached to a wooden board with some kind of adhesive. It also suffered water damage at some point as well as several small tears around its edge and one fine rip through its middle.

Ready for the Archive: Mary Burford’s certificate repackaged in a polyester sleeve and archival folder.

Extreme fluctuations in moisture and temperature are devastating to paper records. Paper is made from organic materials which naturally absorb water, expanding and stretching as humidity rises. When the air dries, this water is leeched out of the fibres of the paper, causing them to contract and distort the shape of the document. After several cycles like this, paper begins to naturally degrade.

That delicious, vanilla-like smell from old Library books and records? That’s the smell of paper self-destructing.

Archives, Museums and Specialist Libraries work hard to slow down this natural aging process. Mary Burford’s certificate has been accessioned into the RCM Archive’s Special Collections, where it has received expert care.

It has been removed from its frame and been placed in archive-quality packaging, which is hardwearing, non-acidic and non-abrasive. The certificate will remain in our archive store, which contains climate controlling fans set to keep conditions inside as friendly to our paper-based collections as possible.

Our future plans for the certificate include having it reviewed by a Paper Conservator, who will provide additional advice on its care and potential restoration. We will also do our best to research Mary Burford to shed a little more light on this remarkable new addition to our Archive.

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