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Health News

My 'Call the Midwife' experience was far less uplifting

As the BBC's drama series finishes tonight, Joyce Prince recalls her own far less cosy training in the squalor of London's slums 60 years ago

The TV drama series Call the Midwife, which ends its run this evening, is based on the real-life memoir of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a domiciliary midwife in London's Docklands in the 1950s.

The BBC1 drama brings to life the vibrant, gritty resilience of the overcrowded slum-dwellers. The midwife teams of the newly formed National Health Service are nobly portrayed, responding to the unrelenting demands of childbirth. Much of Call the Midwife is moving and uplifting; the courage of the women and the small miracle of each birth, especially the more difficult deliveries. Often it is the NHS itself that is the real hero, giving mothers and babies high quality, free-of-charge, professional assistance.

The stories of these midwives, so beautifully recreated, are entrancingly, almost painfully evocative. A few years before Jennifer Worth started her work in Docklands, I was a pupil midwife, under the supervision of a London County Council midwife tutor. My own recollections are of a less happy, sometimes even sinister picture of life in London's slum tenement buildings. The arrival of a new baby was not always a precious gift of happiness – sometimes it meant another insatiable dependent, and, occasionally, a new life that could not be properly explained.

My school life and the war ended in the same year, so my plan to go to university was frustrated by the brave young men returning from soldiering who had prior claim on university places. My mother's brisk advice was that I should train as a nurse. "It will open up opportunities for you anywhere in the world," she said. I did her bidding and followed up with a specialised course in midwifery, the final part of which entailed some months "on the district".

My district was an area between Shepherd's Bush and Notting Hill. The grey squalor of 60 years ago is now hardly imaginable. From the cosseting green fields of Somerset, where I was brought up, the inner-city sights came as something of a shock – but it was also an exciting adventure. And midwifery was an enormously attractive job because of the independence it afforded.

I "lived in" with my midwife tutor, Mrs James. She had a fine house a distance away from the area where we worked. She made a great impression on me as a teacher, a midwife and, most of all, as a woman concerned for, and involved with, the women whose lives were so different from hers.

On our first call she said firmly: "We are going into a woman's home to take care of a birth. Look neither to right nor left. There's probably an escapee prisoner in the wardrobe [from nearby Wormwood Scrubs] and stolen goods under the bed." I never looked under a bed, and asked no questions about noises from the cupboard. The buildings often had human excrement on the floors and walls, and common lavatories were shared between several flats. One birth almost took place in total darkness, as the mother had no money for the electric meter. Having fed the meter, I could see that there was no cot for the baby. I could not agree to the mother's suggestion that she have the baby in bed with her. There was always the fear that she might roll on to the child and suffocate it. We called it "overlaying". There was always the suspicion that it was deliberate. I am afraid that "overlaying" was more or less accepted as a way of keeping the family to a manageable size. I found a kitchen drawer, tipped out the few kitchen implements, and placed the baby in it. When I left I asked the mother to have a proper cot, bedding and a baby gown when I returned in the morning. By 9am she had it all. Her neighbours had undoubtedly rallied round in response to her shouts. I wonder if things happen like that today?

On one particularly disturbing occasion we arrived after the birth had taken place. The woman was complaining that she tripped, and dropped the baby in a bowl of boiling water. It had died in the accident.

On another occasion there were two other young children in the room, sleeping on a pile of newspapers, but my notes said the mother was having her fourth baby. "Where is your third child?" I enquired. "Unfortunately I overlaid it," she said. I am not sure how the coroners dealt with overlaying.

Mrs James played an important role in supporting women who had to explain themselves in the courts. She listened carefully and non-judgementally to their story. As a pupil, I never got involved with that side of things and Mrs James never discussed what I can only think now was collusion in infanticide. There was no way that these disadvantaged women could access reliable information as to how they might control their fertility.

Call the Midwife shows a cheerier world than I recall, but it is wonderful to see the skills of midwifery celebrated, and to witness the very early years of the NHS which has helped so much to change our society for the better. We have to protect it.