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75 years of maternity care

17 November, 2011

75 years of maternity care

The Barratt Maternity Home in Northampton opened in 1936. Northampton General Hospital's archive volunteer Sue Longworth explores the history of a facility that owes its existence to philanthropy.
Midwives magazine: Issue 7 :: 2011

The Barratt Maternity Home in Northampton opened in 1936. Northampton General Hospital’s archive volunteer Sue Longworth explores the history of a facility that owes its existence to philanthropy.

In 1934 Mr William Barratt, a local shoe manufacturer, donated £20,000 (£739,000 today) to build a maternity home in the grounds of Northampton General Hospital.

Prior to the opening of the Barratt Maternity Home, four out of five babies in Northamptonshire had been born at home. In 1935, the year before the home opened, a total of 1155 babies were born and 16 mothers with birth complications were admitted to Northampton General Hospital.

The Maternity and Child Welfare Committee paid the doctors’ and midwives’ bills if women were unable to afford the costs. There was also a home for unmarried mothers who were from outside the borough – presumably Northampton unmarried mothers were sent away to other homes outside of the county. The unmarried mothers stayed on for six months after confinement to be taught domestic skills.

The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Alice Barratt on 4 May 1935. William and Alice did not have children of their own and adopted two daughters. The home was officially opened by HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, on 4 July 1936. The two-storey building was fitted out with the latest clinical facilities and had 36 beds. Crowds lined the streets to see the Princess and 500 guests were invited to the opening ceremony.

In the beginning, mothers were reluctant to be admitted as home births prevailed at the time. The early years brought in many mothers with birth complications from the steel town of Corby, Northamptonshire. The Scottish migrants who had moved to Corby in the early 1930s were often malnourished and frequently women were suffering from rickets, which lead to problems during childbirth.

Mr Robert Watson, from Liverpool, was appointed honorary gynaecological and obstetric surgeon in 1935, and worked hard to establish the home. He became known locally as ‘the father of obstetrics’, and a ward in the home was named in his memory.

Miss Eleanor Hague also became a major figure in the home, first as a midwifery tutor, then as midwife-in-charge, rising to become matron of the Barratt in 1954. Her dedication was legendary and she worked tirelessly caring for her babies, mothers and staff. Her flat was in the home and effectively she was never off duty. Midwives knew they could call on her day or night for advice and support. She was known to take babies back to her flat if they were not taking feeds and there was cause for concern. In her first year the home had 40 beds and 700 babies were born. By the time she retired in 1965 the Barratt had 79 beds, and 2886 babies had been delivered.

Over the years, the maternity home has seen many changes, additions and updates reflecting the knowledge and technology of the time. The first premature baby unit at the home was established in 1950, but by the early 1960s it was obvious that a new unit was needed. Dr Harry Gosset, consultant paediatrician, and his planning team travelled the country visiting other units, gaining ideas to bring back to the Barratt. A new 36-cot special-care baby unit was opened in March 1965. Sadly, Dr Gosset died suddenly three weeks before the opening. The unit was named after him and is now a neonatal baby unit.

Sturtridge labour ward block was an extension to the Barratt, opened in 1970. The suite contained ten delivery rooms, four operative delivery rooms and an operating theatre. In 1998, the Barratt obtained its first birthing pool.

Since opening in 1936, it is estimated that 200,000 babies have been born at the home. Today, it offers 56 beds and has 25 cots in the neonatal unit.

The Barratt formed a team of home birth midwives in 2010. In the team’s first year, the number of local women having a home birth reached 7% – nearly three times the national average. In recognition of its work, the team won the RCM’s implementing government policy award in January 2011.

This year, the Barratt celebrated its 75th anniversary. At the ceremony in July were some of the first babies born at the home in 1936, including the first boy who was named William Barratt after the founder. The staff of the Barratt Maternity Home can not only be proud of what has gone before, but of the excellent standards of care they achieve in their professional practice today. 

Stipulations made by William Barratt
- He would be involved with the plans, design and colour schemes

- He would fund the building, but asked the local authorities to contribute to the upkeep

- It would be a separate building with its own front entrance

- The sister-in-charge would have midwifery qualifications, and the house officer obstetric experience

- Patients would contribute to their maintenance within their means

The Barratt School of Midwifery
The school was established in 1938. The six-month course for pupil midwives was later extended to a two-part training scheme. Part one of the training took place at the Barratt, and the second part at the Queen’s Institute, Barrack Road, Northampton. In 1970 the school relocated to the Sturtridge block, an extension of the Barratt, and was renamed the Sir Gordon Roberts School of Nursing and Midwifery. In later years it moved to Nene College, which then became the University of Northampton.

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