Call the real midwives - A trip down memory lane

By Hannah Dahlen on 07 July 2015 Midwifery

I grew up on stories of midwifery in the East End of London. It was probably one of the main reasons I became a midwife and went to the UK to undertake my midwifery training. My mum was a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s. When the TV series Call the Midwife came out my mum had already died and I felt very sad not to be able to share it with her. My mum’s best friend, Fiona Haines (my youngest oldest friend I call her) was able to share it with me recently when I was in the UK in June 2014. I also had the chance to talk to Valeria Brigden, another friend of Fiona and my mum who worked in the East End in the mid 1950s, and Sister Christina who was one of the nuns working during this period. Here is a story of a trip down memory lane with the real midwives from the East End of London.

Arriving at St Frideswide’s Mission House in 1959 - It was 1959 and my mum, her best friend Fiona and my grandfather stood on the steps of the imposing St Frideswide’s Mission House in Lodore Street in the East End of London. Knocking on the large wooden door of the 1890’s red brick building must have created some anxiety. Fiona remembers the door being opened by Jennifer Worth (then Jenny Lee who wrote the book Call the Midwife). Jennifer looked down her nose over a pair of glasses and said “I will let the sister superior know you are here.” “I was terrified,” says Fiona, “I thought what on earth have I got myself into.” Apparently my mum was doing a good job faking calmness, a characteristic that came to define her.

The real Nonnatus House (St Frideswide’s Mission House) was remembered as being cold, with the kitchen being the warmest place where everyone naturally congregated. The other popular place was the roof. When the weather was warmer the students and nuns would sew and knit on the roof. Valeria remembers asking Sister Monica to show her how to crochet a neckline for a knitted vest. “I’ll teach you,” said Sister Monica reaching for the knitting. Almost immediately she handed it back and said, “On second thoughts you can ask for help each time and that way you will remain humble.” I love the picture of my mum knitting on the roof, looking happy, mainly because as a child I remember it being her least favourite thing.

Stories from the East End. The next few months working with the nuns from the Community of St John the Divine was like stepping into a different world. For Fiona, who was the daughter of a British army officer, born in India during the time of British colonial rule and raised of the green countryside of Surrey (Julie Andrews was her neighbour), the East End was a real eye opener. Valeria remembers how the flats near where the Blackwell tunnel exit is now had a single toilet in the yard, no bathroom and five flights of stairs. Navigating the stairs would have been extremely difficult with small children, not to mention how hard it would have been for the midwives carrying heavy equipment required during births.

Fiona describes tiny flats where the bath was in the kitchen. Wood was stored in the bath and a wooden top covered the bath, turning it into a table used for meals. Children often slept, one at either end of the bed, or on the floor. It appears washing was not a frequent past time during this era.

Remembering the rats and flies, Fiona recalls women shaking out the rugs gnawed by the rodents and washing hanging across the communal squares and streets – though apparently it was never stolen. Catching fleas was done very effectively using a bar of wet soap. Fiona remembers this was one of the first things she learned to do.

The bedrooms at St Frideswide’s Mission House were basic, with iron bedsteads and everything appeared to be painted green, even the floor. Over each doorway to the rooms was the name of a virtue while over the bathroom door was the word ‘perseverance’ and opposite the telephone was the word ‘peace’.

Valeria remembers joining the nuns in the tiny chapel for worship. After lunch they would all have 45 minutes for crafts. When the weather was good this was undertaken on the roof of the mission house as is depicted in the pictures.

When you ask them if the film captured the period, they all agree it has. Women did arrive at the baby clinic in slippers and a scarf covering the rollers in their hair. Children were always outside and men would sit and play dominoes on the doorsteps. When they were going to a birth the children always knew where it was happening and would guide the midwives if this were needed. Neighbours would come over with blankets or hot water when someone was in labour. Birth was a very public, yet also private event. Fathers did not go anywhere near their wives when this was happening and the midwives would have been horrified had they done so. Even nearly a decade after this time my father was not allowed into my birth but remembers vividly the joy of being there for my brother’s birth.

Fiona remembers the fierce midwifery tutors they had and the most fierce was Sister Madeline. The student midwives would have to cycle under the River Thames to attend tutorials. Sister Madeline had a fat cat who seemed to shake with rage and was fierce like its owner. Fiona remembers her barking at the students, “What is the most important thing a new baby needs?” Usually cleanliness was given as the answer, upon which she would bark, “Rubbish, a baby cannot survive without warmth.” While the fierce Sister Madeline inspired terror in her students, once Fiona witnessed her laughing so much she was wiping away tears, but in doing so she had smeared the red pen she was using to mark students’ papers, all over her face. They never found out what was so funny but it was the answer someone had given in an exam paper to a question regarding what a midwife might find after a baby had been born at a railway station. Wouldn’t we love to know what it was? Who is Chummy?

There is much debate about who Chummy is and meeting Sister Christina confirmed for me what I had always suspected, that it could be my friend Fiona. At 5 feet 11 inches, born in India and rather poshly spoken, the resemblance to Chummy is uncanny. Fiona points out however, that she could ride a bike when she arrived, though she had to be given a ‘sit up and beg’ bike which was extricated from the convent cellar by the nuns to fit her very long legs. As a child I was convinced that Fiona’s legs seemed to go on forever. The bike was called Persephone as it came from the underworld.

Fiona on Persephone which was the only bike that would fit her long legs. Which stories are true? I asked the midwives which of the stories in the TV series Call the Midwife they recognised. The film producers did come and interview Fiona and Valeria and they went up to the Birmingham house where the retired nuns all live to meet them. They also took the nuns’ habits so they could accurately reproduce them. Sister Christina said the story about the birth of a baby on the boat was true but in the actual story it was the Captain’s wife, not his daughter, who gave birth. When in labour she climbed over the ship’s side to ring the midwife and then climbed back up onto the ship to give birth. The midwife had to lug her equipment up over the side of the ship too. When Sister Christina had her Jubilee (the 50th anniversary of her holy orders) the producers of the series came up to Birmingham to see what went on. This event appears in the episode where Sister Evangelina is given a pair of shoes amongst other gifts at her Jubilee. Sister Christina says the difference is she actually got an Ipad but this would not have looked very authentic in a show set in the 1950s.

Fiona remembers a woman being frightened to push her baby out as she feared it would be black. Much to everyone’s relief when it came out it had blue eyes and flaming red hair. In the TV series this story has the baby coming out black and it is rather more dramatic as a result.

For many years the people of Poplar were used to seeing nuns in habits riding the old bone shaker bikes. For a very rough part of London the midwives don’t ever recall feeling threatened, as they were so respected and protected by the community. Valeria recalls being accosted by a couple of boys wanting to rifle through her bags but before she could react one said, “Blimey, she’s a nurse, let ’er go.”

Once, when going to catch a baby on the Isle of Dogs, Valeria found the bridges were up to let barges through and when this happened they filled the width of the waterway. The men took pity on her and took her bags and bike and helped her to use the barges like a bridge, hauling her up the other side. She says a few hours later when she returned they were waiting to see if she had got there on time and all cheered when she confirmed she had.

When asked what the attitude to home births was in the 1950s, the response is interesting. Valeria remembers women being terrified to go to hospital as they thought they might die. Another big thing was they were not allowed to smoke on the ward. Now that is an interesting reason to choose homebirth. How times have changed! The strict 10 days of bed rest required after the birth, with no children visiting because of the fear they carried infections, meant the women wanted to be at home. “Did they stay in bed at home?” I asked. “Well they were supposed to,” says Fiona, “but we knew they didn’t because the soles of their feet were black.” Called to births around three times a week, they have few memories of disasters. It mostly went very well. Women were low risk but the midwives also believe the rationing after World War II meant people were eating a more balanced diet and this improved outcomes.

Visiting the real Nonnatus House

When I was in London in June staying with Fiona as well as interviewing her we decided to try and find the real Nonnatus House and take a trip down memory lane. We began by catching the Docklands Light Railway from Woolwich and changing at Poplar Station. We then made our way to All Saints Station. Coming up to the main street you could see the All Saints Church on the right where the nuns used to worship on a Sunday. As we walked past, Fiona told me of being called to a birth on a Sunday and having to run over to the church and peer under all the nuns’ wimples to find the right one to take with her to the birth.

We stopped at a pizza shop in the main street and asked if they knew where Lodore Street was. We were delighted to be told it was directly behind us. The landscape has changed dramatically since the days my mother cycled around the streets on her bike. Highrise flats now appear everywhere and there are not many of the original houses or landmarks left. Turning the corner into Lodore Street was like entering a time machine. St Frideswide’s Mission House was there, unchanged and timeless, looking exactly as it did when my mum and Fiona knocked on the door over half a century ago as young women. Built in 1892 it has been beautifully preserved and now contains a series of modern apartments. Fiona had not been back for 55 years and it was touching to watch the memories come flooding back. We knocked on the door and asked if we might look inside and they kindly let us. It is no longer dark green inside, rather it is very modern and white – but the landing is still the same and Fiona was able to point out where they had once stored the bikes.

“I worked here 55 years ago,” Fiona told the kind young woman who let us in.
“Do you know this is the real Nonnatus House,” I asked her, “from the series Call the Midwife?”