I thought I’d continue with the theme that has taken over my blog posts so far – that of birthroom attendants – but this week I’d like to look at the period before the delivery. This necessitates the introduction of yet another admirable eighteenth-century lady, Elizabeth Parker of Alkincoats, near Preston in Lancashire. Here she is, and this is the best picture I can find of her beloved Alkincoats which was demolished in the mid-twentieth century.
Elizabeth and her correspondents were financially well-off as the daughters and wives of lesser landed gentlemen, attorneys, doctors, clerics, merchants and manufacturers, but they were not titled and did not display any particular aspirations to become so. She appears to have shared many personality traits with Frances Irwin, whom I wrote about in my first post, not least a strong character and a tendency to safely store her letters and diaries for the use of social historians 150 years later.
One of Elizabeth’s most regular correspondents was her Aunt Pellet in London. These letters are delightful to read, mainly because Aunt Pellet was (for want of a better description) an interfering old baggage. She struggled to write herself but dictated regular letters to her female companion Mary Bowen, often giving strong (and apparently unwelcome) advice to Elizabeth on a wide variety of topics. The connection appears to be one of duty for Elizabeth rather than any genuine affection – on the back of one particularly miserable letter, she has written in a tone dripping with sarcasm
‘The most sincere kind Generous and Friendly letter I ever rec’d from any one…’
I have not yet found out whether Aunt Pellet had any children of her own, however she clearly felt well within her rights to advise Elizabeth on the subject. Of particular concern to her is the presence of an experienced and socially suitable female friend in the weeks preceeding the birth.
In January 1754, Aunt Pellet’s letter talks of Elizabeth’s impending confinement and ‘begs you’ll take great care of yourself and should be glad to know if you have any agreeable neighbour that you can make free to have them with you often.’
A month later, she writes:
‘As my Mistress has so good an opinion of Doctor Clayton she begs you’ll follow his Directions in every Point – but she do entreat you Madam to have some Prudent Person with you During your month and thinks, as you have been so intimate with the Mrs Butlers thinks one of them to be a very proper person to be with them.’
To hammer her point home she continues:
‘your Good Aunt would be highly pleas’d to congratulate you on the Birth of either a Grand nephew or niece hoping for better success than the last…but begs you’ll now have to the Doctor time enough.’
This is a particularly low blow, the inference being quite clear – had Elizabeth had an experienced friend with her at the birth of her last child, its survival would have been more certain.
Elizabeth’s answer does not please her Aunt who writes on the 21st March:
‘My Mistress thinks it a Great piece of Providence that you have got a Good nurse which may justly be esteem’d a Treasure but my Mistress hopes you’ll excuse her when we tell you Madam she does by no means approve of your way of thinking in not to have some skilful friend about you when you ly in as she can’t suppose that either yourself or your servant can have much experience.’
The matter is raised again in her correspondence of the 27th March and the 7th April. Finally, on the 23rd April, Mrs Pellet receives satisfaction:
‘by your account of Mrs Shuttlesworth being with you Madam’ and looks forward ‘very soon to have the pleasure of an Epistle from Him of the Happy arrival of our Dear Little Stranger’.
There are a few things that strike me about this correspondence. One is the importance of a female attendant apparently in case of sudden labour – as was the case with Frances Irwin in my first post. Furthermore, this experienced woman is recommended in addition to a ‘good nurse’. Aunt Pellet clearly values the experience and advice of female birth attendants despite her professed confidence in the abilities of Doctor Clayton as opposed to an ‘ignorant woman’. Old habits die hard, perhaps.
The other point that jumps at me from this correspondence is a concern for the social standing of the attending woman. Aunt Pellet uses the words ‘agreeable’ and ‘prudent’ – it is not acceptable for Elizabeth to be attended by the village women. It is easy to see this as evidence of the social separation of communities that took place in the eighteenth-century yet it also demonstrates an awareness of the value of friendship and intimacy at this precarious and scary point in the lifecycle.
 Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, (Yale University Press, London, 1999).
 Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB.72.