Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ageing Aunts and their unwelcome advice…

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 Parker Alkincoats, Lancashire

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.[1]  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…’[2]

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.

[1] Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, (Yale University Press, London, 1999).

[2] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB.72.


Midwife or Surgeon? The obstetric choices of Quaker women in eighteenth-century Leeds

You may remember that my last post used the letters of Frances Irwin, wealthy heiress and politician, to suggest that the hegemony of male midwifery practitioners in the eighteenth century was perhaps not as total as has been previously thought.  Today I am going to use the Quaker women of Leeds to try and extend these conclusions to include other levels of eighteenth-century society.

The Society of Friends has a long-standing history in Leeds, claiming to have been recognised as a religious group since 1657, though not officially visible in the records until the Act of Toleration had been passed in 1689.  From this point onwards, the community grew rapidly and, by the last decades of the eighteenth century, was in the process of rebuilding the meeting house and local school in order to accommodate their increasing numbers.[1]

Quaker meeting

Quakers do not officially baptise their infants, however it is common practice for the new infant to be presented to the local meeting and recorded in the register of births. In the eighteenth century, an important element of this presentation was the presence of witnesses to the birth whose signatures were entered into the register.  The births are recorded on pre-printed certificates that say:

On the Twenty-Sixth Day of the Ninth Month; One Thousand seven Hundred and ninety eight, was born at Long Balk-house near Leeds in the Parish of Leeds in the County of York unto Samuewl Lepage Day-Salter there and Elizabeth his wife, a Son who was named John.

We, who were present at the said Birth, have subscribed our Names as Witnesses thereof.

Ann Watson (midwife)

Flo Milner

Susan Walker[2]

The West Yorkshire Archive Service holds the register for the years from 1798 to 1831, during which time 40% of deliveries appear to have been all-female affairs.  Of these all-female birthrooms, one woman usually signs herself ‘midwife’ whilst the others act as witnesses.  Where the register has been signed by a male obstetrician, his mark is always accompanied by those of two female attendants.

Some names pop up regularly.  Of the surgeons, James Tatham, William Hey and Thomas Chorley appear often.  Of the midwives, the most popular is Ann Watson.  There is also some familiarity in the names that are listed as witnesses – Hannah Wood, Susan Walker, and Flo Milner all appear several times which suggests that their experience of attending births and their status within the community gave them front row seats when such an event was imminent.

What is striking about these records is the wide variety of signatories.  The non-conformist nature of eighteenth-century Quakerism combined with a lack of baptism led to strict boundaries being drawn around their communities and it would be reasonable to assume that their pool of medical practitioners would be limited.  Instead, there seems to have been scope to draw on a wide range of midwives, obstetricians and attendants in birth.  This may, in part, be due to the community’s location in an expanding and modern industrial town but there is certainly scope for further research in this area.  Ann Giardina Hess’ work on the Quaker women of rural Southern England has concluded that the category of ‘sisterhood’ seems to have overruled religious boundaries in the provision of assistance during birth and it would be interesting to see if those conclusions could be replicated in other communities.[3]

It is clear, regardless of religious affiliation, that these women all had female attendants, even where they had chosen to be delivered by a male midwife, and that a significant percentage of this community chose to be delivered by a female midwife despite the credentials of male obstetricians having been firmly established for several decades. Furthermore, these female attendants were experienced, respected and (it can be assumed) knowledgeable – more than capable of dealing with an uncomplicated birth.  This takes us back to some of the questions that were raised in my last post – how did eighteenth-century women (and their predecessors for that matter) differentiate between the role of the midwife and that of the experienced attendant? And (given Frances’ tendency to describe the work of the midwife as a ‘performance’) how important was their role in a normal birth?

Answers on a postcard perhaps?!

[1] [accessed 20.32, 10th November 2013]

[2] West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds, WYL1356.

[3] Ann Giardina Hess, ‘Midwifery practice among the Quakers in southern rural England in the late seventeenth century’ in Hilary Marland (ed) The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe, (London: Routledge, 1993.