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] www.leedsquakers.org.uk/meetings/history [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.

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