Monthly Archives: May 2014

“I shall be very well, hold your tongue”: finding the voice of the mother in eighteenth-century childbirth.

I have infanticide on the brain at the moment, and not just because my own infants have discovered the joys of bickering. The more cases of infanticide I read as research for the article that I mentioned in my last post, the more hooked I become on them as a source of childbirth practices and procedures. Despite the problematic nature of these cases as sources, I consider them to be invaluable for my wider PhD particularly as they are one of the only documents through which the birth experience of poorer women can be accessed. Today’s post is going to look at the way a mother’s voice can be heard in an Old Bailey case from the middle of the eighteenth century.

The mother is surprisingly absent from accounts of childbirth, both in the eighteenth century and therefore in current scholarship. She is often depicted as a passive participant in the birth ceremony, one to whom birth is happening, who is being managed by more active participants such as the midwife, the birth attendants and even the infant itself.


(image: ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Is it realistic to believe that birthing mothers in the eighteenth century had no voice? Did they relinquish control to their midwives and attendants at the beginning of their labour and remain passive and compliant until they had recovered from their birth? I don’t think so. I have already discussed (in my first blog post) the way in which Frances Irwin described her midwife as a ‘performer’ implying that her role was ceremonial as much as it was a necessity. Some of the mothers that I have encountered in my research had several children, and they were active gossips attending the births of other women in their families and communities. Some were perhaps more experienced than the midwives that attended them and this leads me to question whose voice was loudest in the making of decisions throughout the birth.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to James Field, a day labourer in the parish of Enfield in 1766. He was accused of infanticide after both his wife and his sixth child were discovered dead by the local midwife and her attendants whom he had summoned when he realised that his wife was seriously ill. Through James’ testimony, we get a strong impression of his wife’s character even at this moment of crisis. He says:

‘I was bad 3 weeks, and my wife was bad a fortnight, with the fever and ague; we nursed one another as well as we could; she was worse that day, being the Thursday, than any day; I had had a pair of shoes of a shoemaker, and a bottle of stuff, which he sells for a pain in the side; I took 30, 40, 45 drops at a time; he said it would do my wife good; it had done me good; I gave her a few drops of it in a little tea; she thought herself better, after that she thought herself worse; then she desired me to make her a little gin hot; I got some, and gave her a dram of cold gin; she was very bad; I said, shall I fetch anybody; no, she said, she was a stranger in the place: I asked her again; she would not have any body sent for; she grew worse and worse. In about an hour after she drank the gin she miscarried; I said, dear heart, what is the reason you did not tell me of all this; why did you not tell me you was in labour; said she, I shall be very well, hold your tongue, I am as well as if I had 20 women here, I have done all the work myself.’

Mrs Field is unequivocal in her wishes and her husband acquiesces to them. He only goes to get help when ‘she grew so ill that I could not understand what she said’. When he does eventually go to fetch the local midwife, Dame Duck, he is severely chastised for his lack of action. She asks him:

‘where have you been all day; he said, at home; I said, why did you not come to me sooner, and I would have fetched three or four, or half a dozen women; he said, she would not let him come for anybody.’

I get the impression that there would have been fireworks in the birthroom had Mrs Field and Mistress Duck had a difference of opinion in the way that the birth was managed. Tragically, Mrs Field and the infant were found dead upon the arrival of the midwife and her assistants but her case serves to remind us that the birthing mother was not necessarily a passive creature despite her depiction as such in much of the medical literature.