Monthly Archives: November 2014

“I grew weary of my Toil”: Part II

A while ago, I blogged ‘I grew weary of my Toil’ Part I, an account of William Hey’s brutal attempts to extract a dead infant from the body of its mother. You may recall that Hey barely mentioned his patients, except to say that the mother

‘recovered pretty well, only had sore Breasts thro’ improper Application.’

In this post, I’d like to try and put Hey’s account into context. Brief internet searches have identified only one Joseph Fowler of Pudsey during this period. He is listed in the register of baptisms as a clothier, and father of Jonathan whom he had baptised in 1747. Now, this may not be the Joseph Fowler referred to by William Hey, but it is equally conceivable that he could be. Whilst I’m making blanket assumptions, I have decided that Mr Fowler was a mid-level clothier, perhaps living in a few rooms over his workshop.

19thC. Pudsey High Street Map of Pudsey

In Hey’s account, he noted

‘I was sent to for to deliver the Wife of Josp. Fowler of Pudsey of a second Child, the former being born the day before.’

Mrs Fowler was clearly experiencing her first birth, and was in the process of delivering twins. This process must have started at least twenty-four hours previously when she felt her first labour pains. In all likelihood, she would have had women around her who had given birth and so would have recognised the signs.[1] Once labour had begun, she would have ‘made al her mak.’[2] This would involve arranging the living space to accommodate a birth, making up the bed, protecting the mattress, and sometimes arranging a straw pallet bed near the fire for the messy bit. It would also involve summoning some women to attend to her during her labour – between two and four appears to be quite usual. Caudle – a mixture of alcohol, oatmeal, egg and spices – would be boiled up over the fire ready to provide energy to the labouring mother and refreshment to her attendants. Childbed linen – either made by Mrs Fowler or borrowed from her friends and family – would be fetched from the drawers or chests in which they had been stored.

Whilst all this was going on, Mrs Fowler would have progressed through the latent stages of labour, as her cervix gradually dilated to somewhere between six and eight centimetres. She would have been experiencing contractions of between 40 and 60 seconds every three to four minutes. Once the cervix has dilated by eight centimetres, the mother becomes ‘transitional’ which means that the pressure of the baby on her cervix caused it to fully open to ten centimetres. At this stage, Mrs Fowler would have been experiencing very strong contractions, 60 to 90 seconds long, every two to three minutes. Hopefully, after less than an hour of these, her first child would have been born. She would then have had a brief period of respite (no more than a few minutes according to ‘Netmums’) before starting the transitional phase again to deliver baby number two.

Unfortunately for Mrs Fowler, baby number two became stuck with its arm through the cervix. Hey noted that the waters of this infant had broken three hours prior to his arrival. She may therefore have been experiencing strong and intense contractions for a minimum of around four hours before Hey arrived to relieve her[3]. She would not have had any pain relief. During this time, she would have experienced intensely painful internal inspections from her midwife to check on the progression of this second labour. It is pretty reasonable to assume that she was weak and exhausted.

In this context, the brutality of Hey’s actions upon reaching Mrs Fowler becomes more understandable. After spending so long in the birth canal, the infant was probably dead – Hey’s mission was to save the mother and to do so quickly before she, too, died. For him, the priority lay in extracting the infant as quickly as possible and, to that end, he showed a considerable about of skill and persistence. Forceps would not have worked in this situation, and, had his manual extraction not worked he would have had to dismember the infant in the womb with the attendant risks of accidentally damaging her internal organs.

It is a difficult balance to strike as an historian. Compassion and empathy with the people that we study makes us better scholars. It helps us in our mission to understand the past and to interpret the actions of those we study. Yet we also need to maintain a professional distance from our subjects and to consider our own emotional and environmental drivers when we are writing. When I wrote my first blog post, I had spent several evenings reading Hey’s notebooks – his vivid descriptions of using the hook to extract a dead child – while my own children were tucked up asleep in the next room. I found myself physically aching after a couple of hours transcribing his notes from what I considered the barbaric brutality of his methods and the horror of his reports. With a little bit of distance, however, I can see that Hey did save lives – lives which might otherwise have faded away from exhaustion and septicaemia while friends, mothers and husbands watched.

[1] Eighteenth-century letters show a concern to make sure that heavily pregnant women were constantly accompanied in case of sudden labour and to help them recognise the early stages of a birth.

[2] This is taken from the diary of Edmund Harrold, an eighteenth-century wigmaker, as he described the birth of his daughter, Sarah.

[3] From a modern perspective, the transitional phase lasts between 15 minutes and one hour. Any longer would probably result in an emergency caesarean being performed.