I’m back! Turns out the final stages of a PhD are really hard work and take up all of your time. Who knew?!
Anyway, today’s blog is about the location of childbirth in the household. Throughout the eighteenth century, most women laboured and gave birth at home. Lying-in hospitals did make an appearance in the second half of the century (1749 in London, 1790 in Manchester) but these were slow to move northwards, and generally had rigorous entry requirements. Lying-in hospitals therefore catered to a very small number of lying-in women. For most families it was necessary to carve a birth space from the domestic space that they had available.
A designated birth space was a crucial element of a woman’s preparations for birth as her delivery date drew near. Birth in the eighteenth century was a lengthy process of labouring, delivery and lying-in and all but the very poorest women observed each stage of this process. During labour and delivery, access to the birth space was restricted to the labouring woman, her midwife, her mother, and her birth attendants. The birth space therefore had to be contained, it needed a fireplace from which to heat the room and make caudle, and it needed a bed in which the new mother could lie-in after the birth for a period of around four weeks.
In elite and middling houses, the acquisition of birth space was reasonably easy. Very wealthy women could have a suite of chambers that incorporated a birth room, a nursery and, sometimes, chambers to accommodate the midwife and the nurse. These individuals might take up residence in their rooms some time before the anticipated date of delivery. When Frances Irwin of Temple Newsam in Leeds gave birth to her second daughter in 1762, for example, she was delivered by her nurse. Frances wrote to her friend, Susan Stewart, that her daughter was ‘in such a Hurry that the performer [the midwife] could not arrive time enough.’ Being already resident in the household when Frances began to labour, Nurse Tyson was able to ‘act the part of Sage Femme with the utmost skill and propriety’ until the midwife arrived.
Temple Newsam House, Leeds
Women of middling status might not be able to requisition a suite of chambers in which to give birth, but they generally had their own sleeping chamber that fulfilled the requirements of a birth space. Reasonably prosperous urban families lived in a townhouse-style terrace – several stories high and accommodating two or three rooms on each floor – in which the creation of birth space was not hugely disruptive.
Creative thinking was required, however to create a birth space in smaller properties. In more modest middling homes, domestic space was arranged around the family business. This could mean that space within the property was shared with journeymen, apprentices as well as domestic servants. Space in these households was more flexible – temporary beds turned shops into sleeping spaces for example on a regular basis. In these houses, the main room of the house might be acquired for the purposes of giving birth, but only during the labour and delivery of the infant. Once the child had been born, and both mother and child washed, bound and placed into bed, the room would resume its usual domestic function.
Early 19thC slum dwelling in Manchester
The diary of Edmund Harrold, a Manchester wigmaker and bookseller, describes this type of temporary birth space during the delivery of his fourth daughter (and seventh child), Sarah, in 1712. The exact location of Harrold’s property during the period he kept his diary is not known, but it was somewhere in central Manchester. The accommodation was small, consisting of a shop and at least one chamber. Harrold lived there with his wife, also Sarah, and at least some of his six children as well as occasionally taking in lodgers. On the 22 November 1712, Harrold noted that Sarah had ‘made al her Mark’ in the house. This meant that she had rearranged the domestic space in order to create a space in which she could give birth. The following morning she was delivered of their daughter. Sadly, Sarah did not survive her lying-in period. Her recovery initially looked promising, but she quickly worsened and died less than four weeks after giving birth. Her decline was recorded in great detail by Harrold who, it appears, spent much of his time in the birth room with her. It can be inferred from Harrold’s diary entries that Sarah Harrold’s birthroom had resumed many of its domestic functions once the child had been delivered.
The bed was therefore central to ensuring that women of lower social status observed their lying-in. For women like Sarah Harrold, the bed was a place in which they could rest and recuperate from their travails whilst also enabling family life and business to continue with minimal disruptions. The bed itself could be contained by the bed curtains creating a small but sufficient birth space, and was generally situated in the main family living area so was close to the fire. What is more, all but the very poorest households had a bedstead making it an accessible birth space to all social levels. The childbed therefore framed most women’s experiences of childbirth and, as such, will be the topic of my next blog post – watch this space!
Susan Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollshouses’, Parergon 24:2 (2007), 47-67.
Dan Cruickshank and Peter Wyld, Georgian Townhouses and their Details (London: Butterworth, 1990).
Rosemary Sweet, The English Town, 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (London: Longman, 1999).