Category Archives: Birth

Setting the Stage: The Childbed

I know, I know.  It’s been ages (again).  I would offer you the usual excuses (post-doc applications, job hunting, life, etc.) but you’ve heard them all before.

In my last blog post, I wrote about locating birth within the household – just where did women give birth to their children?  This time, I am going to narrow the focus a bit by writing about the childbed.  Now, those of you that have attended any of my recent public talks will know that I am a little obsessive about beds and their different manifestations.  In almost all houses, beds were the stages upon which the dramas of family life were played out.  Birth, death, sickness, sex, intimacy, arguments, violence – all could be played out within the curtains of the same bed.  Beds signified status, wealth and even (as you will see if you sign up for the next instalment of this blog!) neighbourly interactions.  Unsurprisingly, then, the bed was central to the process of giving birth in the eighteenth century.

Upon recognising the signs of early labour, the bed needed to be prepared for the messy business of giving birth.  Most professional midwives recommended that women give birth in bed on a complicated arrangement of sheets to protect the expensive mattress from what Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University described as the ‘stagnant animal effluvia’ of birth.[1]  Nice.  To many of these writers, it was important not to move the new mother once the infant was delivered, so the layers of sheets were designed to pull out from under her to keep the bed clean.  Our old friend William Smellie recommended that:

The London method is very convenient in natural and easy labours; the patient lies in bed upon one side, the knees being contracted to the belly and a pillow put between them to keep them asunder. But the most commodious method is to prepare a bed and a couch in the same room, a piece of oiled cloth or dressed sheep skin is laid across the middle of each, over the undersheet, and above this are spread several folds of linen, pinned, or tied with tape to each side of the bed and couch; these are designed to spunge up moisture in time of labour and after delivery, while the oiled cloths or sheep-skins below, preserve the feather bed from being wetted or spoiled: for this purpose, some people lay besides upon the bed, several undersheets over one another, so that by sliding out the uppermost every day, they can keep the bed dry and comfortable.[2]

Alexander Hamilton’s method of preparing the bed required no less than six sheets in addition to an oil cloth, a hair mattress and a coarse blanket.[3]  Clearly, both men had their wealthy patients in mind in making these recommendations.

Despite their wealth, however, Hamilton’s and Smellie’s clients were as likely to borrow their childbed linen as purchase it.  Research by Janelle Jenstad has suggested that borrowing childbed linen from your social superiors articulated the breadth of your social connections to the many visitors that would be present in your birthroom in the weeks that followed the birth. [4]  This may have been falling out of fashion as the eighteenth century progressed and textiles became cheaper to acquire.  Amongst Yorkshire Viscountess Frances Irwin’s papers, for example, is a printed advertisement for ‘Elliott’s Plume of Feathers’ in Covent Garden who could provide, amongst other things, ‘all Sorts of Child bed Linnen, Baskets, Blankets, Mantles & Robes’.  I don’t know if Frances made any purchases from Elliott’s – but the fact that Elliott placed childbed linen at the head of his advert does suggest that it was one of his best sellers.

Madame Bagge and her husband - recieving visitors after childbirth. 1782.
Madame Bagge and her husband receiving visitors after giving birth, 1772.


Many women did not, however, give birth in their beds. Middling and lower status women gave birth on temporary beds that could be hygienically disposed once the messiest bit was over.  William Hey – obstetrician, surgeon and founder of the Leeds General Infirmary – recorded how, in 1760, he ‘placed [his patient] on the Hands and Knees upon another Bed laid on the floor’ having been unable to deliver her London-style.  Pierre Dionis, a French man-midwife, suggested in his General Treatise of Midwifery that ‘the Woman is plac’d upon a little Palate-Bed’ to allow the midwife better access to the business end of things as labour progressed.   A palate bed was a mattress placed on the floor and tucked away when not in use.

Low status women used straw in place of a pallet bed, as suggested by the term ‘lady in the straw’ to describe a women giving birth.  This straw might have been woven into a mattress as part of the wider preparations for childbirth.  Dr Sasha Handley generously drew my attention to this rather fine specimen (now at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading) that had been used as loft insulation in a house in Titchfield, Hampshire.

Mattresses like this had the added benefit of being burned once they had been soiled. Once these women had been delivered, they could carefully be moved to their beds to recover.

As I suggested in my opening paragraph, however, beds were more than simply spaces in which birth took place.  They were emotional and spiritual spaces and, as such, provided the focus for the wider social and cultural experiences of childbirth.  My next blog post (hopefully in just two weeks so long as stick to my only new year’s resolution) will explore this emotional and symbolic role in a bit more detail.

[1] Hamilton, The Female Family Physician, p.216.

[2] Smellie, Treatise on Midwifery, p.124

[3] Hamilton, The Female Family Physician, p.216.

[4] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: The Lisle Letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 34, 2, (2004), pp.373-403,  p.374.


Time, touch, emotion and swaddling


I have a bee in my bonnet about swaddling. Really, I should currently be tearing my hair out trying to finish a document entitled ‘What is my thesis about?’, but the bee is buzzing quite loudly so I have given in.   The history of early infancy has traditionally been one of (at best) benign neglect (though this has obviously been challenged in more recent scholarship). High levels of infant mortality, economic pressures, and large families were just some of the reasons that infants might be swaddled tightly and either slung over mum’s shoulder, hung from the rafters or handed over to the care of a child not much older than itself. Karin Calvert has written about how swaddling made a child idiot-proof by holding it rigid and supporting the neck.[1] Where a swaddling board was used, the child could even be protected from falls or being dropped (she cites cases of infants being injured whilst being thrown back and forth between two carers like a rugby ball). Traditional accounts of swaddling talk of infants screaming from the restriction, accidentally stuck with pins and rarely changed. The authors that wrote these tracts undoubtedly had an axe to grind yet this the view of swaddling has remained remarkably persistent. I should like to offer an alternative.

Firstly, I would like to draw upon my own experiences of parenthood and the sore bottoms of infants. Neither of my babies suffered from particularly sensitive skin, but one of them went through a phase of dirtying her nappy at night but not waking up to inform me. Within two nights, the skin on her bottom was red, sore and beginning to break down. I became so concerned about septicaemia, that I began setting my alarm at intervals during the night so that I could check her nappy and change it where necessary. I must add that I value my sleep. I only did this because I felt there was a serious risk of blood poisoning if I didn’t. If babies in history had been left in their own faecal matter for long periods of time, I seriously doubt that the human race would have survived.

Let’s assume, then, that an early modern child was changed at least twice in any twenty-four hour period. I have plucked this figure from mid-air and I feel that it is pretty conservative. Even with environmentally unfriendly but extremely absorbent modern disposable nappies, babies require changing every four hours or so during the day. I did use fabric nappies with my children when they were at home, and these needed changing AT LEAST every two hours to prevent ‘incidents’. With this in mind, read this brilliantly detailed description of the process of swaddling that was recently blogged by Katy Canales of the V&A Museum.[2]

There was also much concern that babies were more vulnerable to the cold and carers would dress the child with a plethora of layers. These layers included a rectangular shaped clout or napkin (nappy). The nappy would be folded in two and inside they would put a bed of sphagnum moss or soft rags to absorb the waste, which could then be rinsed out and reused. There would be a ‘bellyband’ or a binder which was a strip of linen cloth which would be wrapped around the baby’s stomach to support the abdomen and protect the bellybutton. On top of that would be a front or back opening, linen shirt. On the baby’s head would be a triangular shaped cloth and one to two caps. The first cap was usually rather plain with the second one being rather more decorative. Then a ‘bed’ which was a rectangular shaped cloth with pleats at the top, would be wrapped around the baby and folded over its feet. This would effectively make a tidy bundle of the baby and hold down its limbs. Over this a three metre long swaddleband (a band of linen) would be wrapped or swaddled around the child in a variety of diagonal or herringbone patterns. A bib could then be added on top. The last layer was a ‘stayband’ whose function was to keep the head stable. This band was placed under the cap and pinned to the clothes at shoulder level.

Now let’s think about the physicality of this description. Imagine that you were changing this infant – it’s going to be a girl because I’m used to changing nappies on girls! You would need a stable surface upon which to place her – maybe your lap while you sat on a chair, maybe on the floor, or maybe on a bed or settle. You would have to be on the same level as her, sat next to her on the bed, knelt on the floor in front of her. Then you would need to unwrap her. You would have to be quite close, bent over her, in order to make sure that you removed all of the pins. She would have her eyes fixed on your face, because babies love faces. I know I would be talking to her, or pulling funny faces, or singing songs. As soon as you had taken the wrapping off, she would move. The extent of her movement would depend on her age but she would stretch, flex her fingers and her toes, arch her back. You would have to clean her. Water is still considered the best thing to use on newborn skin, so you would use a cloth dipped in water to wipe her.   Again, even with the advent of modern ‘nappy technology’ it is amazing how far babies can spread bodily substances. This would not be a quick job. If you don’t do it well, it accelerates skin breakdown. You might apply a homemade balm to her skin (the production of which, in itself, may have taken no small amount of time), stretching and straightening her limbs as you applied it. Then, you would start the process of wrapping her back up again.

Swaddling has gone down in history as a cruel and restrictive practice. It has become associated with uninterested and neglectful parenting. Yet, we know that early modern parents loved their children, you only have to look at Foundling Hospital tokens to understand the strength of their emotion. Examined from a physical perspective, swaddling practices could present the opportunity for touch, time and emotion to be shared between a child and it’s carer as well as representing an attempt to preserve their safety in infancy by restricting their movement.

[1] Karin Calvert, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood 1600-1900 (1992).

[2] I am sorry that I not sufficiently technological to have worked out how to hyperlink to her blog. Here is the full web address if it helps!

Where were the servants?!

In my recent supervision, my supervisors (@SashaHandley and @HistoryHannahB) asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. Those of you that know them will understand that this is not an unusual occurrence, despite my best efforts. This particular question, however, has haunted me – partly because I can’t answer it, and partly because I don’t know how to go about finding the answer. It arose as part of a discussion around the chapter I am currently writing on family and childbirth, specifically, the individuals that populated birthrooms in the eighteenth century. The question was this:

“Where were the servants?”


Good question.

Where WERE they?

My research relies heavily upon personal accounts of birth and the various events and rituals that surrounded it, and I can’t think of a single instance where a daily servant has been mentioned. Frances Irwin talked of her Nurse, who stepped into the breach and delivered her child when the midwife was detained, but Nurses weren’t really servants. Not in the traditional sense of the term, anyway. They were employed for a short period of time, to assist with the birth and the lying-in. As such, their duties were clearly defined. Their relationship to their employer differed to that between daily servants and their mistress.

The principle of Occam’s razor would suggest that the servants simply weren’t there, but I can’t believe that. In a large proportion of cases, the relationship between mistress and servant was intimate, at least in terms of physical proximity and knowledge if not emotionally. Depending upon the social status of both employer and employee, a servant would have changed and washed bed linen, dressed her employer, brought her food and drink, helped her with her work. She may even have shared a bed chamber with her. Is it realistic to believe that she would be excluded from the household, or banished to the kitchen while the birth took place? Or is it more likely that she would be required to assist: to make caudle, to change and launder sheets, prepare clothes and compresses? Would she care for older children? Who emptied the water? Who disposed of the pallet bed upon which the birth may have taken place? Who brought logs for the fire? Even if caudle was prepared by the birthroom attendants, who procured the ingredients? Who brought them to the birthroom when they were required? For poor women, these jobs may have been done by the friends and neighbours that attended the birth, but would this still have been the case in houses where help was employed? I simply can’t believe that daily servants weren’t involved in the process of a birth.


So. Why can’t I find them?

One explanation is that they were invisible. The jobs that they undertook were not mentioned in letters and diaries because it was assumed that they would be done. If this was the case, however, I would expect to find instances in which servants had not performed appropriately, or had performed particularly exceptionally during a birth and (so far) I haven’t.

Is it connected to social status? Very poor women would not have employed daily servants. Middling and elite women would have had lots of servants, and were used to seeing (or deliberately not-seeing) them therefore may not mention their actions in their writings. The women that I would expect to find writing about their servants would be those who employed only one or two, and who shared living and working space with them. Women of this status are under-represented in my research, though not totally absent. Yet I have still to find any reference to servants in the birthroom, though daily servants are occasionally mentioned.

Perhaps it is due to source survival. Despite my best efforts, accounts of an actual delivery (excluding those written by medical men) are difficult to find. Perhaps, by the time women were sufficiently recovered to provide me with written sources again (after their lying-in was completed) the servants had returned to their usual duties. As with my first point, however, if it was simply about source survival I would still expect to find an occasional mention of good/bad servant behaviour during the birth.

Age may have had an impact, as my research suggests that knowledge about birth was strictly confined to married women, and preferably those that had given birth themselves. Would unmarried servants have been excluded from the birthroom after all, particularly when delivery became imminent? It is possible, yet women of varied status worked as daily servants. Marriage did not necessarily constitute a bar to this type of employment in the eighteenth-century, particularly where husbands were away at sea/war, or were in employment elsewhere. Daily servants may therefore have been mothers many times over.

All of which leaves me puzzled. WHERE WERE THE FLAMING SERVANTS?! Do you have any ideas?

The impact of ‘unnatural and unreasonable desires’ during pregnancy

I was recently having a chat with my favourite (only) sister @fivefingerfrank about the pressure on modern mothers to be perfect.  Any feelings of failure that we have as parents are exacerbated by a quick look on social media where we feel compelled to construct an idealised version of our family life, full of happy pictures and status updates that skim over the reality of staring down the gaping mouth of a screaming toddler after only 3 hours sleep and having run out of coffee.

As parents (and particularly mothers) we are regularly judged upon the decisions that we make in raising our children from the moment that we become pregnant – breast or bottle? Flu vaccination? Alcohol? And in what quantity?  Our everyday interactions with our unborn children are judged by friends, family and strangers alike, often based upon rapidly changing medical ‘facts’ on the correct course of action.  I am guilty of it myself.

Title page from Jane Sharp's 'Art of Midwifry Improv'd'
Title page from Jane Sharp’s ‘Art of Midwifry Improv’d’

Despite it being sufficiently ahistorical to upset my supervisors, I feel compelled to draw a comparison with early modern pregnancy and motherhood.  Up until the eighteenth-century even the medical establishment believed that the pregnant body was permeable – what were usually the boundaries of the body had been breached by the infant growing inside and this changed notions of internal and external.  It was therefore common sense that the thoughts, sensations and experiences of the mother could actually transfer themselves physically to the unborn child.  Here is an extract from a book by Jane Sharp, first published in 1675 but reprinted several times.  This edition was printed in 1725.

But before I come to her time of delivery, I shall speak a word of one frequent cause of Women’s Miscarriage, and that is their longings, and sometimes of their unnatural and unreasonable desires after they have conceived with Child…..sometimes you have Ladies at Court and Citizens Wives, and Country Women too will long to eat Sand and Dirt; but their Children seldom live long that are begun thus.[1]

The idea that the cravings of the mother would leave a mark on the child appears quite common and there are many records of individuals with food shaped birthmarks (red birthmarks are still referred to as ‘strawberry’ marks) where the mother had over-indulged in the object of her craving.

Sharp goes on to note:

There is another cause not far unlike to Women’s Longings, and that is suddain fears, for many a Woman brings forth a Child with a Hair Lip, being suddenly frighted when she conceived by the starting of a Hare, or by longing after a piece of Hare.[2]

At first glance, these ideas seem antiquated and vaguely ridiculous, yet they are perpetuated in a different guise today.  Instructions on the taking of folic acid, alcohol, cold and flu medication whilst pregnant abound. The extent to which we exercise, our weight, and our age is assessed in relation of the risk they pose to the unborn child. These directions are validated by their basis in scientific and medical fact yet so were Jane Sharp’s statements when they were published.  Occasionally, early modern practices are validated by modern science.  It has been suggested, for example that the early modern practice of giving birth in a darkened room may have reduced the chances of maternal haemorrhage in the dangerous hours following delivery.[3]  Some practices are enjoying a renaissance such as swaddling.  Whilst decried in the Ladies Magazine as ‘the barbarous custom of swathing children like living mummies’ in 1785 it is now possible to buy swaddling bands (minus the pins and swaddling boards!) in Next.  It is a reminder that science and medicine is as much a product of modern culture as literature, or history.   The ‘facts’ stated in Jane Sharp’s book are no different to the 1970s assertion that formula milk was better for an infant than breast, or the 1980s practice of supplying new mothers with a glass of stout to restore their strength and rebuild their iron reserves.

I suppose at least now, while we are being judged by others for the decisions we are making about our pregnant bodies, we can think murderous thoughts without the fear that they will be writ large on the bodies of our unborn infants!

[1] Jane Sharp, The compleat midwife’s companion; or, the art of midwifery improv’d, (London, 1725), p.113.

[2] Ibid, p.114.

[3] Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery, (London, 1991), p.93.

“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.

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.

Hurrah for Nurse Tyson! Quick deliveries and ‘Sage Femmes’.

I’d like to kick off this blog by introducing you to Frances Ingram (nee Shepherd), the well-connected but illegitimate daughter of wealthy speculator Samuel Shepherd.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (written by @EHChalus) records her as good-looking, shapely, assured, intelligent and worth approximately £60,000 making her the perfect wife for aristocrats with ‘good names but empty pockets’.[1]

Frances Irwin

Here she is as painted by Joshua Reynolds before her marriage. (Oil on canvas, 77 x 64cm, Leeds Museums and Art Galleries)

You can expect to hear a lot more about Frances as, it transpires, her close friend and correspondent Susan Stewart (later Countess Gower) was kind enough to neatly fold away her letters after having read them, and put them somewhere safe until, a couple of centuries later, they turn up in the National Archives at Kew.

These letters are warm and intimate.  They are full of contentment at being settled in the newly refurbished Temple Newsam House in Leeds with a young and expanding family whilst also drinking in gossip from her friends and acquaintances in London.  The friendship is so close that Frances writes to her as yet unmarried friend with details of the births of her children.  In 1762, she sends Susan an account of the birth of her third daughter:

‘My little one was in such a hurry that the performer [by which she means the midwife] could not arrive time enough, I am therefore obliged to Nurse Tyson for her Assistance in the time of need & she acted the part of Sage Femme with the utmost skill and propriety, her talents are very superior, & she is a very good sort of Woman into the bargain, when you want permit me to recommend her.’

DSC03889 - cropped

I find the way she gives the midwife a theatrical role very interesting.  There is something slightly dismissive in the way that she refers to this supposedly central figure of the birth room as ‘the performer’, as if their presence is almost an act.  This is emphasised by the ability of Nurse Tyson to ‘act the part’ in an emergency.

It also raises questions about the designation of a ‘midwife’.  For elite women like Frances, this is not particularly problematic.  Midwives would have been trained, either institutionally or through apprenticeships, and registered with the ecclesiastical authorities. [2]  For a woman as wealthy as Frances, it could have been one of the celebrity midwives who published treatises and advice on the subject.  Yet, the function of the midwife was performed perfectly well by Nurse Tyson, an untrained but experienced companion.  Tyson’s competent performance implies that, lower down the social scale, similarly qualified women could also function as midwives, safely delivering their patients yet almost invisible not just to the authorities, but to historians as well.  How did the majority of early modern women distinguish their midwives from their experienced birthroom attendants?  It is a question that needs exploring.

Finally, I’d like to draw attention to Frances’ use of the phrase Sage Femme.  This phrase clearly refers to a female practitioner of midwifery, something which (it has been argued) is extremely unusual for an elite woman in the second half of the eighteenth century.[3]  I understand (though I have yet to check this out for myself) that Frances deliberately employed female midwives for each of her pregnancies, despite the availability of experienced male obstetricians in nearby Leeds.[4]  As I will discuss in future blog posts, this deliberate rejection of the fashionable choice in favour of a traditional birth experience can be seen throughout the eighteenth century at varying social levels.  What is the reason for this?  Perhaps it is modesty, perhaps it is a preference for traditional practices, perhaps it is through personal recommendation?  Whatever the reason, it would appear that the figure of the man-midwife may not have been as ubiquitous as would appear at first glance.

[1] E. H. Chalus, ‘Ingram , Frances, Viscountess Irwin (1734?–1807)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 29 Jan 2014]

[2] Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[3] Jean Donnison, Midwives and Medical Men: A History of the Struggle for Control of Childbirth, (Herts: Historical Publications Ltd, 1993); Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England 1660-1770, (London: UCL Press, 1995).

[4] Thank you to @Beady77 (Dr. Julie Day) for this information which was part of her research into her PhD thesis Elite Women’s Household Management: Yorkshire 1680-1810, (University of Leeds, 2007).