Tag Archives: Birth

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?”

Um.

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.

lwlpr14293-maid-of-all-work

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?

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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] 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.