Tag Archives: Childbirth

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 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.  



Bed Pans and Blood Clots: A hospital delivery in eighteenth-century London

I have spent my evenings for the past few weeks ploughing through the infanticide records, handily digitised and available free at www.oldbaileyonline.org. You’ll be pleased to hear that I haven’t been doing this for fun, but in order to sharpen up the methodology of an article that I would dearly love to have published at some point this year. The case of Isabella Buckham jumped out at me as being perfect for a blog post, as it raises some fascinating questions about the way that birth was experienced in the lower sections of eighteenth-century society.[1]

The first witness was Ann Smith, a nurse in Faith’s Ward at Bartholomew’s hospital where Isabella was a patient. She said,

‘I was sitting by the fire, she called to me to bring her the bed pan, she was then ill in bed, I did not know she was with child before, she had a loose stool in the pan, I took and emptied it. I went to the fire and heard her puking, I went and held the bed pan to her, and she pulled in it; I went and emptied it again, and put it by her bedside and went to the fire side again.’

From a modern perspective, it seems faintly ludicrous that Isabella could be nine months pregnant – in bed, in a hospital ward – without anyone having noticed her condition but in the eighteenth century there were no certainties around the pregnant body. Midwifery treatises of the period can offer very little diagnostic information, suggesting instead that clues such as morning sickness, or extreme tiredness should be watched for.  What we now consider to be the first sign of pregnancy – the cessation of menstruation – was not particularly reliable with malnutrition and poverty having an impact upon the regularity of a woman’s ‘courses’.  Even the most visible sign of the pregnant body was fraught with uncertainty, as petticoats and aprons hid the thickening of waists. Many women who were later charged with infanticide explained away their increasing size as a distemper or dropsy and this was clearly a common enough complaint to stop the neighbours accusing them of loose morals, at least for a little while.


A painting of the women’s ward at Middlesex Hospital, 1808.

Ann’s testimony continues,

‘She called me to warm her a flannel petticoat to put round her waist, she desired me to pin it round her waist; told her I could not for fear of pricking her, and she did it on herself. I went and sat by the fire again.’

This struck me as unusual, even by eighteenth-century standards. Why, when Isabella was clearly suffering from a stomach complaint, did the nurse refuse to help her?  Ann’s claim that she was scared of pricking her does not ring true as almost every item of clothing was pinned at this point in time, particularly amongst women of Isabella’s status.  After refusing to help her patient, Ann retires to the fireside effectively distancing herself from the following events.  Perhaps, then, Ann was not unaware of the cause of Isabella’s problems.  She confirmed under cross-examination that she was a mother herself – a fact which qualified her to give evidence – is it probable that she had not recognised the signs of late pregnancy and early labour? And if she had realised what was really going on, what were her motivations in removing herself from the bedside. Was she trying to help Isabella by deliberately not witnessing the birth? Or was she refusing help when she knew it was needed?

Between 1am and 2am the next day, Isabella said to Ann,

‘Nurse, my sheets are all wet’; I turned the cloaths down, and found the sheets all as they are when a woman has had a child. I said, God bless me, here has been a child’ she said, nurse do not say such a thing, for I never had a child in my life. She bid me put the sheets out and have them wash’d, and she would pay for them’

In this sentence, I hear Isabella pleading with Ann to turn a blind eye to her delivery.  It reads to me like a cry for help.  If it is, Ann chose not to hear it and took the sheets to her sister who, in turn, called the midwife.  Isabella was discovered.

The remaining witnesses in the case were the women with whom Isabella shared a ward.  Their statements remind us of what a grim, grimy and claustrophobic place the eighteenth-century hospital ward was.  Ann Wing states:

‘I was in the same ward with the prisoner, I saw her get out of the bed…I saw the sheets taken off the bed, they were very bloody, and so was the prisoner. I saw the flannel petticoat lying on the floor. There were clots of blood fell on the floor, which shook out of the sheets as they were taken out of the bed, there were all the symptoms of her having been delivered of a child.’


Another patient, Mary Old, states:

‘I was in the hospital at the time, I lay in the next bed to the prisoner I heard her very ill in the night, she groaned violently; I heard her get out of the bed to go to the vault twice, and come in again. I saw the sheets taken off the bed afterwards; they were like a lying-in woman’s sheets. I saw the flannel petticoat taken out of the bed; that was bloody.’

Three women claimed to have heard a child cry in the night, a fact that could well have led Isabella to the hangman, but two others said they heard nothing of the sort.  Isabella was eventually acquitted of the charge of infanticide, having argued that she was out of her senses and did not know what she was doing when she gave birth to the child in the vault..

Is it realistic to believe that these women were unaware that Isabella was giving birth that night?  If they were aware, did they help her? Or did they stay in bed as they have chosen to claim?  Did they stay in bed out of empathy? A birth that was not witnessed was a birth that could be made to disappear. Or did they stay in bed to punish Isabella for flouting the social and moral conventions of the time, forcing her to give birth alone surrounded by unfriendly faces?  Personally, I don’t believe that these women were ignorant of Isabella’s situation. They sound experienced, confidently recognising the state of the sheets and the spot on Isabella’s petticoat where the child had fallen. Nor do I believe that they were well disposed towards Isabella’s predicament.  This case does remind me, however, that not all births took place in a warm, enclosed birthroom, surrounded by supportive friends and family.  There is a tendency amongst historians to assume that a gathering of women was automatically supportive, instantly connected by the binding power of shared experience.[2]  The plight of Isabella Buckham, and the many others like her, reminds us that this is not always the case.


[1] Isabella Buckham, Killing-infanticide, 4th December 1755, ref. t17551204-27, www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?ref=t17551204-27 [accessed 20:16 24th April 2014]

[2] Adrian Wilson, Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England, (Ashgate: Surry, 2013). Chapter Three focuses on the building of collective cultures based upon gender experiences.

‘Going up in the world’: childbirth customs in the eighteenth century

I’m not sure how many of you will have discovered the delights hidden in Chamber’s Book of Days. A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character.  Unusually, (and luckily for those of us that are interested in such things) this is available for free on the internet in a hyper-linked and searchable format! I hesitate to give you the details here as you may get lost in it and forget to read the rest of this blog post but I’ll only forget if I leave it to the end so here it is.

chambers book of days


The Book of Days was part of the academic discipline of ‘folklore’ which was a sort of forerunner of anthropology. There were some folkorists operating in the eighteenth century, but it enjoyed an explosion of amateur interest in the nineteenth century when rapidly changing social and industrial circumstances gave many middle- and upper-class commentators cause for concern that the ‘old ways’ were dying out.  I’m not going to go into detail about the trajectory of ‘Folklore’ as a subject of study, but it was ultimately unable to stand up to the more rigorous scientific approach of the anthropologists in the mid-twentieth century and therefore was abandoned.

Chamber’s entry for the 9th July includes (amongst many other things) a lengthy entry on the ‘Superstitions about newborn children’.  He notes that:

“When children first leave their mother’s room, they must go upstairs before they go downstairs, otherwise they will never rise in the world.”

Chambers betrays his status here through his assumption that the newborn would share more than one room with the rest of his family, let alone possess a flight of stairs to another floor.

Over 50 years later, Mabel Peacock’s unpublished account suggests a simplified version of the ritual.

“WMEF [these are the initials of her friend and editor Wilhelmina M E Fowler] tells me, on the authority of a nurse in the neighbourhood of Bunkers Hill; that new-born babies should be held up as high in the air as possible; on the roof, or in the highest room, or above the head when the person holding the child is standing on a chair. This is done in order that it may go up in the world, and not sink below the station in which it was born.’[1]

Other folklorists also mention this tradition, though I have yet to come across it in a midwifery textbook (as far as I can remember at any rate!).  This makes it almost invisible in current histories of childbirth, yet it was an old custom when Chambers recorded it in 1869 and it was still being practiced in the 1920s when Mabel Peacock was collecting.  The sheer tenacity of the custom tells us that it was important to the people that practiced it.

I believe that its longevity is due to two key factors which can often be found in even modern birthing rituals.  Firstly, it is simple and adaptable to just about every single birth situation.  This means that it can be performed just as easily in a rural hovel as it can in a country house.  It also means that it is easy to maintain ‘just in case’ and it can be practiced alongside the much newer discipline of obstetrics without entering into any conflict with the new procedures.  Secondly, it appeals to maternal love – in fact to a general sentimentality when faced with a newborn infant – in wanting the best life for the new baby.  This custom gives women a sense of control over their children’s futures, albeit fleeting and (in a world of high infant mortality) illusory.   Like most personal rituals, it provided comfort and reassurance at a time of danger or difficulty and that made it almost impossible to shift until well into the twentieth century.

As a social and cultural historian, it also makes me nervous.  The only reference to this practice I have is in various folklore accounts – none of my ladies discuss it in their letters to each other.  It was something that was done, not talked about, and it’s near invisibility to modern eyes despite its past importance really emphasises the difficulties that we face in trying to understand the past.

[1] Mabel Peacock, Folklore and Legends of Lincolnshire, 1927.

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.

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.’

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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 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/68378, 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).