RCOG Archive 1: Midwives Certificates and more!

Last week saw the RCOG Knowledge Management team buzzing around like a hive of industrious bees, pushing trollies, sorting piles of books, often dusty and grimy and a bit weary from the unaccustomed physical labour! The annual stocktaking week has been a chance for some essential housekeeping in the library, archive and museum stores to maximise the space we have and ensure that our collections, new and old, are secure and safe. In the Archive this has created an opportunity to move some of the College’s vital records (the Council minute books) to a different location from the main body of RCOG archived papers, and also to delve into some enormous and very heavy boxes left over by predecessors! And here are just some of the goodies which I uncovered….

Two large and decorative certificates issued to ladies who had passed the examination of the Obstetrical Society of London to become skilled midwives ‘competent to attend Natural Labour’. Isabella Beard received hers in April 1892, and prior to this Esther Lavinia Potter passed her exam in October 1888 – this was 12 years before the formal recognition of midwifery as a skilled profession was recognised with the establishment of the Central Midwives Board in 1902. Both certificates bear the signature of Sir Francis Champneys, who was later Chair of the Midwives Board, one of the signatories to the College’s Articles of Association in 1929, and Vice-Patron of the College until his death in July 1930. The London Obstetrical Society had been granting diplomas to midwives since 1872, but the most stringent terms were placed upon women wishing to present themselves for the examination which included:

  • A certificate of moral character
  • Age between 21 and 30 years
  • Proof of having attended the practice at a lying-in hospital or Charity for a period of not less than six months or of having personally attended not less than 25 labours under supervision
  • Proof of having attended a course of theoretical teaching by lectures or tutorial instruction

Even then, having provided her credentials and sat the examination, the midwife was only regarded competent enough to attend normal deliveries: in the event of complications during a birth, she was required to call upon the medical assistance of a local doctor. It goes without saying that the ladies who were fortunate enough to enjoy this diploma status, were from educated backgrounds and financially self-sufficient enough to fund the necessary training.

Two other ‘finds’ during this repackaging work, were two beautifully bound and presented volumes dating back to the early days of the College. One volume contains a copy of the College’s original certificate of incorporation in September 1929, with signed photographs of all the signatories to the original Articles of Association. The other volume was presented to Professor Blair-Bell at the opening of the first College London headquarters in Queen Anne Street in December 1932, by Mrs Nora Fletcher Shaw, the wife of co-founder, Sir William Fletcher Shaw. The book contains details of gifts to the College between 1932 and 1979, with names of donors and date of donation. College ‘legend’ has it that Mrs Fletcher Shaw was a great favourite of Blair-Bell’s – a man who often comes across as something of a misogynist and a man of fierce disposition: a horseshoe that Mrs Fletcher Shaw gave to Blair-Bell at the opening of Queen Anne Street was apparently placed in prime position on his desk until his death in 1936.

Along with essential repackaging of the fragile nineteenth century casebooks of Robert Barnes, the week’s closure enabled me to make sure all the contents of the large ‘outsize’ boxes are properly packaged and placed in appropriate-sized boxes. All of the items are properly catalogued and will soon appear on our online catalogue on the Archives Hub – and hopefully we will have the opportunity to put some of them on show soon!

Penny Hutchins, Archivist


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