Explore the collections of the Royal College of Midwives and find out what life as a midwife has been like over the last 150 years. That is the message we are sending out for the Explore Your Archive week, where archives are inviting archive users and non-users to find out some of the treasures held in archives throughout the country. Here at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, where we also hold the collections of the Royal College of Midwives, we can draw on all our holdings to tell the fascinating tale of campaign, delivering and finding the midwives’ stories!
The Training of Midwives
Women who had the means to undertake formal medical training were able to take the examination of the London Obstetrical Society which guaranteed their competence to attend natural births. The medical schools were at this time barred to women.
Lord Balfour of Burleigh responded to the call for trained midwives by introducing the Registration of Midwives Bill in to Parliament in April 1896. The Midwives’ Institute, which had been vocal in its campaign for registration and training, responded by issuing a statement supporting the bill which would give a professional standing to the title ‘midwife’.
Registration was introduced under the 1902 Midwives Act, and midwives were required to either pass the examination set by the Central Midwives Board or to show that their professional skills were of long and good standing. These requirements were refined and extended throughout the years, with the 1936 Act providing roles within local health authorities for midwives, and the Royal College of Midwives tirelessly campaigning for better professional standards and working conditions.
These records from the papers of Rosalind Paget as Honorary Treasurer of the Midwives Institute between 1899 and 1931 show the extent of the campaign among the organised midwives to consolidate the position of the midwifery profession, with notes petitioning support for compulsory registration of midwives, and reasons why the Midwives Institute (later the Royal College of Midwives) should be represented on the newly formed Central Midwives Board. [RCM Archive, reference RCM/E3/3/1/2]
Minnie King was among the first group to graduate as fully qualified midwives from Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London in the early 1900s. Her training notes are shown above, and below is a photograph of midwifes in anatomy class in Great Portland Street.
[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/144]
Edith Pye, President of the RCM 1929 – 1948, became a registered midwife in 1906.
[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/2]
Midwives and the Charitable Institutions
Childbirth was very different before the 1900s to the present day. Women delivered mostly at home, attended by local midwives who had received no formal training and who often were illiterate and ignorant of medical knowledge. Physicians had medical knowledge but very few had practical experience of childbirth – those who did were a specialist breed, spearheaded by the father of man-midwifery, William Smellie. Upper class women could afford the services of medical specialists; lower classes were reliant on charity and the untrained midwives, to whom they would pay a small fee.
The Lying-in Hospitals in London and Dublin (pictured) are good examples of charitable institutions established to provide maternity services for the poorer classes. These institutions provided roles for the midwives, although still untrained, and importantly provided cases for physicians to eager to gain practical experience of childbirth. Midwives who were not lucky enough to get roles in such institutions were reliant on their reputations for getting cases, and would often fall on hard times through one reason or another.
[Photographs from the RCOG Archive, reference RCOG/PH24/1-2]
This letter from Sarah Roddrey shows how the services of the Lying-in Hospital in Manchester helped her to keep practicing as a midwife of good reputation for 20 years.
[RCM Archive, reference RCM/2013/10]
The minute books of the Lying-in Hospital at Endell Street, London gives statistics of deliveries and maternal deaths, and examines the impact of home attendances by the hospital’s midwives. The British Lying-in Hospital was established in 1749 for married women only, it was situated in Brownlow Street, Long Acre, Holborn until 1849 when it moved to Endell Street. It catered for the ‘distressed poor with special attention to the wives of soldiers and sailors’. The sort of women admitted were the wives of poor men who, in the earlier years particularly, had come to London from all over the country, many of them the wives of Irish servicemen. There was provision both for in and out care: assistance was given with home deliveries, though most of the patients were provided with a bed in the hospital. It was supported by private subscription. The hospital was regulated by 13 George III c.82 and closed in 1913.
[RCOG Archive, reference S66/1/1]
The records of the Royal Maternity Charity which provided services to the women of East London, give details of how the Charity interceded in disputes between midwives and mothers, the level of employment which the charity gave and the support to midwives during time of distress, as well as the usual financial accounts and reports.
[RCOG Archive, reference S60/A/1]
Midwifery and the family historian
Case registers have been kept by midwives since the 1902 Midwives Act, mostly as evidence of the deliveries and actions in the case of litigation against them. Some midwives, such as Mrs Fagon, working in East London between 1875 and 1895, kept a record of their deliveries long before 1902, possibly as evidence of their successful record in delivering babies and in order to attract more cases.
Mrs Fagon’s accouchement book, 1875.
[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/42]
These case registers or books contain such details as mother’s name and address, delivery of the baby, the name of the doctor if called, and any drug administered; the case record training books required to be kept by pupil midwives for the CMB examination contain much more information, such as antenatal records, temperature charts, and postnatal observations. The genealogical value of these registers is yet to be discovered, as most registers are closed due to the personal details they contain with 100 years being the normal time of closure, but the RCM Archive is actively preserving the registers for the time when they can be made available to both genealogists and social historians.
Sadly there are no records at the RCM to help family historians to trace midwifery ancestors, but there is plenty to be discovered about life as a midwife between the 1880s and 2000s.
Ms register of cases, completed by K. B. Atkins (2 May 1907-3 October 1910), recording the births that she attended whilst working at the Military Family Hospital in Woolwich , including details of the name and pregnancy history of the patient, the date and hour of the birth, the presentation of the child at birth, the duration of labour, if there were any complications during and after labour, the sex of the infant, whether the child was premature or full term, whether the doctor was called, the date of her last visit, the condition of the mother and child on her last visit, as well as further remarks, such as whether forceps were used during the delivery.
[RCM Archive, reference RCMS/39]
Penny Hutchins, Archivist to RCOG and RCM