Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth - DISCUSSION

janalynFebruary 1, 2014

Thank you for joining me in this book discussion. I was prompted to read it after watching the PBS TV series. My hairdresser actually recommended it as good, and she should know because so many of her clients had talked about it. :) I also recalled Kathy t saying it was one of those rare book club reads, when everyone enjoyed the book.

It is a memoir, rather appropriate after the lengthy thread we have going on that subject. This was handwritten by the author when she was in her sixties "in response to an article in the"Royal College of Midwives Journal by Terri Coates regarding the underrepresentation of midwives in literature. Coates urged, "a midwife somewhere to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets." Worth took up the challenge and eventually sent her first volume to Coates to read. She writes, "Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?"

I thought it would be best at first for me to give some background on Jennifer. She was born in 1935 and died from cancer of the esophagus in 2011.The following is taken from her obituary in

After her retirement from nursing, with the East End she had known long gone, she decided to put her reminiscences down in writing, so as to preserve the old ways of life, the people and the poverty. "So many of those great characters have stayed with me," she said on the publication of Call the Midwife. "Most people in London at that time didn't know the East End - they pushed it aside. There was no law, no lighting, bedbugs and fleas. It was a hidden place, not written about at all." Filming is about to begin on a BBC television series based on Jennifer's books, scripted by Heidi Thomas, which is due for broadcast in 2012.
Born Jennifer Lee in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex (while her parents were on holiday), she grew up in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, left Belle Vue school aged 14 and became secretary to the head of Dr Challoner's grammar school. However, she found that this was not sufficiently expressive of her temperament, so decided to become a nurse instead. She trained at the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading, then moved to London for further training as a midwife.
In the early 1950s she became a staff nurse at the London hospital in Whitechapel, east London. There she lived with an Anglican community of nuns, the Sisters of St John the Divine, who worked among the poor and who inspired her lifelong dedication to the Christian faith.
Her subsequent nursing jobs were at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in Bloomsbury, and finally at the Marie Curie hospital in Hampstead. Jennifer married Philip Worth in 1963 and their two daughters,...

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Walls of text can be hard to read, sorry about that, but I think it is worthwhile. There is a lot to discuss here and I havent even got to the book, but this is a good introduction I think.

Get yourself a cup of coffee or tea and read some of the following links:

Interview with her daughters after her death about the book and characters

Fresh from writing Cranford, Heidi Thomas was offered the chance to adapt Call The Midwife, Jennifer WorthâÂÂs memoir about a group of midwives working with nuns in poverty-stricken Poplar, in the East End of London, in the 1950s. The bookâÂÂs central character, Jenny Lee, was based on Jennifer herself. This is HeidiâÂÂs diary...

Read more:

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 1:45AM
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Over to you all. This was just to get us started. Edited to put a pic of Jennifer Worth

This post was edited by janalyn on Sat, Feb 1, 14 at 17:48

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 1:48AM
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This was a great choice of book, there is so much to discuss here. I was pulled in immediately, enjoyed her stories and her writing style, and was stunned by the basic lack of, well, everything in the East End as late as the mid-1950s.

I want to read the linked articles above, and really need to get my thoughts in order regarding what I want to say, so I'll be back with more later.

One question I have (after googling around a bit and coming up empty-handed) is: was Conchita Warren a real person? Twenty-four (or was it 25?) babies leaves those "18 Kids and Counting" TV people in the dust ;)

Thanks, Janalyn, for choosing this and leading the discussion!

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 9:43AM
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From the research I did, Conchita was a real person. I believe she met her husband in Spain when she was around 12 and he brought her to England. I had the impression from the book that she might have had some intellectual challenges. It was a wonderful story, her devotion to her children, husband and the way she cared for her preemie. It makes you wonder if that child really would have been better off in the hospital....she did everything right.

The only person there is some question about is Chummy. Jennifer's daughters insist she was real, they had a picture at some time. And there was a nun from another district who seems to fit the picture - she was called to be a missionary etc.

I liked her writing style as well. I really appreciated the Introduction because it gave so much history, as well as the guide to the Cockney accent at the end. It was a lot of fun trying to speak like that. :)

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 12:13PM
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Conchita, mother of so many, was indeed an interesting character. However, it made me a little sick to read about her husband bringing her back from Spain at such a young age. Of course today we would call this child abuse. Things were different then, and I guess it was not so frowned upon? But oh my...

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 1:15PM
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Agreed Kathy. There seemed to be some sort of mystery about her time in Spain, I am not sure what was going on. I almost got the sense that he rescued her from something. And I do think his family was disturbed but everyone just seemed to shrug their shoulders and carry on. Amazingly, things just seemed to work out for them, and I wonder if part of that may have been due to some intellectual challenges I alluded to earlier...I would have taken scissors to his manhood after 8. j/k

There is lots to discuss and I am not sure where to begin. Sheri mentioned how surprised/shocked she was about the life then. It was only sixty years ago. What surprised you?

This post was edited by janalyn on Sat, Feb 1, 14 at 14:04

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 1:32PM
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I think what struck me was not just the poverty, but the fact that "only 60 years ago" these poor women still really had no rights whatsoever. The husband ruled the home for better or worse, the women had no reproductive control, no way to escape violent or drunken husbands, and no way out of poverty. Yet the communities Worth describes are whole and supportive and wonderfully (mostly) cohesive despite this. It really was a different world, and I thought it was a fascinating book.

The darker stories of abusive husbands, prostitution (Mary's story broke my heart), and the workhouse were so awful, made even moreso by the author's matter-of-fact telling of the tales. This was the world she was working in and these tragedies were commonplace, I suppose.

I did enjoy reading about the nuns of Nonnatus House, they were so incredibly resourceful and hard-working, and each interesting in her own right. There were no stock characters here, and Sister Monica Joan was something else!

I do want to see the TV show now, especially after having seen Miranda Hart on the Graham Norton Show and then seeing pictures of her in costume as Chummy. I'd love to know what happened to the real Chummy, too.

I'm still a bit hung up on Conchita Warren and her children, I found it hard to believe she wouldn't have picked up at least a little bit of English and Len picked up a little bit of Spanish after all their years together. It never occurred to me she might be a bit off, she coped so incredibly well feeding and clothing all those children, she couldn't have been *that* intellectually challenged!

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 4:11PM
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As mind-boggling as the Warren family was with all those children and the ease of which the entire family dealt with the births. I was far more taken with the life story of Mrs. Jenkins. What a cruel life she had after the death of her husband, trying to keep the family together only having to finally submit to the workhouse to keep them all alive. Sadly being separated from her children, and only being told much later that they had died, how cruel life was back then-and yes only 60+ years ago. Widows and their children didn't seem to stand much of a chance if there were no other family members to help each other.
The description of her feet stunned me and I did wonder if her toenails actually are in some podiatrist museum somewhere.


    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 4:18PM
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..oh those toenails. The stuff of future nightmares. Pat, she did write (and this was in the 1990's) "reliably informed, incidentally, that Mrs Jenkins' toenails are to this day displayed in a glass case in the main hall of the British Chiropody Association." She seemed to be a woman of some integrity, I doubt she would lie.

Things that made me think/surprised me:

-the condition of the âÂÂslumâ housing in this area of London ie) only cold running water, lavatories in the yard, public bath-houses etc and the terrible sanitary conditions.
-in the midst of this poverty, the sense of community
-19th century mortality rate for poorer classes was 40% and infant mortality around 60%. -The struggle to get the Midwives Act enacted by the nuns and others
-the nuns working with these women seemed to be non-judgmental no matter what the circumstances. No preaching or sermons on sin etc.
-how much the midwives cared, with the prenatal clinics, the package delivered to the house prior to the delivery and the follow-up. They actually had social workers then. Very professional.
-how the midwives could go in the roughest of areas and feel perfectly safe
-how trapped these women were due to no birth control
-I had forgotten disease and the fear surrounding that. Like most of you, I have a scar from the smallpox vaccine. I remember getting some kind of sugar pill for polio as a child. With my own kids, I never had to worry about any of this.
-I learned what rickets actually is
-the workhouse as described during the Mrs. Jenkins story. I thought that ended in the mid 19th century. Yet Dickens was still going on strong for a good chunk of the last century. When I think of how the native people here are suing because of their treatment at residential schools, it makes me wonder why the residents of the workhouses didnâÂÂt sue the government. Appalling.

There is more, but thatâÂÂs enough for now.

This post was edited by janalyn on Sat, Feb 1, 14 at 17:43

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 5:34PM
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I read all three of the Midwife books, and in the last one, Farewell to the East End, Jennifer said that she and Chummy, who was in Africa, wrote to each other for a number of years. Their correspondence gradually dwindled to Christmas cards and then stopped completely as their lives grew so far apart, but she continued to serve as a missionary all her life and never returned to England.

My daughter is a nurse and recommended the TV program to me. I missed the first season but saw all the second and third and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I agree that the circumstances seemed to indicate a much earlier period than the 1950s. Their music was my music, though. I suppose it was the war damage to England that caused the poverty and lack to last so long. London is such a big city, and it had so much damage from the bombing, it just couldn't rebuild everything quickly. Rationing and scarcity existed for a number of years after the end of the war, as Vee has told us.

And where I grew up in rural Kentucky, we didn't have running water or indoor plumbing until the mid-50s. I was surprised and troubled at the workhouse stories. I would have thought that was far in the past.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 8:00PM
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I haven't read Worth's books about the Workhouse but feel I should point out that by the time she was working these institutions had ceased to exist. Once the National Health Service came into being in 1948 this old system bit the dust. Of course many of the old buildings were still there and were adapted into hospitals . . . in fact many were already serving as hospitals for those who couldn't afford to pay.
The conditions in the workhouses written about by Dickens were far harsher than the later models. His descriptions in Oliver Twist had brought the system to the attention of those ladies given to 'good works' and many of the really bad, dishonest Masters were removed.
In 1880 my GGgrandfather was a 'Pauper Inmate' in the St Marylebone Workhouse in London. At least he was in the Infirmary, not the Casual wards used by tramps and vagrants. I only found this out by checking the census returns of 1881 as probably my grandmother (born a little later) wouldn't have been told this. His wife had died and his adult children wouldn't have been able to take him in; none of them had much money and all had several children of their own.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but our Modern expectations/aspirations make it difficult to understand the 'mindset' of our ancestors, possibly as an eg. we in the UK are bemused by the US health system.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 1:01PM
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Vee, I think the workhouse-related stories told by Ms. Worth were of older people who had been in them as children. One was of a brother and sister she knew who were reunited when he was old enough to go out to work and save enough to bring her to live with him. Another was of a cleaner in the convent. I'm glad to hear that the good works ladies had an effect in their time.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 2:54PM
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Vee, I was actually referring to the story of Mrs. Jenkins. She was considered an old crazy woman when Jennifer met her. Her story explained her mental status. She had been a pauper inmate of Poplar Workhouse from 1916 to 1935, and upon discharge was given a sewing machine and 24 pounds, her accumulated earnings after nineteen years there. She tried desperately to support herself and her five young children when she was widowed ( even sold her teeth and hair) but eventually ended up at the workhouse. (She had worked at a shirt making factory but a work accident severely injured her arm and that was the end of that.) On entry to the workhouse she and her children were segregated and she never saw them again. That seemed inhuman to me. All of her children died from disease or somehing within four years of going there. The working conditions seemed terrible but what was unforgivable to me was the refusal of the Master to let her see her children or even go to their burials.

From the novel: "The Poor Law Act of 1834 started the workhouse system. The Act was repealed in 1929, but the system lingered on for several decades because there was nowhere else for the inmates to go, and longterm residents had lost the capacity to make any decisions for look after themselves in the outside world.

It was intended as a humane and charitable Act, because hithertoo the poor or destitute could be hounded from place to place, never finding shelter, and could could lawfully be beaten to death by their pursuers. To the chonically poor of the 1830s the workhouse system must have seemed like heaven: a shelter each night; a bed or communal bed to sleep in; clothing; food - not lavish, but enough, and in return, work to pay for your keep. The system must have seemed like an acto of pure Christian goodness and charity. But, like so many good intentions, it quickly turned sour." p 230

It seemed everyone in Poplar knew horror stories of the workhouse, including the 'workhouse howl'. Maybe my reference to Dickens was a little off, however.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 3:38PM
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No workhouse ever seemed like heaven or even purgatory. They were a living hell. Many chose to die rather than go there, with good reason.

A bit of time spent on Google, or, even better, in books and primary sources, will reveal the extent of the horrors inflicted upon the poor of England and Ireland. Something to think about when we are watching 'Downton Abbey'. I enjoy that show but 'Call the Midwife' is much more realistic, both the TV show and the book--I've only read the first one.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2014 at 7:51PM
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I watched the first three episodes of season one of the TV series yesterday and found it charming, but it seems to me that things were cleaned up more than a little bit. All the streets and courtyards seem to be not only clean of any rubbish, but actually whitewashed, whereas I seem to recall Worth mentioning courtyards and bomb sites full of rubble, mud and trash, and children with dirty faces playing there.

I found these books thought-provoking and it is incredible to think that these conditions existed in the developed world only about 60 years ago. (Of course such conditions - and much worse - still exist in second and third world countries).

One thing that struck me was the shame felt by the people who ended up in the workhouses, because it reminded me of the same thing here in Iceland. The difference was that here people who couldn't earn a living were placed on farms, auctioned off publicly so everyone was aware of what had happened to them. The person who offered to take these poor people against the lowest payment from the authorities won the auction. Unsurprisingly, there are stories about people who had been placed in such a way, especially young children, being starved or beaten to death, but also of people who ended up in good homes and were well treated. Families were split up, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes because once you ended up in this system, you had to be placed on a farm in the county were you were born. This meant that man, wife and children could end up in several different parts of the country.
When immigration to North America started after the mid-19th century the authorities would sometimes send these people to the USA or Canada so they wouldn't have to continue paying for their upkeep. This is how my grandmother's great grandmother and four of her children ended up immigrating to the US.

Going back to Worth's books, I was also struck by the fear of hospitals. Possibly this was a continuation of the former fear of the workhouse, or perhaps a fear of the unknown or of the higher social classes that had shown that they didn't care about these people?

This post was edited by netla on Mon, Feb 3, 14 at 4:38

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 4:24AM
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Netla, you are right about the TV show 'C the M' being way too neat and hygienic. The streets look positively 'Spring Cleaned' and the houses all have lovely white paint . .. never seen in real-life UK cities/towns in those days as the air was so full of smoke and smog. Everything was painted either chocolate brown or dark green.
The series has proved more popular than Downton Abbey partly because they have tried to keep 'true' to the spirit of those times . . . and possibly because there are no sex scenes, which most people find a refreshing change.

Janalyn, I would take issue with Worth's comment
"the poor or destitute could be hounded from place to place, never finding shelter, and could could lawfully be beaten to death by their pursuers." She is referring to the ancient system of 'Hue and Cry' which became obsolete in about 1254 or maybe 1316 . .. anyway hundreds of years ago.
And Poor Laws/Work Houses had been around since the late 1600's; an amendment to the Act was made in 1834 in theory to 'improve' the system and to try and deal with the huge influx of people from rural areas to the 'new' industrial towns and cities.
I think part of the fear engendered by these big impersonal institutions, both hospitals and WH's, was partly caused by the expectations; or lack of same. There was always a strong tradition against accepting help, however needy, plus a strong anti-authority attitude by East End people. Apparently small (to us) things could cause fear eg. 'casuals' entering the WH were made to have a bath in hot water (and disinfectant). It must have been a terrible shock to someone who had never had one in their lives or removed ALL their clothes 'at once'.
Netla, I think the Upper Classes/do-gooders did care about those least able to help themselves, and saw it as their Christian Duty to help the very poor but we have to be careful not to judge them by our so-called modern standards.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 5:22AM
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Janalyn, you mentioned and quoted above and elsethread from an Introduction that my edition of Worth's books (all three collected in one hardbound, pub. in UK) does not have. Perhaps the lengthy Intro was included in US editions because it was thought North Americans would need more background to relate to Worth's times and experiences. I likely can find the information elsewhere, but I think some of my questions might have been answered in that Intro you mentioned. Such as:

Why did Worth give the Anglican order of nuns the pseudonym of St. Raymond Nonnatus? It's an appropriate name, being as he was the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth, but why couldn't she just call them 'the Community of St. John Divine' as they were actually called? Was she afraid of offending the nuns? I suspect she might have conflated some characters, but maybe she didn't disguise them too much to not be recognizable to those still living and relatives who remember them?

I've now read the first two of Worth's midwife trilogy. I'm a bit underwhelmed at this point, but perhaps I've read too many other similar memoirs and I've read and taken courses on sociological studies of the East End. The East End been a regular 'petri dish' for such sociology for 150-160 years (perhaps longer, depending on where you want to place the starting date).

Another thing I notice about Worth's writing is the flatness. I wonder if that 'lack of affect' was learned as part of her training -- don't get emotional, stay detached, be matter of fact (as Sheri described it above). That could be what she displayed on the surface, when she actually went into a cupboard to vomit or wept in her bed while trying to go to sleep.

I'm a bit puzzled as to why this particular trilogy has caught mainstream attention. Perhaps it's the anecdotal nature that many readers find appealing and easier to relate to. It's probably a good 'jumping off place' for readers unfamiliar with the subject, too. Certainly other memoirs, biographies, histories, women's studies, and sociology have included the experiences of midwives. Most people have very short memories and if something happened before they were born, outside of their own culture, it might as well never have happened at all, and they can't believe that it did. But I suspect that the real reason the books caught on is the television series that appeals on a more visceral level.

Speaking of the series: Like Netla I watched the first three episodes of Season One and I too noticed the prettification. After three shows I thought I probably 'got the drill' and sure enough episode 4 was more of the same. I like the ensemble acting; the production values are good; and as Carolyn said the music is most evocative. But unless someone tells me that the remainder of the episodes break the pattern, I doubt that I will watch any more of the series. Series are not my thing.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 10:20AM
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I was born in 1958 and my mother was the same age as Jennifer. Frieda, this was a first real introduction to the East End during that time period for me. I was able to compare my recollections as a young child to what was taking place in the story. All my life I have taken things like birth control, and vaccinations for granted, and so many other things - I have much clearer idea what it was like for women of my mother's era growing up. We have come a long way in a very short period of time. I would be interested in learning more, if any of you have some book suggestions.

Netla, that was very interesting.

Vee - It is not so much judging people at that time. It is being so grateful I was born when and where I was. I have avoided a lot of hardship and I still feel this way when I travel to many countries today.

Frieda - I am sorry you missed the introduction because she gives some historical background and descriptions of the setting and society. I think you would have enjoyed it. Does your version have the chapter in the appendix called On the Difficulties of Writing the Cockney Dialect?
You talked about the flatness of her writing - I think that may have been a reflection of her personality. One of her daughters described her as "âÂÂYou also get the sense from the programme that Jenny is quite quiet, an observer. And thatâÂÂs how Mother was. She wasnâÂÂt a great one for chit-chat. Often in social situations she would take a back seat and just absorb what was going on around her. And yet she never conformed. She was quite determined to do things her own way.âÂÂ

I am not puzzled at all why this trilogy did well. For the most part, it is an uplifting story. It is also a peep hole into a period of time that many people have either not been exposed to or if they have, it is a nostalgia trip. I also think that it is an honest memoir, someone writing true to their actual memories. Whether it is all actual truth is another thing, but that is the definition of a memoir, right?

Yes, the tv version has sanitized the book in many respects. I am glad that so far technology does not bring smells into the living room, for example. I do not have the highest of expectations when it comes to tv adaptations, but this one is superior to most.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 11:49AM
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Janalyn, my copy has no appendix 'On the Difficulties of Writing the Cockney Dialect'? I am less annoyed about that, though, than the omission of the Intro. There are plenty of other sources about the sounds and idioms of Cockney and how to transcribe them. It is the best-documented English dialect other than Received, and every linguistics class I took spent quite a lot of time on it.

I'm assuming that the Intro does not say anything about Worth's use of the pseudonym of St. Raymond Nonnatus because you didn't mention it in your reply. I'm still wondering why.

Yes, memoirs are the way a particular writer remembers things, sometimes accurately and sometimes not so accurately. It's the nature of that particular style of recounting. I'm not especially worried about Worth's inaccuracies as long as they aren't wildly off base, and from what I've read I don't think she was a super exaggerator in either direction, remembering things through the filter of nostalgia as better than they actually were or the other way of remembering things as worse.

I think her telling of the workhouse incidents is getting into a bit of a grey area because, as Vee related, Worth was not telling of things that happened to her but stories that she told that happened to other people. Of course the way she told them were her memories of being told such things, but where to draw the line? I think oral history is perfectly legitimate (it's the way most history has been recalled), but some sticklers for accuracy won't think that's good enough.

Call the Midwife is eminently discussable and a good choice among women readers, no doubt. But I really don't understand why a subject that's been kicked around for decades has suddenly seized the popular imagination. Why now? Were the 1950s and 1960s too recent before?

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 3:20PM
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Frieda, i think the reason for the popularity of the TV series is because it is within the lifetime of many people living today but yet is so different from our life experience that we are fascinated. Maybe I'm somewhat different because I am older than most of you and grew up in a rural county in Kentucky. As I said my parents didn't have running water until the mid-50s; and the four of us were born at home, although with a doctor in attendance. I never heard of a midwife until much later, but there was and maybe still is a midwife organization in the Appalachian Mountains in KY.

As an aside, my daughter was born in Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu (far from home) and my hospital stay was five days, the norm at that time. When my mother heard that, she was horrified and said she didn't know how I managed because her lying-in was always nine days and she was very weak when she got up. Of course, now we know that nine days in bed would leave a perfectly healthy person weak; but then no one knew to get people up after surgery back in 1917 when my young grandmother died of pneumonia, either. I was almost as horrified when one of my nieces and her new baby were sent home from the hospital less than 24 hours after delivery because she was admitted after midnight and her insurance didn't cover two separate days.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 5:13PM
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RE: the pseudonym
I just assumed it was done for privacy purposes but googled and found that the nuns asked her to change the name and some of the nuns' names. Taken from this link,

When Worth wrote her memoirs of East End life a decade ago, she wanted to be sure that they met with the Sistersâ approval. âÂÂShe sent us the original manuscript of Call the Midwife and we gave it over to Sister Marie-Claire [a nun who knew about WorthâÂÂs work with the community] to go over with a fine-tooth comb.âÂÂ

Eventually the Sisters recommended that nearly all of the names of the characters, as well as St JohnâÂÂs itself, should be changed. âÂÂShe was telling the story but it was mixed up with some fiction,â explains Sister Christine âÂÂAnd so at the time we felt that it better to use pseudonyms.âÂÂ

Frieda, you are approaching this book from an academic viewpoint, so I can understand your being underwhelmed. I am ignorant of the linguistics and the sociology of that period and place, so found it extremely interesting. Plus, unlike so many memoirs, most of the stories were positive. This was all about a group of people making a difference during hard times.

Carolyn - When I gave birth, I was in the hospital for two days and couldn't wait to get home. It was noisy and I felt fine. Midwives here are starting to become fashionable again, with new training centres. Thankfully, breastfeeding as become the norm for the past few decades but when my mom had us, we were all bottle fed. I gather there was some kind of negative stigma if you dared to breastfeed then.

Almost you think the late fifties just seemed to pale in comparison to the forties (WW2 etc) and the 60's (flower power). I mean, a lot has been written about those two decades. That is all I can think of.

This post was edited by janalyn on Mon, Feb 3, 14 at 17:45

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 5:41PM
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I am disappointed that Chummy wasn't a "real" person, however the character was delightful, however much of her was real or invented.

From the website Janalyn provided above:

And what about Chummy (Miranda Hart)? Among the nuns is 93-year-old Sister Teresa French, who was a nurse in Poplar at the same time as Jennifer Worth.
A small, alert woman who looks 20 years younger than her age, Sister Teresa canâÂÂt recall anyone who might have inspired Chummy.

There is another nun who shares Sister TeresaâÂÂs doubts. âÂÂI think she was completely fictitious,â says Sister Margaret, who was based in Poplar ten years after Chummy would have been there. Like Sister Teresa, she knew many of the nuns who had been there in WorthâÂÂs time. âÂÂThere might have been somebody vaguely like her, but I donâÂÂt think so.âÂÂ

Sadly, the one woman who knows for sure cannot provide any answers. Worth died of cancer before filming began last May. âÂÂI saw her last in February last year, and then she rang up to tell me that she had been diagnosed with cancerâÂÂ, says Sister Christine. âÂÂShe asked me to go down and see her and that is when she said to me that the BBC were going to televise the books.âÂÂ

Suzannah Hart, WorthâÂÂs daughter, can shed a little light. âÂÂMy mother was shown a photograph of the midwives at St JohnâÂÂs when she was ill. It belonged to another of her former colleagues. One was head and shoulders above the others, and this is who my mother identified as Chummy.â That photo, and the album it came from, was passed to director Philippa Lowthorpe, who used it as inspiration for the TV series.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 5:51PM
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It's a bit of a mystery. I know Jennifer was the one who approached Miranda Hart to play that character. And I did read somewhere that Jennifer considered Cynthia and Chummy to be her closest friends from there...and kept in contact with them afterwards though I think it was more of an exchange of Christmas cards with Chummy that eventually died out. Here is something for you Sheri:

I am the President of the Old Roedeanians' Association (ORA) and have been reading all the articles about the Chummy and watching the series Call the Midwife with interest as Chummy allegedly attended Roedean.

We have looked in our database of Old Roedeanians and cannot find anyone with a similar name in there. However, there is a chance that Chummy could be based on Dame Cicely Saunders (Founder of the Hospice Movement and Old Roedeanian) who also trained as a nurse at the Nightingale School, St Thomas's. Here is a link to her obituary for your reference. Quite a few of the facts seem to tie in with the description of Chummy in the books. Her education, the distant mother, only daughter with brothers and the fact she was reportedly very tall resonated with me in particular.

If Chummy was based on Dame Cicely, the fact that she was so well known and respected could be one of the reasons why Jennifer Worth kept her real identity secret.

What an intriguing mystery - it would be wonderful to solve this if we can! We would be happy to help in any way we can.

President ORA

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 8:12PM
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I figure you're right, Janalyn; it doesn't really do any good to try to analyze an emotive subject academically. I should just enjoy the characters and stories as any other fiction based on real life.

Worth's Chummy sounds like Betty MacDonald's Pa and Ma Kettle, shades of The Egg and I, possibly inspired by a real person (as the Kettles apparently were) but embroidered up to suit the purposes of the memoirist.

Carolyn, your explanation of the popularity of the TV series makes sense. I think sometimes I have been cheated by not having mainstream taste. I would be a lot more satisfied reader/TV viewer if I did. ;-)

This post was edited by friedag on Mon, Feb 3, 14 at 21:24

    Bookmark   February 3, 2014 at 9:20PM
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Janalyn and Sheri, I am surprised that you are surprised at the living conditions in the East End (and in many other UK cities at that time); perhaps it is because US/Canadians had moved to suburban living and inner cities were not places you would have had much contact with . . . just throwing out ideas.
Re illness and disease. By the '50's most of the terrible epidemics of Victorian times had been controlled. Probably polio was the thing causing the most fear right across society.
My DH was a late victim and hospitalised for many months as a child and then had to wear a 'collar'. As so often happens in older age the symptoms, though painless, are now returning.
TB and rickets are once again making an appearance in the immigrant community and among the rough sleepers.
Sheri, Miranda Hart makes a wonderful Chummy; the part could have been made for her!
Frieda, I know what you mean about the 'Kettles' . . . they would have made good EE characters themselves . .. but, of course, Chummy is very upper crust and totally unlike the everyday image of a nurse/midwife. She is what we call a jolly hockey sticks young woman and seems less phased by the sights/situations she has to deal with than the other girls.
Frieda, I think the tone of the book being flat is because Worth was not a writer, she was more of a 'doer'. In fact I find the TV series better because the characters are nicely rounded . .(I can hear DH saying "Like you!") . .. By using four girls with totally different looks and characters and equally interesting women to play the nuns, again 'well-padded', the book is brought to life. Actually I would say the character of Jennifer is the least 'interesting' one as she is portrayed as slightly straight-laced, lacking in humour and what we call 'goody-goody' but perhaps this made for a quiet 'observer'.
I don't want to labour the point about workhouses and I haven't read her book on that subject, but the tale of Mrs Jenkins seems to relate to an earlier age. Of course if the poor old woman was going batty she may have mixed up events. Certainly they were not pleasant places, but not quite the Hell someone described up thread. Mrs J says she never saw her children again and they soon(?) died of disease. Parents did see their children, not everyday, but on Sundays, which I suppose was better than nothing. Maybe if they were so ill they were in quarantine? By the 1900's many workhouses had quite separate establishments for the young, partly to give them fresh air and an education and partly to get them away from the 'criminal element' of the casual wards. The Poplar Workhouse built such places out in the Essex countryside, which is where the Jenkins children could have been sent . . . if they hadn't died first. Obviously Worth changed Mrs J's name, otherwise we would be able to check the record. The ledgers saved by the old LCC are available on line and births, baptisms and causes of death are all recorded.

carolyn, I thank the Lord...

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 7:34AM
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Vee, in the US obstetricians usually deliver babies, although general practitioners (especially in rural hospitals) are also trained to do so if no OB is available. There's been a recent 'push' to reinstitute the midwife practice in some regions, but for most of the 20th century to the present, it was not the favored way to do things.

Janalyn, I appreciate the differences between 'then and now'. My mother described how when she went into labor in 1943, 1948, and 1950, she was given ether to knock her out completely. She woke up with a baby but too sick to do anything but ask, "Is it all right?" I, on the other, in the 1980s was awake through both of my sons' Caesarean births. They were delivered at 10 and 11 a.m. and the nurses had me up and walking by 4 o'clock in the afternoon both times. I was sore but otherwise felt fine, and I was released on the fourth day but without my babies, the first had to stay a couple of extra days and the second stayed in the NICU for 97 days (he was born at 30 weeks and weighed 3 lbs). I am thankful I had my babies when I did; if it had been earlier, I might not have survived and my second son certainly wouldn't have. He had BPD the same as President and Jackie Kennedy's son who died shortly after his birth in 1963. Even with the best medical care available at the time, baby Patrick couldn't be saved. A quarter of a century later, my son survived and thrived. He's now a father himself. ...I thank the Lord that we over here don't have to rely on insurance for the length of a hospital stay...This is not the place to get into this complicated and fraught subject, but Europeans have as many misconceptions about the US health care system as Americans have about European-style social health care. I've experienced both and I'd say it's a toss up as to which is the more understandable...neither one! It's whatever you are accustomed to, though. There's many a myth about insurance, especially. No one can be denied treatment in an emergency situation -- at an emergency room, for instance. Or in the case of birth complications, no hospital will turn out a mother and baby just because she had no insurance or her insurance only covers two days of hospital care. If they did, they would be sued and ruined. Of course there are horror stories told and some of them might be true, but they are not as prevalent as alarmists and politicians would have you believe. And Europeans seem to want or like to believe those stories about the American system, just as some Americans like the idea of European social medicine until they find out how much it costs, as some recently have.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 9:57AM
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Vee - Canada wasn't even 100 years old in 1958, I don't think there were any inner cities then and fortunately we hadn't been bombed or suffered like those in England during the War. Nor have we ever had that kind of population density. The East End was hit hard during the War, I am not surprised that the children were playing in bomb sites but I was surprised that the living conditions were that bad. Just ignorant, I guess.

Midwives here were regulated in 1995 and you need a university degree. They are independent, with their own offices and have hospital priveliges, if that is required.

Jennifer searched all those records Vee to find out what happened to Mrs. Jenkins' children and her history. She then took her to where they were buried, for some kind of closure.

I had easy deliveries so wanted to get out of the hospital asap and got my doctor to agree to it. :) As for my own delivery, I was a forceps deliviery and to this day have a dent on the right side of my head as proof. Just glad the doctor didn't apply one more iota of pressure. LOL

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 10:58AM
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Vee, my mother is about the same age as the author and as I was reading I was contrasting what I knew of her life in the 1950s-60s with the London being described in the book. Hence my surprise at the living conditions. My mother did grow up in a suburb, but the city wasn't far away and that was where the family went to shop, see movies, etc., and there was nothing ever described to me that approached the conditions Worth describes in the East End. Maybe we were just unaware, but I truly don't think conditions were similar even in the most impoverished areas. And as Janalyn said, we had no bomb damage nor the population density.

I was one of those unfortunate mothers who was sent packing from the hospital within 24 hours with my first child. I was completely and utterly clueless and she was two weeks early and had colic -- it's a wonder we made it! I could have definitely used at least another day to acclimate and figure out what I was doing. (Those poor first children, they are the experimental models, aren't they?) But we survived and she's all grown up and off to college.

After a huge fuss about "drive-thru deliveries" the insurance companies relented and I was covered for two days with the next one. He was over ten pounds and an easy baby. If there had been any complications or if I'd needed a C-section the insurance would have certainly provided for that. As it was, I had a very busy four-year old at home and wanted to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible.

I ordered the DVD of the first season of "Call the Midwife" and I'm really looking forward to seeing the book come to life.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 12:08PM
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Sheriz6, I heard somewhere that the oldest child has a lot of mistakes made on it but gets a lot of extra love and attention to make up for it. In that Army hospital where I was and where all the new mothers were thousands of miles from their own mothers and had only their equally young and inexperienced husbands to help, the nurses gave classes on bathing baby, making formula, etc. (My little daughter was the guinea pig bathing beauty; I have always thought she was chosen because she was the prettiest baby on the maternity ward.) We were also required to have rooming in where we had to take complete care of the babies ourselves. I suppose that was so that the medical personnel could be reassured that we weren't going to go home and kill the poor little things.

Janalyn, is it you who has all three of the Midwife books? I have returned mine to the library, but I'm pretty sure it was the appendix in the last book that gave the information that "Chummy" had spent her life in Africa as a missionary and never returned home. I read that, along with the information that she and Jennifer had corresponded for a number of years and then sent Christmas cards and then, finally, ceased corresponding at all. She mentioned all the nurses and said that she and Cynthia had remained friends to the last.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 6:58PM
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I have read only the first book because I was worried I would get them all mixed up when it came to this discussion. :) I will get the other two from the library later.
In BC when I was pregnant, we had prenatal classes with registered nurses, where, among all the standard stuff, they taught husbands to be coaches hahahahah!. I love mine dearly but he was like a deer in headlights during labour. We had regular prenatal doctor visits etc and after the baby was born, you were visited by a community nurse and, as a first time mom, you had the option to register for a postnatal clinic. Now that was wonderful! About ten of us and our babies met once a week with a community nurse who checked all the babies and answered questions. Some of those women became my best friends and their children and mine are best friends, We had our own informal support group, set up weekly babysitting/coffee mornings and were simply there for one another. I think that postnatal program was cancelled years ago, have no idea why because it met many needs. I digress lol

What did you think of Mary (I think that was her name), the naive Irish girl who was seduced by a pimp, and how she was treated when her baby was taken from her against her wishes? Fair or not?

    Bookmark   February 4, 2014 at 7:18PM
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The story of Mary was pitiful, including her compulsion to steal a baby to replace the one taken away from her. By the standards of the day, it probably was considered 'the right thing to do' for her not to be allowed to keep her baby. It was fairer to the child, as the thinking went. We might not necessarily think so today, though.

Something Worth touched on that I wish she had gone into more detail about was the nutritional advice given to pregnant women. I've run across mentions of this in other memoirs of this period and earlier.

The women were malnourished when they needed food most. Of course there might simply have been no food for anyone in the family, but even when there was, the women couldn't seem to stop denying themselves food when their children were hungry and the breadwinner (the husband, usually) needed sustenance first.

In sociological terms this is called "the breadwinner effect" when the rationalization of a disproportionate amount of food, especially meat, will always go to males because they need it for work. However, nutritionists know that pregnant and lactating women, especially those who also do domestic and wage-earning labor themselves, have nutritional and caloric requirements only slightly less than adult males and perhaps more than some males with less strenuous jobs. Yet pregnant women in many cultures will still submit the greater share of food to their menfolk. It is a status thing, too, and evidently it was still 'the norm' in the East End in the 1950s. Maybe it still is, although the demographics of the East End are quite different today to what they were back then.

Vee, Nella Last did this for her husband Will in the 1940s and '50s, although by the standards of the East End, the Lasts were well off. Do you think it is a cultural thing that still exists in England?

    Bookmark   February 5, 2014 at 2:02AM
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'Pimping' is still alive over here and many ignorant/vulnerable/poor girls are subjected to it; especially those who are trafficked from Eastern European countries. Sometimes these unhappy girls are found months or years later after police raids in quite 'respectable' areas of our towns and cities. They are set free yet within a matter of weeks are 'recaptured' by their tormentors.
I think the nutrition' thing is as much about ignorance as lack of money. In the '50's there were jobs aplenty; although 'casual labourers' would have been more insecure. I'm sure men always got the biggest 'helpings' at mealtimes; I know my father did . . . but then he was bigger and there was no shortage of money/lack of food in our home. Some of the East Ender's wages would have disappeared at the pub or the dog track; that was how the man of the house relaxed. English men always seem to need the company of their fellows/peers rather than their families . . . and yes, I do realise there are many exceptions to the rule. I think women, pregnant/breast feeding or not had little knowledge of the nutritional properties of food. The introduction of rationing had provided a minimum balanced amount of food for each family, all pregnant/nursing women received a free pint of milk (I think per day), free orange juice and codliver oil was given to all babies. Each school child had a free third of a pint of milk each morning . .. I remember it right up until I was eighteen as the only source of fresh milk we received at boarding school.
I think everyone except the absolutely destitute families still sat around a table at mealtimes and ate something even if it wasn't filled with vitamins and the required '5 a day' mantra of modern thinking.
A nursing acquaintance told me they were trained to notice women's complexions. Pale, undernourished girls were know as having the bun and a cup of tea look.
I could go on about the lack of 'balanced home-cooked meals' provided in many UK homes today.
Frieda you will be familiar with the tradition of a Sunday Roast over here. It was the one day when everyone would expect to get their feet under the table and eat meat, potatoes, veg, gravy and a solid pudding with lots of custard. No longer is this the case. Many families drag their whining kids to shopping malls/supermarkets where they visit that well-known burger outlet. One Sunday I was chatting to a friend with two small sons. "I'm off to get supper for them. I'm doing potato 'wedges' (frozen) with grated cheese." Not my idea of a 'Sunday' lunch!

    Bookmark   February 5, 2014 at 5:35AM
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The idea that men got the meat, women the gravy, was one I heard my mother repeat, though she attributed it to an earlier generation. And yes, everyone got meat on Sunday if it could at all be managed.

In our house our parents both got bigger portions, in part because they were adults and we were children, but we could have more if we wanted it. Our parents were on a tight budget, but they were scrupulously fair.

Having read the book a good year ago, I am now in the midst of watching the DVDs of the first season. I will agree with the comment that everything looks so much cleaner than the book lead me to believe. I will also agree that while I found the book fascinating, I found the emotional tone to be very flat, almost without affect.


    Bookmark   February 5, 2014 at 1:23PM
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Vee, I suppose Worth's intentions in writing her memoirs were to provide accounts of some of the more positive aspects of midwifery -- as Janalyn said above, "uplifting" stories -- although Worth did sprinkle her narrative with some unsavory parts as well. However, I question whether her balance is enough to leave a reasonably accurate impression.

Someone mentioned how the midwives felt safe going into even the roughest areas. I'm not sure I buy that, unless there was a blip in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the East End was transformed into an Eden. It certainly wasn't one earlier or later. And it was in the mid-to-late-fifties East End that the Kray twins incubated their gangsterism, Peter Rachman practiced his slum landlording, and pimping was rife, as already mentioned, etc., etc. Then there's the public houses located at just about every cross street and, as you noted, the clientele who probably got inebriated enough at times to be menaces to anyone they accosted, including young midwives on bicycles. Worth's picture is incomplete, I think, or am I just being skeptical?

I got familiar with Bethnal Green in the early 1970s. The general advice given to females at that time: You'll be all right on the busier streets in the daytime, but don't venture alone, or with just one mate, in the lanes and alleys, particularly at night. Do you think that was the prevailing advice for most of the districts of the East End, even in the 1950s/early '60s?

I feel I'm ruining quaint imagery left by Worth's writing and the charming TV series. :-(

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 12:52AM
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I found the stories in the memoir uplifting because even though some of them were disturbing and sad, people were trying to help. The TV series was sanitized - probably too much "unpleasantness" would have turned off watchers in the same way people even here admitted that they cannot read "unpleasant" novels.

I have read time after time that the nuns and midwives felt safe. I imagine if one of them had been accosted the whole community would have risen up in arms against the attacker. So, I do believe it. I found this on the web, from one of the original nums:

One of the St John CommunityâÂÂs surviving nun-midwives, 93-year-old Sister Teresa, recalls a case where âÂÂall the bedbugs walked out of the mattressâ as soon as a fire was lit in one expectant motherâÂÂs icy bedroom.

âÂÂBut although the conditions were a shock at first, I grew to love the people ��" there was a magic about the East End, community-wise,â she says.

âÂÂI felt sorry for the women with their endless births and their lack of know-how about running a house because of generations of slum-dwelling, so we befriended them.âÂÂ
The St John Community was created in 1848 as a âÂÂnursing sisterhoodâ that sent nuns to the Crimea to work with Florence Nightingale. The nuns continued their work back in the East End, and when the NHS was founded in 1948, the nuns served alongside NHS midwives and doctors for several more decades.

The area could be dangerous, but even around Cable Street, the red-light district where policemen walked in fours for self-protection, the nuns felt safe.

They were highly visible in their white wimples and long tabards, which they tucked into their belts when they rode their bikes and, later, mopeds. But they enjoyed protected status because they were a comforting presence at the two greatest events in peopleâÂÂs lives ��" birth and death.

Read more:
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    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 1:25AM
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Sorry, Janalyn, I tried several times but couldn't get the DailyMail address to work. I'll try again later on a different device.

The nuns in full gear could have felt safe enough, I suppose, but I was speaking more generally of young females of any stripe and some not so young, even some old women, and midwives not necessarily in uniform. Statistics don't bear out that women were any more safe in the East End than they were in any other part of London. Ellen Ross, the social historian, relates that women were subjected to all sorts of violence, mostly domestic (brought on by drunken or loutish spouses, usually) but also by other men (and sometimes women): Husbands were, practically by definition, violent. Indeed, one woman brought a warrant against a man who had "knocked me down as if he was my husband." Husband-wife violence was indeed a privileged form in a culture that permitted a wide range of physical expressions of anger and in which violence was the prerogative of those in authority. Parents slapped, spanked and whipped children, as did police, neighbours, and teachers; fights broke out in pubs and streets not only between men but sometimes between women also. -- Love and Toil

The nuns were looking through a different prism.

This post was edited by friedag on Thu, Feb 6, 14 at 2:31

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 2:19AM
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Frieda, I have never heard of any violence that took place against uniformed nurses 'going about their business', although, as you say, for the average female in any slummy part of a big city it was/is better to be there in daylight and walking purposefully, no strolling or looking in shop windows in case your motives were misconstrued.
However I have been told by an old Irish midwife friend that in Dublin, where she trained in the '40's, if nursing staff were called out during the night to an emergency, a policeman would have to accompany them, even if they were in an ambulance, because they were liable to be stoned or set-on by youths and/or drunks. She also commented on the 'domestic violence' she witnessed and the fear for her personal safety after she reported a father who she believed had kicked a new-born baby and broken its spine. Another nurse acquaintance told horror stories of working in the Gorbals slums of Glasgow, as bad if not worse than London.
My DD's PR firm 'relocated' (as you say in the US) to Bethnal Green, a slum area which is being rejuvenated. She not only hated the long walk from the nearest Tube station over London Bridge, but the police tape surrounding pools of blood on the pavements after another night's stabbing . . . the knife being the weapon-of-choice among the ethnic community.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 4:57AM
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Frieda - try this. When I copy pasted that late last night, the url just appeared and I was in a hurry and didnt have time to check it out.

I completely agree with you abou the violence - that appeared in many of the stories, also she talked about the domestic violence in the introduction as well, I believe. But I do think the uniforms protected them.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 11:12AM
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Thank you, Janalyn. That address popped immediately. I'll read it with interest, since I prefer the synoptic approach. I'm still miffed that I'm handicapped by not having the Intro you have. We could be speaking at cross purposes because of it.

Yes, I can understand the preference for a 'light' version, nothing unpleasant enough to make one's blood boil or bile to rise. It probably helps too that this is a character-driven set of stories and personal, although as Vee said, the personality of Jennifer/Jenny Lee is perhaps the least fascinating of the lot. I do think it's interesting, though, that when Jennifer gave up nursing, she went into music.

Re the food issues: Vee, I've been reading Robert Roberts's The Classic Slum about his childhood in Salford in the first two decades of the 1900s. The feeling of entitlement many men felt about their share of the food and the arguments they had with their wives when the women couldn't meet the men's requirements, Roberts put it this way: Some men demanded [in their packed lunches] fillings which the family budget could not sustain. One mechanic, I remember, after a violent quarrel with his wife found next day that lunch consisted of the rent book between two slices of bread.Ellen Ross in Love and Toil (that I quoted from above) says this:The London fathers and elder brothers who routinely dined on fare for which they had worked hard [including meat, fish and eggs] but over which their wives and children were literally drooling were not monsters who enjoyed tormenting their families; their dietary privileges and their families' deprivation were simply on the edges of [their] awareness.

Vee, I did run across one reference to a nun/nurse being attacked by a drunk who claimed that he did it because he thought she was a bird of prey after him! That was back in the 1890s, though.

Intoxicated people don't always observe the distinctions of uniforms, so it is perhaps a testament to the sisters' faith that they were never or seldom abused.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 3:31PM
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Frieda - I went to Amazon and looked at the preview of the book. It includes most of the introduction, page 7 appears to be missing, but you can at least read it. Just keep going past the table of contents...

Here is a link that might be useful: Into in Amazon preview

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 5:57PM
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Hooray, Janalyn. Sharp of you to think of the Amazon preview including the Intro. I sure didn't.

Worth's memories are a bit contrary to the historians', sociologists', and other memoirists' estimations I've read so far. But she was there and her experiences could very well agree with those of other writers who were in the East End at the same time, or they could almost completely disagree. But more likely different people will remember similar things slightly differently. Again, it's the nature of memory, and only a synthesis of all sources is likely to come closest to accuracy -- one source is never enough. But I'm preaching to the choir, I know! I'm just reaffirming it in my own mind. :-)

I'll shut up now. I want to read others' opinions of Call the Midwife. Thanks, Janalyn, for turning me on to it. I've enjoyed it, although I may seem hypercritical.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2014 at 9:09PM
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I saw this on the Mental Floss website today and thought it might make an interesting side note to this this discussion. The "professional medical" advice from a century ago is amazingly awful.

Here is a link that might be useful: How to Give Birth 100 Years Ago

    Bookmark   February 7, 2014 at 7:49AM
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I read this all this thread today as I had only watched one episode of the TV series and haven't read the books, so felt I had nothing to contribute. One point though....
Many years ago, probably around the 1950s I read a book about the East End and recall that there was a mention of midwives on their bikes being able to go into the "tough" areas safely by themselves where the policemen went in pairs.
Strange how some facts stick in the mind but I don't remember what the book was called.
I also read a similar non-fiction book set in South Africa and remember a story about a young girl who was married to an older man and was having a baby. While the midwife was in the house, he told her that his wife was an illegitimate child who was handed over by a well-dressed woman with a bunch of violets on her coat to a slum family. He said that the girl was in a dreadful situation and he had rescued her and wondered how this woman with the violets could have done such a thing.
These books must have been in the library where I worked in the early 1950s as I never read this kind of thing normally but we were encouraged to read the latest books so that we could recommend them to the subscribers.
Richard Gordon had brought out a popular book "Doctor in the House" so my recollection about the midwives might have been from that book.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2014 at 8:26AM
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I finished the book a few weeks ago, and had to return it to the library, so I am commenting from my memory and notes. I attributed the safety issue to the fact that that it was a close community, though with a lot of violence. When everyone knows everyone, especially at that time in history, a "good" woman, as the nurses and sisters would have been considered, would be relatively safe.
My brothers and sister often remind each other that everyone remembers different things from shared experiences, and different experiences that others may have forgotten. We find that when recounting things from our childhood (safely from the current ages of 54-59), as close in age as we were our remembrances sometimes differ. I try to keep this in mind when reading memoirs, especially when I read several in a row from the same time period and area.
Jenny seems to step back from the story, making her character almost flat compared to the others. I wonder if it was personality, or a desire not to be perceived by the others still alive as making herself the center of attention.
I loved the book, and did watch a few of the episodes, but find myself curiously without any desire to read the rest of the series.
Would those of you who have read the other books recommend them?

    Bookmark   February 8, 2014 at 11:04AM
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Your comment struck a chord with me, Kathleen. I read the first book with interest, but did not go on. And I have been watching the series but will probably not watch the last DVD.

I like the book best as a vivid picture of another time and place. For me the stories exist to make it real and poignant.

My favorite character by far is Chummy. I choose to believe that Jennifer's daughters were right, and that she was real.


    Bookmark   February 8, 2014 at 12:11PM
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Kathleen, the other two books are different from the first. They don't have very many of the stories but deal more with the locale and one or two families. I didn't enjoy them the way I did the first book and the TV programs. Unless you are just very interested in the time period, you may not want to read them.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2014 at 6:58PM
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The interesting article below is taken from today's Sunday Telegraph and is by Heidi Thomas who adapts 'Call the Midwife'.

Here is a link that might be useful: Heidi Thomas

    Bookmark   February 9, 2014 at 4:30PM
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This thread is a fascinating read in itself. Veer, Freida, Janalyn and others have shared lots of unknown-to-me (and therefore amazing :^) knowledge about midwives, the East End, workhouses, hospitals, etc. Thank you very much!

One thing Frieda mentioned about the book struck me, because I hadn't thought about it, though it seems obvious now that it's been pointed out - and that is the bit about Jennifer Worth's "flatness," her lack of emotion about what she was describing. Several of you suggested reasons for this, and all of them sounded quite plausible to me.

You all are a bunch of smart cookies!

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 12:29AM
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Just got back from the Seattle Flower and Garden Show, so have been away. (Can't wait for spring)

Thanks!! to all of you who participated in this discussion and hope others who have been inspired to read this, will add their thoughts too.

If any of you would like to discuss a book, no matter what the genre, please start a thread and I promise to join in. I think we should take turns leading one, if this is what you all would like to do. Now, back to the couch and watching Olympics. :)

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 2:45PM
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Vee, thanks for the Heidi Thomas site. I enjoyed reading it.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 7:33PM
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After a few days of rumination and further reading on 20th century midwifery, I couldn't stay away from this thread and had to see what you all were saying. :-)

Oh gawd, Sheri, that 'professional' advice from 100 years ago is a reminder of how much medicine and health care has been a 'work in progress', and how amidst some of the sound advice and changes for the better, there have been some equally flaky ideas. Unfortunately, I think a lot of flakiness still exists because medical advice seems to flip flop every few years -- witness: breastfeeding bad, bottle-feeding good to breastfeeding good, bottle-feeding bad.

Vee, I too found the piece about Heidi Thomas interesting. At least she acknowledges that the series can be viewed on more than one level, although the 'cream-topped trifle' consumers are probably in the majority. I agree that Worth's characters are not realistic in that they are all paragons, as Thomas related. I was a bit annoyed with that, but then that wasn't part of Worth's purpose in writing her memoirs. For all those who gush about the good and glory of midwifery, there are also those who can relate the opposite. I don't watch television to have a 'good cry', but sometimes I'm caught off guard. I didn't realize that many (most?) Down's children were institutionalized in the UK until the 1960s/1970s.

Speaking of opposite views, I've been reading about what poor English women, including East End women, thought about the 'do-gooders' who came into their lives after about 1900 and then as the decades of the century progressed. Incipient nannyism dates from the mid 1800s, but it was only in the 20th century that the 'State' really imposed itself. At first, women thought most of the advice dispensed was a crock, since they had their own ways of doing things and they resented the officious bores who told them everything they did was wrong. Many of the older children would warn their mothers with, "Here comes the lady with the alligator bag," meaning the social worker or welfare representative was in the neighborhood.

One of the biggest contentions was breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, as I mentioned above. The health workers were only trying to solve the problem of sickly babies who couldn't thrive on their exhausted, malnourished mothers' breast milk. They prescribed bottle-feeding of cow's milk, supplemented with barley water and cod-liver oil in bottles with nipples that the State provided. And they advocated that babies past newborn should be fed only every six hours on a strict schedule. All right, but the women didn't have any way to keep cow's milk fresh, if they could afford it in the first place; they didn't have the water, much less boiling water, needed to keep the bottles and nipples clean; and they weren't about to let a screaming baby disrupt their husbands' and the other children's sleep when it was easier to whip out a breast every time the baby cried.

Women who had already given...

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 2:42AM
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My SiL , a qualified midwife, ran a clinic for new mothers and told me that she advised against using dummies/pacifiers until she had her own baby! BiL needed his sleep to be able to function at work she ruefully acknowledged and wondered how many people had taken her advice.
I told her that probably no one had!

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 6:08AM
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I was searching for more books on the East End and the following link came up.

I know it is Wikipedia so you read it with eyebrow raised, but it has a lot of information. Near the end of the article they mention books on that period including Call the Midwife. It appears that a number of books appeared after it was published, no doubt cashing in on the public's fascination.

I checked out one of them, Silvertown
and it is another memoir. Practically every review mentions the butcher pulling out all the teeth of the girl at age 17, and that this was standard practice due to the dental problems that inevitably happened as adults.

This seemed questionable to me so I tried to find some more info and came across the following memoir, written by a Jewish woman who was a child in the East End during the thirties and forties.. I thought it was excellent and encourage you to read it.

Here is a link that might be useful: My East End Story by Jean Rubenstein 2001

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 5:29PM
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Janalyn, I've read Silvertown in my current glut of memoir-reading from former East Enders. I think it's one of the better written accounts. And, yes, unfortunately, the tooth-pulling stands out. Dental problems plagued many poor people in that locale for most of the 20th century according to several of the memoirists I've read. One detailed how chewing tobacco helped dull toothaches among old and young alike, including a father who shared his plug with his nine-year-old son because he understood the pain the boy was having with his bad teeth.

I read the memoir you linked to, Janalyn. I enjoyed it as a different perspective, that of a Jewish family. It's unpolished, but I like that because it feels genuine. The mother was indomitable. I like how she got the next-door bakery with the cockroach problem to give her two loaves gratis!

Annpan, the use of dummies/comforters/pacifiers was another thing that the social workers tried to discourage, but, as in the case of what you said to your SiL, the women let that piece of impractical advice go in one ear and out the other.

I think Heidi Thomas in the Sunday Telegraph article misspoke when she referred to "the advent of the Pill in the late 1960s." The Pill was invented in the 1950s and was approved in the US by the FDA in 1957 but only for menstrual cycle problems. All of a sudden many American women were having menstrual problems! Then in 1960 the Pill was approved as a contraceptive and by 1962 it was a hit with American women. God bless the Mexican yam!!

In the UK the contraceptive pill was introduced on the NHS in 1961, but it got a slower start there than in the US because "the government at the time did not want to be seen to be encouraging promiscuity or "free love." That's about the only time I can think of that Britain was more conservative than the US.

That puzzled me, so I searched the Internet for a quick explanation and found a BBC News article (see link below) that British GPs were slow to prescribe the Pill but that changed when family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe the Pill to single women in 1974.

It's that date of 1974 that drew me up short because I landed in England in 1972 and all the women I knew as coworkers, housemates, and friends were already on the Pill and nearly all of them were single. Something doesn't gibe. What about all those stories of free-swinging London in the 1960s? I don't get it.

Take a look at the BBC News piece, if for no other reason than to view the advertisement photo about halfway down, captioned "Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" I remember actually seeing that advert!!

Here is a link that might be useful: How the pill changed Britain

    Bookmark   February 12, 2014 at 1:10AM
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Along with Melanie Mc Grath's Silvertown her Hopping is well worth reading.
Up until the late '40's early 50's, train/bus loads of Eastenders would up sticks and travel down to Kent where they camped and worked in the hop-fields for a couple of months every summer. For the poorest families it was the only chance of a change-of-scenery and some fresh air for the children.

Frieda, the 'Swinging Sixties' certainly never existed until almost the '70's; believe me I was there.
I can honestly say I never heard anyone discussing whether or not they were on the Pill. Maybe I just moved in less exciting circles than you . . . and I did have quite a few Catholic friends. Doctors would be unlikely to prescribe it unless patients told them they were were just about to marry.
As late as the early '70's, while working on the 'edge' of the East End I remember visiting a work colleague. She was 'showing off' her just-bought house. Upstairs I admired one of the bedrooms and suddenly noticed her confusion as she hastily removed a pair of mens trousers from the back of a chair. She later said she had been embarrassed as she was sharing the place with her boyfriend and was worried about her reputation . . . friends were more upset that she had moved in with a small-time gangster, rather than her sexual morals.
Another friend took up with a bloke who turned out to be a local crook. It took her some time to work-out why he never paid when eating out or why the locals were so obsequious towards him.

The Jewish woman's story is interesting as it was the main settlement area for all those entering England as they escaped the various European 'pogroms'. Before them the Huguenots had settled in Spitalfields and a large Bangladeshi (sp) community made its home around Brick Lane in the '90's.
Once these people started to make a 'go' of things they moved on to 'better' areas of London.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2014 at 9:43AM
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Vee, I guess it did depend upon what circles one moved in, but to hear people (that I knew) talk in 1972, it was easy to get the impression that I had missed the 'excitement' boat that was Swinging London in the 1960s. Most seemed to think it was downhill after the turn of the decade, and London was only a shadow of what it had been during 'the greatest decade of the 20th century'. I always suspected that was hype, but I could also observe from firsthand experience that the London I knew in the early '70s was pretty jaded, or at least some of the young career women and men put on that front.

Most of the women I knew were from 'good' families, well-enough educated (although not in the most prestigious schools), and most paid lip service to the notion that they weren't looking to 'settle down' soon. I did know several who cohabited with men, some with boyfriends and others in platonic arrangements (I did the latter myself). We women lived together in such close quarters that it was hard to keep any secrets from each other, and it didn't appear that taking the Pill was anything shameful because the packets were often left out in the open in bedrooms for others to see. However, I don't recall ever asking anyone or anyone volunteering how they got the Pill. I didn't need that information.

I do remember being annoyed with men who liked to ask women, "Are you on the Pill?", scoping out women as potential sex partners, I suppose. One housemate who was asked that by some bloke within hearing of everyone else in the lounge sneered, "What's it to you?" I think that was the first time I actually heard that much-used phrase.

When word got out that I had been married, I was asked by some stupid guys, "Don't you miss having a man?" I got to practice the sarcasm that my housemates were so good at: "Well, if I do, it wouldn't be for the likes of you!"

Vee, do you remember that advertisement with the pregnant man? I can't recall exactly where or when I saw it.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2014 at 12:54PM
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Frieda, sorry not to have replied before but have been having power-outages due to the gales/storms.
I well remember the advert with the pregnant man. There used to be another Pill related one, though maybe unofficial, that played on the old advert seen on the ice-cream sellers bikes "Stop Me and Buy One" replaced by "Buy Me and Stop One"
I can imagine your '70's path being strewn with wimpy English boys suffering with more than deflated libidos. Did you ever read the The Female Eunuch?

    Bookmark   February 13, 2014 at 1:26PM
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Vee, I heard about those 100mph-plus winds and flooding. Scary! I hope you and all of yours remain well through it.

The contraception-campaign adverts seem to have been effective. I followed a link, though, that told of a current baby 'boomlet' in Britain. According to that article, most people assumed it was because of immigrant women having more babies than native-born women, but the writer says the demographers now think the uptick in births may be due to "Tony Blair and New Labour's commitment to eradicate child poverty." I don't profess to understand all the ins and outs, but as near as I can make out, the Working Family Tax Credit (WTFC) has given couples 'room' to add another child to their family. (I notice that WTFC has the middle initials reversed and I checked to see if I had transposed them but that's the way they are in the article.) In the comments section, responders are skeptical: they still think the immigrants are the more likely cause. What have you heard or read about this?

Of course I read The Female Eunuch; it was a 'bible' of second-wave feminism. I never took it as seriously, though, as some females I knew. I thought it was hilarious, in parts, and cottoned onto Greer being satirical -- pointedly so, but still satirical. I used to say I was a feminist who likes men and I have never thought there was anything contradictory about that. I admit that it took me many years to understand why women -- and the feminists especially -- were so angry with men.

Which reminds me that Janalyn above asked whether the 1950s were pallid in comparison to the 1940s and 1960s. I remember that we touched on this in different thread, and I think we concluded that the 1950s was a very conformist decade but there was a lot going on under the surface. After all, the 1950s laid the groundwork for the 1960s. Right?

    Bookmark   February 13, 2014 at 7:48PM
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Frieda, I've not heard of the Blair Govt's attempt at the 'eradication of child poverty' leading to poorer families deciding to have another child and had always understood it was the newly arrived immigrant population, whether from the 'New EU' or the Third World countries, putting an unexpected strain on maternity services/school etc. I think those relying on State handouts, at least the young single teenage mothers, are little concerned about the number of children they have. When working down in the East End (not the dock area) some years ago I was told if someone wanted a Council House it 'helped' to have a baby as it put you nearer the top of the waiting list.
Personally, the thought of being a single mother, with several small children, living on State benefits and no useful man/partner (other than as an impregnator) would terrify me and would certainly act as an immediate 'natural' contraceptive.
I think the '40's were black rather than pallid. The '50's gradually brightened up . .. plenty of jobs about, more 'stuff' becoming available, then the '60's gave added expectation to those who had had little in the past and especially their children who saw the apparent wealth/life-style in the US and wanted a slice . .. anything from clothes, records, cars, foreign holidays. I think it became a worrying time for the older generation used to following in 'father's footsteps' and more content with their lot.
The Necessary Aptitude by popular 'personality' Pam Ayres paints that period very well. It's not high literature but it gives a good insight into trying to break out of the rural working-class rut and eventually getting into 'entertainment' . . . plus she seems a genuinely nice person.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pam Ayres poem

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 5:57AM
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I have always been a fan and mutter the first line of her apt poem when visiting the dentist!
My dream is to win enough money to get implants!

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 8:28AM
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In the latest TV episode of Call the Midwife beside being genuinely sad as they dealt with the difficult subject of two young handicapped people falling in love .. . the subject of how the Nonnatus House nuns were so nonjudgmental towards the mothers they helped, came up.
It struck me the story more-or-less coincides in time with the true story of Philomena Lee. The shame of an illegitimate birth was not dissimilar but the attitude of the East End nuns and there counterparts in the Mother-and-Baby home that PL was incarcerated in, are totally different. One caring and efficient, the other with the emphasis on sin and being made to pay for it . . . no drugs during childbirth etc.
Then today a news item caught my attention. The film has produced something called the Philomena Effect in Ireland. Many many women have found the courage to come forward hoping to find out what happened to the babies they were forced to give up for adoption, also adults looking for their own 'real' Mothers.
The difficulty is that the law does not allow anyone to search the records for their 'natural' parents, either those held by the Church or the State.
A campaign has started looking at ways to change this law. Up to sixty thousand children/Mothers could be involved.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Philomena Effect

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 3:13PM
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