logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

Giving birth in the
early-mid 20th century

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Giving birth in a pre-NHS maternity hospital

I was born in 1939, and I know it was in a dedicated maternity hospital because my parents often spoke of it.

A pre-NHS maternity hospital

Bushey Maternity Hospital was in Bushey Heath, Bushey, Hertfordshire, and it operated as a maternity hospital from 1938 to 1976. It came under the NHS in 1948, before which it was fee-paying. It closed in 1977, when government policy dictated that all maternity facilities should be located within district general hospitals.

Lost Hospitals of London

My mother spoke in terms of being turned away from the local hospital and being taken miles and miles in an ambulance in the dark to goodness knows where while feeing very frightened and alone. The 'goodness knows where' turned out to be a dedicated maternity hospital out in the country, Bushey Maternity Hospital. I understand that dedicated maternity hospitals were not uncommon at the time.

She had no pain killers, which was the norm at the time and was ordered about as if she was a child. She was never addressed by her name, but as "Mother" which I understand was also quite common. I suspect that childbirth, being a painful experience, couldn't be helped, so the easiest way forward for hospital staff was to bully. After the birth she was left on a trolley overnight and found the next morning by a cleaner who said, "You shouldn't be here!" My mother always said, though, that she was quite contented on the trolley, knowing that the who experience was behind her.

My father's comments were all in terms of the cost of the hospital confinement, because there was no national health service (NHS) at the time. I seem to remember that the cost was £32 or £33; it was certainly over £30 which was a great deal of money in 1939. He said that he had to sell his car to pay for it which upset me greatly as I took it as my fault. When he realised this he added that the money from the car also paid for my mother's sewing machine and a few other bits and pieces.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo to illustrate pregnancy arrangements at the time, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

I do so very much wish that I had asked my parents what they knew of their own births. They were born in 1905 and 1906, and things must have been very different then, with less money available and families larger.

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Giving birth in an NHS maternity hospital

An NHS maternity hospital

Perivale Maternity Hospital was in Greenford, Middlesex, and it operated as a maternity hospital from 1937 to 1988. It came under the NHS in the late 1940s, before which it was fee-paying. It closed in 1988 when its services were transferred to a maternity unit in a general hospital.

Lost Hospitals of London

Years later, in 1965, I had my own first child in a dedicated maternity hospital, Perivale Maternity Hospital.

The first pain relief for women in childbirth

It was not until 1961 that the first paper was published describing the administration of a pre-mixed 50:50 nitrous oxide and oxygen mix, which led to the commercialisation of the [gas and air] product.

Wikipedia

By this time, women were given pain relief - although the wonder­fully effective epidurals were decades away.

I was given whiffs of gas from a gas and air machine which seemed to help in no way whatsoever. Some of my contemporary friends, though, said that it did help, so maybe I would have found the whole experience even more painful without it. We must all be different, as I have even met women who had their babies so easily that it didn't hurt at all, even with no pain relief.

Dedicated maternity hospitals were, by the time of my experience, under the NHS. One thing that was so different then from nowadays was that I along with other normal healthy women with no birth complications, were kept as in-patients for a minimum if 10 whole days. In my case, the stay was supposed to be for a fortnight, but I was let out early as having no obvious complications. My meals during all this time in hospital were at no charge to myself but I did have to surrender the baby's free milk tokens for the period. This has always seemed to me like strange accounting.

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Home births pre-NHS

In the early years of the 20th century, most women from working class families gave birth at home under the care of older women in the family.

What children were told about where babies came from

My brother was born in the early 1940s when I was 10. When I asked where the new baby came from, it wasn't "A stork brought him" or "We found him under a gooseberry bush". This was wartime and my father was far more up to date. He said that the baby was dropped by parachute.

Bill Hogg

There was no pain relief. Sometimes lengths of cotton fabric were tied to the bedpost for them to pull on to distract from the pain. Midwives could be sent for if considered necessary, but at a cost. There was something called 'the Panel' which was a local health insurance organisation which could help with the costs. Contributing families were described as 'on the Panel'.

There is an interesting description of a home birth in an air-raid shelter during the blitz of World War Two, along with an enforced distant hospital birth many miles from home.

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Home births post-NHS

It was also normal practice for all but first babies to be born at home unless there had been any complications with the first birth. So, in 1967, my second baby was born at home under the care of a local midwife who had to be alerted from a public phone a few streets away. She arrived some hours later, having been caught up in traffic, carrying a portable 'gas and air' machine. I was up and about that same afternoon.

The care after a birth was good with a midwife calling in regularly at the house to check on things. I can't remember how frequently she came or for how long after the birth. When midwives' visits ceased, mothers and their babies were put into the care of a local clinic. Presumably advice was available there, but my experience was primarily of wasting time waiting around just to have babies weighed. I did, though, meet other mothers who have remained good friends.

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Husbands were absolutely never allowed at any births!

Note that I say 'husbands'. Pregnancies of unmarried women were shrouded in secrecy.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.