Different experiences of childbirth, early-mid 20th century UK
This page describes four experiences of childbirth:
- 1939: my mother's experience of giving birth in hospital 1939 which was before the NHS (National Health Service)
- 1965: my own experience of giving birth in a dedicated NHS hospital in 1965
- Home births early 20th Century and before
- Home births post NHS
Giving birth in a pre-NHS maternity hospital in 1939
I was born in 1939, and I know that it was in a dedicated maternity hospital because my mother often spoke of it. She told me what the experience was like.
She said she was turned away from the local hospital because it was full. She was then taken miles and miles in an ambulance in the dark to what felt like goodness knows where while feeing very frightened and alone.
The 'goodness knows where' turned out to be where I was to be born - a dedicated maternity hospital out in the country, Bushey Maternity Hospital. I understand that dedicated maternity hospitals were quite common at the time.
Example of 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.
My mother was given no pain killers, which was the norm at the time, and she was ordered about as if she was a child. She was never addressed by her name, but as "Mother" which I understand was also common. I suspect that childbirth, being a painful experience, couldn't be eased, so the simplest reaction for hospital staff was to bully.
After the birth my mother 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 whole experience was behind her.
My father's comments were all in terms of the cost of the hospital confinement, because, as already said, there was no NHS at the time, and most women had their babies much more cheaply at home - see more below.
I seem to remember being told that the cost of the hospital was £32 or £33. It was certainly over £30 which was a great deal of money in 1939. My father always 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.
Giving birth in an NHS maternity hospital in 1965
Years later, in 1965, I had my own first child in another dedicated maternity hospital, Perivale Maternity Hospital, but this was an NHS one.
An example of 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.
By this time, women were given pain relief - although the wonderfully effective epidurals were decades away.
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.
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.
Duration of stay in the maternity hospital
One thing that was so different then from nowadays was that I, along with other normal healthy women with no birth complications, was kept as an in-patient 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 cost 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.
Incidentally I felt that the nurses did bully during the birth when women felt pain even with the gas and air machine. It was of course all they had at their disposal, and I'm sure it must be different now with epidurals.
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. The local midwife or a doctor was only called in an emergency, if then. Whether or not they were paid and if so, how much, is open to question and probably depended on circumstances.
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.
There was of course no pain relief. Sometimes lengths of cotton fabric were tied to the bedpost for women in labour to pull on to distract from the pain. Midwives could be sent for if considered necessary, but at a cost.
There is an interesting description of a home birth in an air-raid shelter during the blitz of World War Two
'The Panel' to defray costs
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'.
Home births post-NHS
Although it was normal practice for first babies to be born in hospital, later babies were to 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. The birth was much easier second time round, and 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.