Childbirth, early to mid-20th century UK
The experience of childbirth has changed a great deal across the years. This page gives examples and personal recollections from hospital and home births before and after the National Health Service (NHS) including costs and pain relief, particularly the gas and air machine. Later developments are also considered.
By the webmaster, based on recollections of her mother, herself and others - with additional research
Home births pre-NHS, i.e. before 1948
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. It is doubtful whether families could have afforded anything else, especially as women had so many babies, there being no contraception.
The local midwife or a doctor was only called in an emergency, if then.
What children were told about where babies came from
When, at age 10, I asked where our new baby had come from, it wasn't the standard reply of, '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 for women from the working classes, although lengths of cotton fabric were often 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. In better-off families chloroform, morphine or nitrous oxide might have been available.
'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'.
Giving birth in a pre-NHS maternity hospital in 1939
I was born in 1939 in a dedicated maternity hospital. I understand that dedicated maternity hospitals were quite common at the time. As it was before the NHS, the hospital was fee-paying.
My mother often spoke of her experiences. 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 feeling very frightened and alone. The 'goodness knows where' turned out to be where I was to be born - Bushey Maternity Hospital in what was then the wilds of the the country.
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 stated, 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.
Bushey 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.
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, by then an NHS one.
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. The gas was a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide gas, which is a breathable anaesthetic. Neither of any help was all the preparation of breath control and relaxation, known as natural childbirth taught in the antenatal classes.
Some of my contemporary friends, though, said that gas and air 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 significantly 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.
Perivale 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.
The end of dedicated maternity hospitals
In the late 1970s, government policy dictated that all maternity facilities should be located within district general hospitals. Perivale Maternity Hospital closed in 1988 and its services were transferred to a maternity unit in a local general hospital.
Home births post-NHS in 1967
Although it was normal practice for first babies to be born in hospital, later babies were 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. 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.