It is said one should never judge a book by its cover but the sight of four cheerful urchins on the cover of this book, plus the wording ‘A true story of the East End in the 1950’s’, encourages the reader to start delving into its pages. The fact the BBC have also serialised it is a testimony, in my eyes, to a book well written.
The book is written in simple, easy-to-understand language and Jennifer Worth, the author of this autobiography, includes a glossary of terms plus a translation of ‘cockney-speak’ in the back of the book. It covers the lives of four midwives in London’s Docklands: Jenny, Trixie, Chummy and Cynthia, and the sterling work they carry out amongst the families in the area. These particular nurses are based in a convent—Nonnatus House—and they undertake the duties of district nurses together with the nuns. The lives and work of the nuns—a different facet of womanhood—and their good deeds amongst the poor and deprived of the community, are also covered in detail.
The East End is portrayed by Worth in all its sordid but human imagery. This is the time of the Kray Twins and gang warfare, left-over bomb sites and the slum clearances that changed communities forever. Men work in the docks for as many as fourteen hours a day and then fall into pubs and drink the money away. There are often periods without work which add to the tensions of living in the East End in slum conditions and frequently result in domestic violence. There is little understanding or acceptance of contraception so most married women have baby after baby.
The spectre of the workhouse rears its ugly head and the after-effects of living in one is explored in the story of Mrs Jenkins who is evicted from her home for owing three weeks’ rent to her landlord. The only place to go is the workhouse where her children are taken away from her and she has no contact with them again. She finds out later her son has died and already been buried. Her other four children also die in the workhouse. When she leaves the workhouse she wanders the streets, taking an obsessive interest in new-born babies.
Women who have babies out of wedlock are ostracised—Mary, a fifteen-year-old Irish girl, is abused by her mother’s boyfriend and escapes to Liverpool. She is given a lift to London by a lorry driver who takes advantage of her, when she gets to London she turns to prostitution to survive and falls pregnant. Nurse Jenny rescues her from brothel life and Mary is sent to a home run by the church. When she gives birth her baby is taken away from her as she is underage. This separation has a devastating effect on her and later in the story she steals another woman’s baby and ends up in prison.
Up until 1948 medical treatment had to be paid for. Worth writes “It will never be known how many women died of exhaustion in the agony of obstructed labour: the poor were expendable” The arrival of the NHS is a godsend for women like Brenda who had lost baby after baby because of a pelvic malformation caused by rickets. She is safely delivered of a baby by Caesarean section in hospital—an option that would not have been available to her before the NHS.
It is not all doom and gloom. Conchita, a Spanish peasant girl, comes to England at eleven or twelve years of age as the child-bride of Len Warren, a soldier returning from the Spanish Civil War. Her twenty-fourth child is delivered by a disbelieving Jenny, who thinks that no woman of Conchita’s age could possibly have had so many babies. Len speaks no Spanish and Conchita no English—their eldest daughter has to translate when the midwife comes to deliver the latest baby—but it is obvious that they love each other and all of their twenty-four children are loved and cared for.
Worth alludes to the naivety of some of the girls who arrive to be midwives in the area. Chummy, (her nickname), is from an upper-class family but is determined to fit in with the life she has chosen and an element of fun comes into the story when she has problems riding a bike on her rounds. There is also romance in the form of an unobtainable mystery man whom Jenny loves, leaving no space for other romances in her life.
Today, most births occur in the sterile conditions of a hospital, not at home amongst family and friends. Call the Midwife evokes a bygone era and brings to life its hardships but also its joys and sense of community—a sense of community that was lost with the slum clearances in the East End of London.