History: Midwives in Barking and Dagenham in the 1940s and 1950s

A Dagenham clinic in 1947

A Dagenham clinic in 1947 - Credit: Archant

Hit BBC series Call the Midwife, which returned for a second season last month, portrays the hard working lives of midwives in 1950s East End London.

Ante-natal class in Dagenham in 1959

Ante-natal class in Dagenham in 1959 - Credit: Archant

Barking and Dagenham, of course, had its own team of midwives busy helping women across the area to prepare for their baby’s arrival and see them through the painful labour.

Becontree Avenue Infant Welfare Clinic

Becontree Avenue Infant Welfare Clinic - Credit: Archant

Not unlike the East End many families were poor and conditions, especially for those who gave birth at home, were often basic.

Nurse Goodbun with her car

Nurse Goodbun with her car - Credit: Archant

Clare Sexton, assistant archivist at Valence House in Dagenham, said midwives faced particular challenges during the Second World War.

Nurse Goodbun with a baby

Nurse Goodbun with a baby - Credit: Archant

“The medical services available were considerably reduced following the withdrawal of doctors for military service,” she explained.


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“At the same time there was an unprecedented increase in the number of babies being born which exacerbated the existing shortage of midwives.

“In Barking and Dagenham midwives and maternity nurses were required to work not only long hours, but also sometimes in dangerous circumstances.”

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In the 1940s and 1950s midwives would have travelled by foot, bike or public transport, which meant they had to carry everything with them.

“After the second Midwives Act of 1936 midwives who received proper training were allowed to administer inhalation analgesia (gas and air) to their patients,” Clare said.

“However it did not catch on at first as the apparatus was costly and difficult to transport. It was introduced in Dagenham in 1943 but was only used in 54 out of 469 births.”

Valence House has photographs of one particular midwife – Nurse M Goodbun – who worked for Dagenham Village from 1942 to 1958.

Records show she attended the home births of 71 children between October 1942 and January 1944 and then another 41 from June 1944 until the end of the war in September 1945.

She was later the first midwife to be given a car by the local authority.

During the war most women expecting in Dagenham would give birth at home, with the help of a midwife.

But in Barking it became increasingly common for women to be sent to Upney Hospital in Upney Lane (now Barking Community Hospital).

As the bombs continued to fall more and more pregnant women from inner cities areas were evacuated to emergency maternity homes in country houses, hotels, houses and private billets, explained Clare.

“In Barking many expectant mothers were sent to Tywford House in Bishop Stortford, and then when this was bombed in 1940 they went to a home at Battlers Green near Radlett on the outskirts of London.

“In Dagenham, meanwhile, women were sent to private billets in reception areas organised by the London County Council.

“These emergency maternity wards would have been extremely busy, with midwives nursing patients with severe medical conditions while at the same time conducting labours, deliveries and attending the needs of new mothers.”

By 1944 a number of clinics had been set up across Barking and Dagenham to provide ante and post-natal care.

Due to food shortages during the war these clinics stepped up their efforts to encourage women to breast feed. Staff distributed leaftlets from the Ministry of Food which declared: “Most women can do it if they try. A lot of them pretend they can’t because they don’t want to, they can’t be bothered, or they think its isn’t nice. That is folly, almost criminal folly.”

Despite the stresses and hardships of wartime, said Clare, the rate of maternal mortality, still birth and neonatal death fell dramatically in Barking and Dagenham.

“This was not only due to medical advances, improved economic circumstances of families and the changing roles of women, but also the valiant efforts of maternity nurses and midwives such as Nurse Goodbun.”

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