The stories that make you think.
Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth.
(There will be some spoilers of this book if you do wish to read it yourself)
Having watched the series first, I found it interesting to learn that the series was actually based on the real life and stories of the author Jennifer Worth formally Jenny Lee. Being able to read her stories allowed me to think back to the series and understand these events in more depth.
There is also the added benefit that this edition has photographs alongside the authors work, this helped to demonstrate her stories with vivid photography which allows the reader to connect with the description and picture the events more clearly. It is easy when reading, especially stories like this, to forget that this is real life and the conditions which were described, real people had to live through.
I think it is really important that stories like this are told and heard. With events such as both World Wars and the Workhouses in London, they need these stories and memories to be told so that people do not forget what the past was like. Some of these events happened over 100 years ago which to some may seem like a long time but in the history of humans, it is not time at all. We are losing the last of the generation who lived through the First World War and the children and families who had to work in the workhouses as a result of this. They deserve their stories to be told so that people like us can be grateful for what we have today when in our society is so easy to become wrapped up in the next new thing or the troubles of friendships or money. Yes, they are important to us and everyone who has suffered any kind of stress or hardship will understand, but in 2020 if someone became destitute they would not be forced into a workhouse working for 15 hours a day for very little but food and shelter, never to see their families or loved ones again.
The National Health Service is around 80 years old and though it is struggling and underfunded now, it has advanced leaps and bounds from the 1950's where Jenny's stories are based. A person now doesn't have to worry if they break an arm or where they will deliver their baby, there is always support through the NHS and this care is provided for free. Many people were afraid of the NHS and hospitals when they were first established. This is because the people did not understand that their medical care was now free and they could go to the doctor with ease however, many of the hospitals were located inside the old workhouse buildings and many of the people who had to live in the workhouses could not bare to go back into the building no matter how ill their health.
Throughout the book, Jenny highlights many stories of London in the 1950's and 60's of being a nurse and then a trained midwife. She explores the times where women could not be medical professionals and that midwifery was not a 'real' medical profession. Many of the women who would be at the births for local ladies where known as 'handy women' and they would help people within their area give birth. The homebirth environment was not sterile or clean and many women died giving birth due to complications which these untrained 'handy women' could not deal with. The fight for women to become midwives and for midwifery to be seen as a real profession was met by men of the time thinking 'women were interfering' with medicine and were 'timewasters' as they surely could not understand medicine the way a man would.
However, in 1902 the first Midwives Act was passed and the Royal College of Midwives was born.
Throughout this book I feel like Worth has a way of drawing you in and making you want to carry on reading page after page. This meant that I finished this book within two days of picking it up. Two stories in particular stuck with me and had a huge impact on me emotionally. They made me understand about what I should be grateful for and the life that I have been able to lead.
The first story which struck me was the story of Ted and his wife Winnie. Both had lost their previous partner and started to build up their new relationship, Winnie had two children from her previous marriage who has since grown up and left home. Ted on the other hand did not have any children with this deceased wife which is something out of the ordinary for people in this time. This to me means that either one or both of that had fertility issues which stopped them from being able to have children as both were religious and birth control or contraceptives were not around at this time. The only way they could have not had children would be if one or both of them couldn't have children.
Ted and Winnie began their new marriage, Ted being fifty-nine and Winnie was said to be more than twenty years his junior. There was an insurance policy which Ted had taken out which matured when he turned sixty, this meant that he could retire and spend more time with his new bride, Winnie however did not want to give up her job in the Newsagents where she met Ted and decided instead to go part time so the pair could spend time together and enjoy this new chapter in their lives. At the age of forty-four Winnie's periods had stopped (yes, this is an important part so had to be added) She assumed it was the menopause as she felt a bit odd within herself, she was assured by her mother that this was normal and all women 'feel a bit odd' during this time. It wasn't until six months later when Winnie noticed she was putting on weight and Ted began to notice her stomach was getting hard, having experience his late wife dying of cancer, this hard lump was a huge concern for poor Ted. So Winnie went to the doctors where she found out that she was pregnant and expecting a new baby.
This was quite a shock for the pair as Ted was over sixty now and Winnie was convinced she was going through the change. Due to how late it was in the pregnancy when the couple found out, there wasn't much time to prepare for the new arrival however, when buying the white sheets and new pram Ted has changed from ' a bemused and bewildered elderly gentleman to an intensely excited and fiercely proud father-to-be'. It is said he began to look ten years younger.
A fortnight later and Winnie went into labour.
Something which should be known is at this time in the 60's a lot of people began immigrating to England from all over the world but especially from the West Indies. This meant that people who had gone their whole lives only seeing other people, were being introduced to people from other races and cultures and London became a mixing pot of people.
Okay, back to the story. Ted had read all of the parenting and birthing books to get himself ready for the new arrival. As Winnie was in her forties, her pregnancy was considered high risk and required both a midwife and a doctor to be present at the homebirth. Traditionally, men were kept out of the bedroom while their wives gave birth, only called upon if more hot water or fresh towels were needed, this meant Ted sat and waited outside while his wife gave birth.
Just after midnight the second stage of labour commenced and within twenty minutes the baby was born.
A little baby boy with clear dusky skin, soft curly brown hair- a picture perfect baby.
When the third stage of labour concluded and the baby and mother had been washed down, it was time to let an expecting and excited Ted in to meet his new baby. Jenny, the doctor and Winnie were all silent as Ted held the baby in anticipation of his reaction. Ted opened the swaddle the baby was in and stroked his little ears and hands and face. He touched his legs and moved his arms and took his tiny hand. Ted then said ' Well, I don't reckon to know much about babies, but I can see as how this is the most beautiful in the world, what's we going to call him?'
For me this was the most powerful and magical moment. This man has married a woman after losing his wife to cancer, has built a home and a happy life with her only to be surprised with the news of her being pregnant and finally at sixty he was going to be dad. When he looked at that little baby, a baby which quite clearly was not his, he did not shout or scream. He did not turn his wife away or order her to get rid of him as many husbands of the time did. Ted simply named his son 'Edward' and was the happiest man alive holding his new son.
It was obvious Winnie has slept with a black man from the West Indies and not only did Ted have to mourn the loss of a child he thought was his but also digest the fact his wife was unfaithful to him. But that did not matter. Ted never mentioned anything to his wife. He had met his son who he picked up from the school gates, walked hand and hand with down the street and loved dearly.
What a wonderful human being he had to be to quietly internalise and accept this little boy who bared no fault and be the best father he could.
The second story however is not as pleasant and doesn't end with the same happy ending as Ted and Winnie's story.
The second story which made me feel every emotion I can think of was that of Mrs Jenkins and her children.
Mrs Jenkins was always around whenever new babies were born, no one knew where she lived or whether she had family but you could be sure that she would be outside the house when a new baby was born. She wore and old, long coat which was too big for her and men's black boots which used to stick out of the bottom of the coat, also too big for her. She was shuffle along as how the baby was and then shuffle away. People used to find her urinating into drains and wiping herself out in public after using the toilet, times were hard post war but this was unusual behaviour.
One day a doctor asked the nurses if someone could pop by one of his patients who he thought had a heart problem. A little old lady named Mrs Jenkins, this was the first time the midwives (who were also district nurses) had any inkling into where she lived. Jenny arrived at the house and was told by a neighbour to throw stones at the second story window to get the attention of the person living there. Jenny did so and a foreign young man opened the door and allowed Jenny in telling her where 'the old lady' lived. The house was cold and damp and smelled horrendous and Jenny followed the dark hallway to where there was a door. When she opened it she found a frail looking Mrs Jenkins sat in an old arm chair in the corner of the room surrounded by cat and the only light source came from a hole in the roof. This was no place for someone to live especially someone as frail as this patient.
After a few weeks of visiting Mrs Jenkins and trying to build a repour (there are lots of details I am leaving out because it's too long a story and also you could just read the book) Jenny was allowed to help Mrs Jenkins have a warm bath with the offer of fresh clean clothes. When Jenny tried to take off Mrs Jenkins boots they would not budge, it was then she realised the leather of the boots had grafted to the skin of her feet. After soaking and pulling the boots were finally removed revealing the longest and thickest toenails Jenny had ever seen (these toe nails are displayed in the chiropodist learning school as they were of particular interest) and she then understood why these oversize men's boots were needed for these poorly looked after feet.
After washing and cleaning and scrubbing, Mrs Jenkins was then put into nice new warm clean clothes and put back into an armchair (a new one as the old one was full of fleas and had to be removed) Throughout their time with Mrs Jenkins, the nurses heard her speak of her daughter Rosie 'who would be by any time,' the nurses began feeling annoyed that her daughter could leave her in such a state and allow her to live in a building which was condemned as unfit for human inhabitants. This led to the nurses digging into Mrs Jenkins past and finding out her family history.
Mrs Jenkins had six children, Rosie being her eldest. Her husband had become ill and passed away leaving her to bring up the six children, she worked as a machinist in a sewing factory while Rosie left school to look after the younger children aged ten so that her mother could bring home money. One day Mrs Jenkins sleeve got caught up in the machine and it nearly tore off her arm. She could not afford to seek medical attention so the wounds healed open and the tendons remained damaged leaving her unable to work there anymore. Rosie and Mrs Jenkins took in people sewing which they would hand stitch and stay up most of the night working on it so that they could bring in a wage, over time the work began drying up so Mrs Jenkins sold everything she had, her furniture, her hair and even her teeth.
In 2020 it is unimaginable to think that someone in England would have to sell their hair or teeth to make just enough money to buy food. It reminds me of the scene in Les Mis where Anne Hathaway has to do the same thing. Money is at the forefront of most peoples minds nowadays whether we make enough or how we can make more money, but never would we have to sell our hair or teeth to make money, people go on the dole or get help from the government and are housed and paid. Sometimes I think, even when we are struggling and have no money, I do not have to go through what this poor family and I imagine many other families like them had to go through in order to keep shelter and buy food.
Over time the money was so scarce that Mrs Jenkins decided there was nothing else she could do and the family would have to go to the workhouse. The workers in the workhouse would work throughout many hours of the day to pay for their uniform, food and shelter. Mrs Jenkins was separated from her children, everyone had their heads shaved apart from Mrs Jenkins who had no hair from having to sell it. Rosie was put with the older girls and the other children were segregated accordingly.
Their lives in the workhouse were awful and mothers were only told if their children had died, not what had caused their death or where they were buried only that they had died. To me this feels like a form of slavery, it is stripping a human being of all humanity and decency in order to do what work is needed and they should be grateful because they have shelter and food and clothes on their back.
Mrs Jenkins was informed as each of her children died, first her four month old son and then each year another death was reported until at the age of fourteen, Rosie passed away.
So Mrs Jenkins in her old sat at home waiting for Rosie to come by who would have been an adult, married with her own children but because of two very unfortunate events which led to Mrs Jenkins having to take her family to the workhouse she never saw any of her children every again, never saw them grow up or becoming the people they were supposed to be. Though in our society now there are parents who neglect their children, who do not care for them and have more children because they then get more benefits. This woman had to lose all six of her children and live out the rest of her working adult life doing the same fifteen hour shift every day in order to survive.
The worst the I think of when hearing this story is what is described as the workhouse howl. It is said that if anyone hears this sound they never ever forget it and it can be heard in their head over and over. This howl is the noise people made when in pure desperation for a life they could not have. They were trapped and alone and this was no life.
It makes it very clear why people were scared of hospitals, especially if they were situated in the buildings which used to be workhouses. Peoples whole lives were ruined by this horrific work force and this makes me appreciate what I have now. It also makes me think that if every person were to listen to this story and try to really understand what their lives were like in that workhouse and what destitute situation you have to be in to subject yourself and your children to the workhouse life, I think some people would change their outlook on life and some would get jobs or look after their children or just appreciate those around them because this could have been our lives but we were lucky enough to be born after this time when society had advanced and this torture was no longer allowed.
Being able to hear and understand their stories exposed me to a world I thought I understood but clearly didn't. I thought I had a grasp and knowledge of the past and living conditions and experiences these people had, especially after the Second World War but I was very mistaken. It was a real jerk into reality and brought the realisation into the forefront of my mind that these people experienced living conditions which we will never understand. A lot of people in today would never be able to live through what these people lived through. A lot of people do not care or have interest in what has happened in the past and this is something which should be highlighted and told and retold so that our next generation and the generations after that do not forget what these people lived through so that we can live the way we do today.
Since reading this book I have found three more books written by Jennifer Worth which should be arriving soon. I imagine they will be as thrilling, informative and as difficult to put down as this book has been.
I hope you read this book and enjoy it as much as I did.