Midwives in Laindon.

Some thoughts on the manner in which attitudes can be altered by changing circumstances

By John Bathurst

Before the arrival of the “Laindon Recorder” each week, the local newspaper, issued monthly and sold for one penny a copy, was a publication called “The Laindon Advertiser.” It was printed and distributed by Laindon’s local printer, E J Baigent and Son, who had premises in Laindon High Road.

The October 1931 issue of the “Advertiser” contains the following news item:-

“OBITUARY

“Mr Albert Burling aged 54 years of New Century Road died suddenly on 3rd September at his home.  He had been a sufferer from heart trouble for the past ten years and had been in such indifferent health for five years that he was unable to take an active part in the life of the district.  He was at one time a keen member of the Memorial Hall Committee and the Laindon Ratepayers’ Association. Mrs Burling is treasurer of the women’s section of the British Legion. Deceased was engaged in business as a contractor.”

After Albert Burling’s early death, his widow, Maude, lived on in New Century Road in a bungalow named “Barrington”, a building that, to the best of my knowledge, still stands, largely unaltered in both appearance and style since it was first constructed.  In this regard it is one of the very few buildings in this part of Laindon still standing since before the commencement of the Basildon New Town era.   

Although the news item quoted above makes no mention of the fact, Mrs Maude Burling, as well as being the treasurer of the women’s section of the British Legion, was also a local midwife. This absence of information is, in the social environment of the time, not at all unusual as it might seem to the modern mind.  To those who, like me, enjoyed watching the BBC’s dramatic rendering of Jennifer Worth’s “Call the Midwife” it might come as something of a surprise, since little emphasis was laid on the point in television’s rendering, that in the period in which the episodes was being set, such matters as “childbirth” and what might be described as “matters of gynaecology” were only just beginning to emerge from behind the medical practitioner’s screen.  Certainly it was the case that in the 1930s and up and ‘till the end of WWII, anything that related to the messy business of “women’s parts” was largely considered taboo by, firstly, the male orientated media, the male population generally and even the great mass of the female population at the time. This must come over quite strange and difficult to accept in an age when pregnant women, particularly young and pretty young women, are more than happy to go around proudly displaying what many call their ”bump”, often in complete disregard of their marital status!

The overall effect of the “messy” business of childbirth being taboo, particularly in the minds of the adult male population, was that it was treated as though either it didn’t really exist or, if the matter was, that it existed but its various aspects were entirely a matter for the female population alone. In other words, “it was all women’s business” and was thus to be considered to be much below the dignity of the male population. As far as discussion between men was concerned their personal obligation in the matter was considered to have ended with the moment of impregnation and no further interest was to be expressed until after parturition had occurred and the outcome of their efforts was known and well established. As far as the majority of adult men were concerned, real men did not discuss their spouses’ pregnancies any more than they discussed the details of the weekly shopping or how house work was best performed. These were not subjects to ever come up for detailed consideration in, say, the brewery tap room or wherever men congregated for their “discussions”, a process that was considered to be far more serious than women’s mere “gossip” or “tittle tattle”.

The unfortunate consequence of this general attitude of mind which was not confined solely to the male fraternity of society but which seemed to be endorsed as much by the great mass of the womenfolk of the times, particularly those who were not pregnant themselves, was that the still maturing youngest generation were fobbed off from the realities of life with absurd myths about “storks” or “gooseberry bushes” even though for the great mass of the child population such birds or horticultural items were well outside their normal experience. As a result, complete ignorance about the facts of life were rife, particularly among boys and, since it was frequently held that it was “dirty” for girls to know anything about “below the waist” a surprising number of young women in their first pregnancy had to be informed that the end of the birth channel was the vaginal passage and not the umbilicus!

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This page was added by John Bathurst on 11/07/2012.