Call the Midwife: A Story of the East End in the 1950s by Jennifer Worth

Call the Midwife is an absolutely fascinating memoir of life in the poorest districts of London in the immediate post war years, when families lived ten to two rooms in dilapidated tenement buildings, streets were pockmarked with the scars of bombed buildings, the poverty and squalor were manifested in ragged, stinking, starving children and women had child after child after child, year after year after year, due to having no access to contraception. Into this environment came the then Nurse Jenny Lee, aged just 23. She was from a comfortable middle class home, had lived in Paris, loved classical music, and was used to working in the surroundings of clean, orderly hospitals. Deciding to become a Midwife, she was sent to Nonnatus House, in Poplar, East London, to complete her training.

Jenny didn’t realise Nonnatus House was a Convent, lived in by Nuns of the Order of St Raymond Nonnatus, who specialised in district nursing and midwifery. A lively young girl with no religious faith, she was not at all sure about staying at first. However, the unexpected friendliness and fun of the Nuns, the good company of her fellow non-Nun colleagues Cynthia, Trixie and Chummy, and the satisfaction of helping a community that cheerfully coped with the severe deprivation it suffered, soon changed her mind. The East End slowly worked its way under Jenny’s skin, and about ten years ago she decided to look back on her days there and share her experiences of bringing hundreds of Cockney babies into the world. I’m so glad she did, because this is magnificent stuff, told in a warm, honest and engaging voice. I could barely put it down!

There are so many stories told in this book, and the area and the lives lived by the people who formed its communities are so brilliantly described that I could vividly see and smell the scenes Jennifer Worth brings to life. From her earliest days of working in the district, Jenny had to overcome her aversion to the way of life she witnessed as she was invited into the lives of the local families. Filthy, lice ridden homes with few amenities and usually stinking to high heaven were the norm, and labouring women were frequently similarly dirty, lice ridden and smelly; hardly pleasant when you are having to be in such close contact for several hours at a time. However, as she developed friendships and grew used to the conditions people lived in, she was humbled and ashamed of her previous attitude, realising that they were good people, struggling to make ends meet in incredibly difficult circumstances. There are several stories told of individuals who particularly stand out in Jennifer’s mind; Conchita Warren, mother of 25, who was brought back from Spain as a pre pubsecent girl by her docker husband during the Spanish Civil War and hasn’t stopped giving birth since; Mary, a young Irish girl caught up in prostitution after running away from an abusive home; Doris, a mother of five, who produces a mixed race child who is clearly not her husband’s and has to deal with the consequences. These tales are interspersed with hilarious descriptions of daily life amongst the Nuns and other young nurses, as well as the dubious economic activities of Fred, the Convent handy man, which lift the tone and demonstrate how Jenny managed to love her work and life despite the poverty and destitution she was surrounded with . Worth also beautifully paints a picture of the stark docklands, bomb scarred streets and noisy, overpopulated terraces that characterised the East End of the time, creating an incredibly evocative sense of place.

There is so much to enjoy and so much to learn within the pages of this book. Not only do I now feel like I could deliver a baby (seriously!), I also have a much greater understanding of the conditions of daily life in post war London, and of the impact of easy, cheap contraception that came into being in the 1960s; the Nonnatus nuns went from delivering around 100 babies a month to just 8 or so after the introduction of the pill. There is also much to be said for the introduction of the NHS after WW2; Jennifer frequently notes cases where the mother and baby would surely have died if it wasn’t for the care available in hospitals free of charge. One especially stood out for me; a woman was crippled due to getting rickets as a child, and as such she was unable to actually deliver her children naturally. She had been pregnant repeatedly in her twenties, but each baby had been stillborn due to the difficulties that ensued during labour. In her forties she had become pregnant again unexpectedly, and thanks to the new NHS, she was able to have a caesarean, and finally hold a baby in her arms.

Understanding the impact of postwar changes designed to transform the quality of life for the average hard pressed Briton is difficult to grasp when those changes are part of your everyday life and you hardly give them a second thought. Reading Jennifer Worth’s memoirs made me able to really understand the difference the tide of social change made in the 1950s and 1960s; not only to people’s life chances and wellbeing, but also to the landscape of London and the make up of the communities within it. This is so much more than a book about women having babies; it’s a window into a world that’s now gone, and though Jennifer Worth might have thought of herself as a thoroughly ordinary person, she had a very special, fascinating and meaningful life that brought a great deal of joy and hope to others. I was sad to find out that she died last year; she never got to watch the wonderful BBC series of the book that is currently airing on Sunday nights in the UK. I am absolutely loving every episode, and if you are watching the TV series but haven’t picked up the book, I highly recommend that you do, because you’ll love it!

35 comments

  1. I’ve swithered about this (haven’t seen the series yet, but have read about it in the Radio Times), but now you’ve convinced me that I must read the books and watch the series! I trust your judgement!🙂

    1. Penny you must! I’m sure you’d love it. The book is wonderful and the tv series is very well done – not cloying at all and very authentic. I am really enjoying it!

  2. It is a wonderful book, as well as a great programme. And for once the tv adaptation seems to have lost nothing of the essence of the book. It is a shame that Worth never saw the final programme but she was very involved with it up until her death, and specifally chose Miranda Hart for the part of Chummy and how right she was.

    I do not think I could deliver a baby, it may have put me off for life.

    Do read her other books because they are just as wonderful and you get to find out what happens to all the characters when they move on.

    I am just reading her final book which about death, not as morbid as it. May sound but rather touching.

    1. I agree Jo – the tv series has done an excellent job of really bringing out the heart of the book. I love it! I am really sad that Worth never got to see it, but I love that she chose Miranda for Chummy – she is perfect for the role!!

      Yes I want to read the sequels – there was a sample of the next one at the back of my copy and I liked what I read – just need to find time for them!

  3. This sounds fascinating. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and didn’t think about the social changes that happened during those decades until after the fact. I know the situation was different here in the U.S. but there were sweeping social changes here as well. I will look for the book and hope the series is shown here soon.

    1. Janet I am sure you would love this book! I wonder whether it might crop up on PBS? Or BBC America? I’m sure it would translate across the pond. If not you can get the DVD when it comes out!

  4. Hi Rachel: I am not much for babies or childbirth, but your review shows what a great book this is, I will keep an eye out for the series on this side of the pond, Ruby

    1. It’s not all about the babies, Ruby, promise! It’s really a lot more about the lives of the families and the Nuns etc – births don’t feature all that much and they are very sensitively described for the squeamish!

  5. This sounds a bit like (a more grown-up version of) a book I had when I was a kid called Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse! And it was about a nurse named, uh, Sue Barton, and she worked in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City helping people have better lives. It was very heartwarming but of course not as realistic as this.

    PS I bet you couldn’t deliver a baby. I’ll bet a dollar. If you ever deliver a baby on your own successfully I will give you a dollar, but if you reach your deathbed never having delivered a baby, you owe me a dollar. If you ever get medical training the bet’s off, obviously.

    1. Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse! sounds hilarious!! And very informative for small children I am sure!

      I’ll take that bet, missy! You better keep that dollar in a safe place because I’ll be claiming it – mark my words!!

      1. It doesn’t count if you just have your own baby, by the way! Unless you have it completely on your own. This bet is about delivering someone else’s baby as midwives do.

  6. I grew up a true East Ender in the 1960s. Women were still giving birth at home when I was a girl. Several of my cousins were born at home. I clearly remember after my sister was born in 1964 hearing my mum and all her friends (all of whom had at least three children) discussing “the pill.” There’s a reason the post-war baby boom ended so abruptly in 1964–every woman who could get her hands on it was on the pill!

    1. Ha! I can well imagine!

      I think the move towards hospitalising birth has been a bit of a mistake really – keeping it within the domestic sphere normalised it and made it something that wasn’t as traumatic as it now seems to many young women, as it was a normal part of life that people witnessed and heard on a regular basis. Now hardly anyone has witnessed a birth when they are preparing to give birth themselves, and the alien concept of it is terrifying, which I’m sure makes many women’s labours more distressing than they need to be. I wish I had been there when my sister had her babies as then it would have demystified the whole process for me and I’d feel far more prepared for when it’s my time!

  7. Great review, Rachel. I, too, will be looking for this book. While we had so many social changes in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, we didn’t have to deal with the physical devastation of war in London that it sounds like those of the East End did. This book sounds fascinating, as does the program. I’m hoping it will make its way over here in a bit.

  8. Oh Rachel, I wasn’t even halfway through your post before I added this book to my list for Roman to bring home from London (it’s unavailable through TBD at the moment). A scriptwriter was on one of my podcasts discussing how she met with Jennifer Worth during her time in hospital toward the end of her life. I was walking with Deacon and couldn’t have cared less where we ended up! I’m also looking forward to the television program and seeing Miranda in whatever role it is she’s been hired to do. She’s so refreshingly natural and hilarious!

    1. Oh Darlene, I can always send you my copy? (I need to send you Greenbanks too. Naomi is coming to visit on Saturday so I will make sure she brings it back. If she hasn’t read it – tough!). That podcast sounds fascinating – I’d love to hear it! Where did you find it? You’re going to love the tv series – and Miranda is just wonderful as the character she plays!

  9. I am in love with the photo at the top of the post! And the book sounds really interesting. I have a feeling it may make me a bit woozy in places, as I’m not much for medical stuff, but I think I may have to tough it out and read it anyway.

    1. That’s a still from the TV series, MJ!

      It’s not overly medical or detailed in that sense at all – I am very squeamish and I didn’t squirm at any of it. Please do read it, it’s fantastic!

  10. What a lovely review! I love the TV adaptation and have added the book to my list of those to read. It sounds as if watching the TV series didn’t ruin the stories in the book for you at all.

    1. Thanks Emma! You must read the book – it is a bit different from the book in the order of stories and a few events etc but is mostly very faithful and the characters are just as I imagined. Reading the book after watching the series will just make it a more enjoyable experience for you as you’ll be able to really picture the area in your head while you’re reading!

  11. This looks utterly fascinating. I’m resolved to add more non-fiction to my reading this year, and this looks right up my alley. I’ve heard wonderful things about the miniseries, so I hope it doesn’t take too long making its way over to the States.

    1. You must read it, Diana! It reminded me of how good non fiction can be and has encouraged me to read more, actually. Hope the series makes it the States quickly for you all across the pond!

  12. Oh, this does sound good – thank you. I shall have to hunt it down. (No point waiting for the TV series: it may never come. The Downton Abbey Christmas Special is only airing here tonight for the first time and that is thoroughly mainstream by comparison.)

    Am currently reading Elizabeth Bowen’s memoir, Seven Winters. I did enjoy your review of Death of a Heart, and agree with much of what you had to say.

    1. Do hunt it down! Only just got the DA Christmas special?! You poor thing having to wait so long! I loved that cry fest!

      Thanks – I haven’t managed to find a copy of Seven Winters yet – I’d be very interested to hear your opinions when you’ve finished!🙂

  13. I wanted to read this book because I was enjoying the TV series so much, yes I said was. Its started to get a bit ‘safe 8pm Sunday viewing’ when I liked it because it had the promise of NOT being a midwifery version of Heartbeat, alas it has become that way, even Miranda Hart couldnt keep me watching. I could try the book, as they always say they are better don’t they?

    1. The book is definitely grittier than the series, Simon! The series did become a bit cosy and saccharine towards the end…but that’s what I need on a Sunday night to beat those Monday morning blues!

  14. I am at the moment viewing The Midwife on PBS in the US and I am enjoying every minute of it. I am planning to read the book after the holidays. As someone who studied midwifery in England and worked in the community of Hemil Hempstead I do identify with the actors who portray their roles so well. I too had problems with riding a bike. Watching it brings back memories of my days as a student midwife.

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