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!