Rhoda Woodward Tribute 7: Having Babies at Home

Three of my family of four children were born at home.

When I first realised I was pregnant in 1948 my mother said I should find where the District Nurse lived. We had just moved into a tied one-bedroom farm bungalow, which was a mile each way from the nearest village. The nurse came to see me, gave me a list of things I would need and said she would visit me again nearer my time. A few days later, a tall Irishmen came to the house; he said he was the local doctor and that the nurse had asked him to call. He examined me and afterwards called in every few weeks when he was in the area.

The nurse started to visit again when I was seven months pregnant, but I went into early labour. Phone messages from the farm called the nurse and my mother. By the time they had arrived it was realised my baby was the wrong way round so the doctor was needed. I had very little idea what was happening. It was too late to get me to hospital so the doctor sat on the bed and held me and gave me what was then called gas and air while he instructed the nurse on delivering my baby girl. Fortunately, she weighed eight pounds and, except for a very dry skin, was very healthy; she had to be rubbed with olive oil instead of bathed for the first two weeks. In those days we had to stay in bed for ten days. The nurse came every day for a fortnight, I had one visit from the health visitor, and the doctor called in a few times.

We were not really expected to make a fuss over pregnancy – after all, most married women had babies. I was alone most of the day while my husband was at work; I made all my baby clothes except for nappies, which could be bought in strips, separated and hemmed at home. We did not have any electricity, but did have a wash house with one rusty cold tap. There was a coal range in the kitchen for cooking, and a front room with a fireplace. We bought a primus stove from a friend of my mother’s, who also gave me a large jam pan, which she said would do to boil the baby’s nappies. Having a baby at the end of October, I had to dry most of the washing on the fire guard. I managed to afford a small mangle with rubber rollers which clamped onto the sink.

The bungalow was very damp and before my second, a son, was born we had moved into a row of cottages, but were still a mile from the nearest village. We no longer needed our lamps as we now had electric light, but no cooker, as points were still restricted from wartime. Water was fetched from a pump along the yard, and a row of bucket loos, which had to be emptied into a hole in the garden, stood about twenty yards from our house.

We saved all the rainwater. I kept our brick copper alight through the summer with cinders collected from the heap near the loos where everyone dumped their ashes from the coal fires. This meant I always had free hot water for our use.

About this time (1950) there was a family allowance of five shillings (25p) for the second child. I saved ours to buy the four bags of coal each month which was our ration. Sometimes there would be a bag of slack or coke, and a few coppers change.

At both of these places our grocery was delivered, usually on Fridays. A man called on Tuesdays to collect the order and mark the ration books. The baker and milkman also called several times a week – nobody had heard of supermarkets then.

Unless the weather was very bad, my babies were out in their prams all morning and we went out for an afternoon walk sometimes to the shops or to visit friends I had made in the village. With open fires, coppers and oil stoves they had to be kept out of danger.

By the time my third child, another girl, was born, we had just moved into a council house. I thought I was in heaven with a gas copper, real taps with hot water and a bath that did not need emptying. This time, I had visited the hospital for check-ups but still had my baby in my own home. Those district nurses really knew their job: they were kind and helped to get things moving. I was lucky; there were no more problems, and I managed each time to be a few days early. By the way, if nothing had happened by the due date it was common practice to be told to take a bottle of caster oil and within a few hours the baby would be on its way.

Fathers, of course, were kept well out of the way until the baby was born,

Rhoda Woodward

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