Linda Colling: Pregnant women treated like ‘lunatics’

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WE don’t know we’re born. And that fact of life is being graphically portrayed in Call The Midwife, a BBC1 drama showing the wretched realism of women in the throes of labour and all that motherhood meant in the poverty stricken East End of London in the 1950s.

What few may know is that its creator, Jennifer Worth, came from Sunderland.

The adaptation of her best-selling memoirs is gripping stuff. How much our world has changed in 50 years, reminded me of a conversation I had with Jennifer, a very, lovely lady who died last year.

She talked of the terrible stigma of illegitimacy in the 50s and 60s when desperate young girls and women turned to back street abortionists.

Abortion was illegal then and women took concoctions, such as quinine or lead-based liquid, in the vain hope that it would bring on a miscarriage. Others took scalding hot baths and vast quantities of gin.

While working as a ward sister at Elizabeth Garret Anderson Women’s Hospital in London from 1960 to 1965, Jennifer, witnessed some harrowing scenes.

She told me: “These poor souls would come in with massive injuries to their reproductive tract.

“When a woman came to us with complications, we never asked what had happened, because if a doctor found out he would have a legal obligation to inform the police. We were not social workers or police informers: we were there to give medical assistance.

“People had too many children and inadequate housing. You’d get a family with six children living in a two-room tenement flat. There were women who simply could not cope with or afford another child. A lot of men would refuse to wear condoms, so there were all these unwanted pregnancies.

“Then there were the single girls, working-class and middle-class, who’d got themselves in trouble. There was a terrible stigma attached to illegitimacy then.

“A lot of women who fell pregnant were put into mental asylums by their families and remained there for the rest of their lives. There were also a lot of suicides by so-called “fallen women”. The desperation that drove these women cannot be underestimated.”

Tragically Jennifer’s great aunt was incarcerated by her family into a Sunderland workhouse all because she had fallen pregnant outside of wedlock.

Cissy Gibbs, a young servant girl was banished to Highfield Workhouse in Hylton Road where she gave birth alone.

Many years later, still confined within that grim, old building, Cissy received a fleeting visit from Jennifer. That experience stayed with her all her life and inspired her to write another book Shadows of the Workhouse.

Jennifer was just six or seven when her mother took her to see Cissy, then an old lady with grey hair. She was wandering round in a workhouse uniform and the tragedy is she lived out her days there until some time in the 1940’s.

What happened to her baby is a mystery. But then the cruellest of all separations there was the taking away of babies from unmarried mothers.

Terrible to think that a woman could be incarcerated in such a place all because she had fallen pregnant when unmarried and that was such a scandal then that she was shut away like a lunatic.

It’s hard for us to imagine anything so shocking. We definitely don’t know we’re born.