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Sam Plank update 39: October 2021

In an interesting condition: pregnancy and childbirth in Sam's day

I hope it’s not a spoiler for you to read that Alice – William Wilson’s new wife – is pregnant during "Plank 7".  Now, are you horrified by my use of that indelicate term?  It’s certainly not a word that Alice herself would have used; she and Martha would have talked of her being “with child”, or “anticipating” (indeed, we still use “expecting”), or perhaps being “in an interesting/delicate condition”, or – if you were well-educated and knew your French – “enceinte”.

Whatever she called it, Alice would have been justifiably nervous about giving birth in December 1829: as Joseph Hall, Bishop of Exeter from 1627 to 1641, cheerily noted, “Death borders upon our birth, and our cradle stands in the grave”.  Things had improved somewhat by the 1820s, but the English average was still five maternal deaths per thousand live births.  (It’s now 0.07.)  But things were definitely on the move in London.  In 1739 man-midwife Sir Richard Manningham founded a “lying-in hospital” in Jermyn Street – the term “maternity hospital” came much later, and Martha and Alice (and their husbands) would have been much more familiar with the concept of the lying-in hospital.  (Lying-in refers to prolonged bedrest after childbirth – now out of fashion, and, if needed on medical grounds, referred to as postpartum confinement.)  Next came the British Lying-In Hospital in Holborn in 1749 and the City of London Lying-In Hospital in 1750.

And on 7 August 1765 Dr John Leake – another man-midwife – proposed establishing a hospital to provide “relief of those Child-bearing Women who are the Wives of poor industrious Tradesmen or distressed House-keepers and who either from unavoidable misfortunes or the Expenses of maintaining large Families are reduced to real Want.  Also for the reception and immediate relief of indigent Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives, the former being very numerous in and about the City of Westminster”.  What he did not commit to paper – but fully intended – was that this new hospital would also admit (whisper it) unmarried women.  But to make sure that it didn’t become a mere convenience for prostitutes, it was made clear that an unmarried woman would be admitted only once (although if she then married, she could return for subsequent deliveries), and that they would be put onto separate wards from the married women (to avoid moral contagion and outrage, I assume).

The hospital started life as the Westminster New Lying-In Hospital (despite being in Lambeth) but in 1818 it was renamed the General Lying-In Hospital.  Its leases expired and in September 1828 it opened in a purpose-built new building on York Road (four storeys high and costing £3,000), with the first baby delivered there on 22 September.  In 1830 the hospital received its Royal Charter – quite the accolade for a ground-breaking institution which not only had properly-trained men midwives (as opposed to the enthusiastic amateurs seen elsewhere) but also (gasp!) female midwives.  The hospital closed in 1971, and the building is now part of a Premier Inn.

Despite the increasing availability of such facilities, the majority of births in the 1820s still took place in a domestic setting, with the mother attended by female relatives and wise women of the neighbourhood.  Pain relief was still some way off – Queen Victoria famously pioneered the use of chloroform for her eighth confinement in 1854 and this helped to popularise the practice (although male doctors still opposed it in the majority of cases – thanks, guys) – and the greatest danger to both mother and baby was infection.  Alice has reason to be thankful that she will be attended by Martha, a woman of great sense and immaculate hygiene.
Physician and man-midwife John Leake (1729-1792)
An 1830 illustration of the new General Lying-In Hospital on York Road in Lambeth
The inscription above the doorway to the General Lying-In Hospital reads "Licensed for the public reception of pregnant women pursuant to an Act of Parliament the thirteenth year of the reign of King George the Third"
The hospital building has now been absorbed into a budget hotel
A Regency-era portrait of a mother and child by English artist Ramsay Richard Reinagle (1775-1862) 
Wrong era, I know, but I had to share this wonderful early photograph of a pregnant Victorian lady - she looks like a Dalek!
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