Attached to an order of nuns who had been working in the slums since the 1870s, Jennifer tells the story not only of the women she treated, but also of the community of nuns (including one who was accused of stealing jewels from Hatton Garden) and the camaraderie of the midwives with whom she trained. Funny, disturbing and incredibly moving, Jennifer's stories bring to life the colourful world of the East End in the 1950s.
From the Author
What is more central to life than birth? A midwife is always present, yet a midwifes role has never before been documented. I was a district midwife fifty years ago, going around the slums of the London Docklands on a bicycle.
The docks were fully operational and employed most of the men. The bug- infested tenements (those that were still standing after the Blitz) housed tens of thousands of people, and overcrowding was chronic. There was no Pill, and families were large, sometimes huge. None of the flats or houses had a telephone. Few of them had running water or even a lavatory. Babies were born by gaslight, lamplight, or the meter ran out in the middle of labour.
The setting is rich material for the Commedia dellArte tradition. The fever-ridden slums of Naples or the dark, sinister canals of mediaeval Venice could not be more redolent of atmosphere for drama and melodrama. Yet time and place alone are of limited interest. There can be no comedy or tragedy without people.
The Cockneys are the people I write about. I knew and loved them. I entered their crowded homes at the most intimate times of life the birth of new babies. I saw their strengths and weaknesses, their open-heartedness and narrow prejudices, their humour and courage, their irresistible passion for enjoyment.
The book is teeming with unforgettable characters: Conchita and Len who produced twenty-five babies between them, the last one born prematurely in a London smog; Brenda who had rickets; Lilly who had syphilis; Molly, beaten up and on the game a fortnight after delivery; a breach delivery on Christmas day; Margaret, who died of eclampsia; Mary, a fourteen year-old Irish girl dragged into the seamy brothels of Cable Street (I am told that the strip show in a brothel is amongst my most powerful writing!); Fred, the boiler man at the Convent; and Mrs. Jenkins, who had spent eighteen years in the workhouse. And how does a white man deal with his wife (also white) after the birth of a half-black baby? How would any man react today? There are three such stories in Call the Midwife. We are not talking about an IVF error. This is not racism. This is adultery. This is the Commedia dellArte.
I have mentioned a convent. I worked with an order of nuns, heroic nuns who had been nursing in the slums of London since the 1870s, when no-one would go into those areas, except the police. The nuns are central to the book. They are saintly and wise, worldly and witty, sometimes infuriating, often eccentric. Sister Monica Joans verbal battles with Sister Evangelina are among the funniest things in the book, I am told.
The book is social history in story form. It is not a dull chronicle of events. It is about the living, breathing, suffering, laughing people whose lives were shaped by the docklands in which they lived fifty years ago.
As we grow older the days of our youth are illuminated by a golden glow that seems to grow ever brighter as the years pass. My memories of midwifery in Poplar approach high romance: the great cargo boats coming and going ceaselessly, with thousands of men entering the dock gates, loading and unloading; the pilots guiding a great white vessel as big as an iceberg through a narrow canal to her resting wharf; the constant deep-throated growls of the ships funnels and the shrill of the sirens. I recall the open-hearted friendliness of the people who lived cheerfully in grim conditions, who never locked their doors and who kept open house to just about everyone. I remember cycling home in the grey light of dawn when the docks were beginning to stir, my body tired after eighteen hours work, but my mind alight with the thrill of having achieved the safe delivery of a beautiful baby to a joyous mother
From the Back Cover
Jennifer Worth's bestselling memoir evokes the lost world of 1950s East End London. The gritty reality of day to day life in a city recovering from war, in which families live in bombsites, children play among the rubble and the spectre of disease looms large, is set against the heroism and resilience of the women who struggle to bring their babies into the world and the midwives who fight alongside them.
Funny, disturbing and moving, this special illustrated edition of Call the Midwife featuring previously unpublished photographs from the time and from the Worth family's personal albums brings to life a world that has now changed beyond measure.