Where did the Georgian Poor Give Birth?
On one level, the answer to this question is easy; they gave birth in their own home. Unusually for the period, the same is true of the rich, who had great advantages over the common people; but these advantages did not take away the fear of childbirth. Both rich and poor were at the mercy of the germy, unwashed hands of those taking part, but the poor had other problems as well.
The dirt and squalor of their overcrowded homes was a problem, but the most pressing immediate issue was their inability to find, or afford, a reliable midwife. The next stage of the problem appeared if the childbirth was not straightforward, when the poor would not have the networks or money to find somebody with more medical training who could help.
No help could be expected from the state, so the very poor had two choices the ‘lying in’ hospital- there were a dozen of them on London by 1800 and one in all major provincial towns- or a ‘lying in’ charity which helped the poor to have home births.
The major British Charity for the latter was the ‘Lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’. It was formed in 1757 as a response to the perceived problems of the Lying In Hospitals. Georgian charities had long, cumbersome and descriptive names, which announced what they did, and, more importantly, made it clear what they did not do, e.g the Female Friendly Society and Asylum for the relief of poor infirm and aged Widows and single Women Of good character have seen better days’ or The Mother & Infants Friend Society for relief of Married Women during Confinement if resident within one mile and a half of St Swithin’s Church.
‘The lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’ did an excellent job. By 1818 the charity had helped to deliver nearly 250,000 babies since its inception. It undoubtedly did good things- provided clean linen and straw and the help of a midwife for regular births, and constant on call ‘man midwives’ for more complicated cases. It also trained and vetted midwifes and raised the general standard of the profession. The mid-wives worked on reduced pay for two years and if morally and mediccally sound , received the recommendation of the society and support in their career. The Society continued to work with London’s poor mothers under different names, until the arrival of the National Health Service in 1948. They were, undoubtedly a good thing.
It was the appointment of God, in consequence of the first transgression, that is ‘in Sorrow women should bring forth children’ (1772, but reprinted regularly in the Regency)
However, it was a charity run by the principles of the time, some of which don’t look quite as philanthropic 200 years later. The first, ubiquitous rule was that you had to deserve charity; you were not entitled to it. You had to be selected to be helped, and be respectable, married and poor (for the right reasons). After the successful birth of a child, you were obliged to go to your normal place of worship to thank God (You were disbarred from future help if you did not) and appear in front of the society to thank them as well (although they were often ready to receive the occasional well spoken comment and criticism). Gratitude was required all round; to God and your betters, and there is still Bristol Charity called the Grateful Society, which provided home births and apprenticeships in the eighteenth century and still does charitable work today.
It was funded by dinners, galas and sermons where the rich ate well and flaunted their conscience; this did not stop it being a good thing. Its Patron was the Prince Regent, who for most of his reign condescended to contribute £30 a year or so from his taxpayer-funded civil list, and in 1817, its vice-presidents included the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time at a former Mayor of London. Patrons and Presidents would pay an additional subscription of about 10 guineas and gain the right to nominate ten worth individuals per year. The Duke of Wellington was a supporter ‘All London is the Charity’s hospital and every street a ward’.
The Society’s main principle was the undesirability of the ‘Lying In’ Hospital. Firstly, there was the separation of husband and wife- an emotional affair, made worse by the jeopardy that the women was about to encounter. Hospitals were a dangerous place to be pregnant, and thei staff knew as little about preventing disease as anybody else. There was less segregation of the poor and the sick, and two women in a bed was not unknown. The Society also pointed out that there was no greater, humiliating indication of your poverty than admission to such a hospital. All this was true and sincerely believed; but they had other, less modern sounding motives.
It was meant to be cheap charity. In 1778, it was calculated that a birth in a hospital was nearly ten times more expensive that a home birth , and was thought by many that the poor simply did not deserve this level of expenditure. When questioned about their apparent meanness, the society rightly pointed out that there were so many needy that it was the only way to help was to do it cheaply- better a little help to all, than completely neglecting all.
Part of the expense of the hospitals was the standard of the food, which would have been higher than the households of the poor themselves. It was morally wrong and impracticable to allow the poor to get used to such food-sometimes three meals a day* Instead, the Society gave mothers medicine and payments in kind in their own home so money did not have to be diverted into areas that would reduce their ability to afford their normal diet. Laying in hospitals confined the mother for nearly a month, while straightforward home births could be done in half of this time- so, the hospitals robbed the family of the women’s labour and moral influence, and disrupted the male breadwinner’s work patterns. Some of the society’s literature went as far as suggest that men could not cope on their own with children and housework, and shouldn’t be expected too!
*More on the Lying In Hospitals here
More on my Regency Book here
Three minute book review here
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