Call the Midwife – Jennifer Lee on the Isle of Dogs

TWO thirty in the morning, and midwife Jennifer Lee wondered what on earth she was doing .

Only three hours sleep after a 17-hour day, and she was struggling to get her pushbike from the bicycle shed in the freezing rain. But around the corner onto the East India Dock Road and into the Isle of Dogs, another expectant mother awaited.

Jennifer had got used to shocks in her short time in E14. She arrived in the East End as a young trainee midwife. Searching for her new employer, the Midwives of St Raymund Nonnatus, she found herself walking through the narrow unlit streets of the Island, surrounded by bombsites and dirty grey buildings. When she asked directions she found the locals spoke an unfamiliar language: ‘Vat’s veir arse,’ said the helpful local woman she asked for directions, leaving her none the wiser.

And within the house in Leyland Street she found, rather than the small private maternity hospital she had been expecting, a dirty red brick Victorian convent, housing a community of eccentric nuns. In her marvellous new book*, Jennifer evokes the people, places and customs that made up the East End of the 1950s.
Poplar and Isle of Dogs in the 1950s

They said then that it took seven years of practice to make a good midwife. But with the dozens of call-outs – families of seven or more were not uncommon, and one of Jennifer’s charges was on child number 25 – she packed a career’s worth of experience into her first months. And within weeks she was beginning to understand the local dialect too.

All this was in the few years before the Pill changed everything, giving women control over conception for the first time. But there was much else about the Poplar and Isle of Dogs of the 1950s that would shock people today; living conditions for one.

East End slums and tenements

Back in the 1850s the tenements were the place to live. Built to replace mud-floored hovels, they kept out the rain and a family of 12 could squeeze into their two or three rooms. By the 1950s they were at the foot of the Docklands housing ladder. They accommodated the poorest families – who tended to be also the biggest families. And as well as teeming with kids, the tenements ran with fleas, lice, ticks, crabs, mice, rats and cockroaches. Little surprise that the nurses spent much of their time visiting these new slums.

For many of those in terraced houses things weren’t much better. In the wake of the Blitz, the already crowded East End was packed to bursting, as houses and tenements were further subdivided to accommodate everyone. Fifty per cent of Poplar babies were born in these overcrowded homes, most of them with no inside toilets or hot running water. Water often had to be carried in and boiled up in a copper for the midwife’s use. Babies were born by gaslight, lamplight, even electric light might pack up mid-delivery as the meter ran out.

During the fifties, Jennifer spent much of her spare time walking around the East End. Stepney came as a huge shock. ‘It was simply appalling. The slums were worse than I could ever imagine. I could not believe it was the same area as Poplar only three miles away where, although poor, badly housed and overcrowded, the people were happy cheerful and neighbourly. In Poplar, everyone would call out to a nurse … in Stepney, no-one spoke to me at all.’
A disappeared East End of London

Around Cable Street, Graces Alley, Dock Street, Sanders Street, Backhouse Lane and Leman Street the atmosphere was menacing. Streetwalkers and their ponces and pimps prowled streets of roofless houses; slated for demolition 20 years before, the poorest families were still living in them.

This is a disappeared East End. Where mothers raised ten kids, while their daily lives were spent in a ceaseless round of washing, mangling clothes dry and trying to keep two or three small rooms clean and free of bugs. Where fathers worked 14-hour days on the docks and were expected to make themselves scarce when childbirth was imminent. This, remember, is what the East End was like when our present Queen began her reign.

There are desperately sad stories here, but tales of great hope too. Of ordinary people living, giving birth and building their families despite enormous hardship and poor sanitation. And of midwives delivering superb care in the toughest conditions.
*Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, ISBN 1872560105, 14.99 plus 1.75 p&p. Published by Merton Books, PO Box 279, Twickenham, TW1 4XQ; tel 020 8892 4949.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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