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Category: East End hospitals and medicine

Call the Midwife … an unlikely hit?

By John Rennie

WHEN WE originally wrote about Call the Midwife a few years ago, it seemed likely that Jennifer Worth’s book would join the ranks of hundreds of other East End memoirs – if better written and more entertaining than most of them. Little likelihood, it seemed then, that Worth (who retained her East End links long after she’d moved out of London, through

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife

membership of the East London History Society). The book was actually a classic ‘sleeper’, selling steadily in local East End bookshops (and increasingly on Amazon of course) for years before the BBC picked it up.

It was an unlikely, though profitable autumn in her life, and as so often it happened by chance. As we wrote when reporting on Jennifer’s death: “She was in her sixties before she embarked on the career that gave her fame. Husband Philip recalls her leafing through a magazine on midwifery and chancing upon an article by midwife, Terri Coates: who argued that somebody should do for midwives what novelist James Herriot had done for vets. “Why not?” thought Jenny and began to pour her memories onto the page. Call the Midwife (2002) and Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) were steady rather than meteoric sellers at first. It was only when they were reissued in 2007 and 2008 that they really took off. A follow-up in 2009, Farewell to the East End was another hit, and TV would soon come calling.”

There are things to cherish about the TV series (Miranda Hart does a superb balancing act between comedy and drama) and the sugar is usually well complemented by a hefty dose of reality: lest we get too sentimental about how great the old East End was, we’re brought back to earth by illness, death and misery, no bad thing! There are things which work less well – in your writer’s opinion, a little Vanessa Redgrave in deathlessly

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

serious voice-over mode goes a long way – but it’s a terrific reminder of the struggles into the early days of healthcare in the Welfare State, as we used to call it. So don’t stop there. It’s all in Worth’s excellent writing. Take a look at her other books: you won’t be disappointed.


Cholera – the mysterious killer

ONE thing we all take for granted today is clean, fresh water and – barring the next Thames Water hosepipe ban – plenty of it.
But until just a century ago, East Enders were more likely to be killed by their water than revived by it.
In the 1800s, as Tower Hamlets multiplied in size with the influx of immigrants from the countryside and abroad, cholera became a chronic threat to human health.
Look left out of the train window as you travel from Bromley-by-Bow to West Ham and you will see the distinctive rococco form of Abbey Mills pumping station.
It may look like something from a horror film but, in its day, it made the East End a safe place to live and work, as it carried sewage out to the Thames.
London had a problem getting rid of its rubbish for centuries, and for a long time the East End benefited. There was no mains drainage in the middle ages – instead excrement would be stored in cesspits under the houses.
This ‘nightsoil’ would then be carted away to ‘laystalls’, and then from there to the new market gardens around the Essex villages of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Bow.

If that sounds unsanitary, it was an improvement on the earlier system in the City, where a gulley down the middle of the street would be awash with rubbish and human excrement.
The lack of concern of Londoners was shown by Samuel Pepys observation in his famous Diary, recording how his wife “stooped down in the street to do her business”.
The Tower Hamlets market gardens may have flourished, but by the mid-1800s they had been buried under bricks and mortar, and cholera epidemics were sweeping the borough.
In desperation, the newly- formed Metropolitan Commis-sion of Sewers decreed in 1847 that cesspits were now banned.
The move was a disaster, as the main sewers and underground streams now discharged their filth straight into the Thames. A decade before, salmon had still been seen jumping in the river at Wapping. By the 1850s nothing could live in what had become a huge, stinking open sewer.
The matter came to a head in the long, hot summer of 1858. Wapping windows had to be draped with lime chloride soaked curtains, and tons of chalk and carbolic acid were tipped into the Thames.
But nothing could mask ‘The Great Stink’ as it became known. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli himself described the river as “a Stygian Pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror”.
It was the last straw, and in that year a Bill for the purification of the Thames was passed – but the first step was to find an answer to the removal of the human waste of three million Londoners.
One plan was proposed by the painter John ‘Mad’ Martin. Rather unfairly named, his plan was to pipe the filth out to Essex to propagate land – pretty much what the East Enders had previously done for their farmland.
But the task eventually fell to the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette. He constructed a huge system of sewers running east from London Bridge for a distance of eleven miles, assisted by pumping stations such as Abbey Mills.
When Bazalgette was finished, London boasted 1,300 miles of sewers, along with the London Underground, one of the great engineering marvels of his age.
And as with the Under-ground, many of the same tunnels are still serving East Enders today. Others, like that beneath Stratford’s Greenway, have now gone out of service.
But all were part of the hidden network that saved the East End from the cholera-ridden hell it was a century ago.

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.

Whitechapel bodysnatchers

The thought of corpses being dug up from a cemetery in the middle of the night makes the blood run cold. But it often happened in the Victorian East End.
In ill-lit streets around burial grounds at Whitechapel, Mile End and Bethnal Green, chilling tales were told of men carrying slumped shapes to a waiting horse and cart.
Hospitals were helped by an old law which allowed murderers’ bodies to be cut up for research by the Surgeons Company. After all, it was argued, the killers had it coming.
But London was at the heart of international medical research and would-be surgeons required at least a dozen bodies to complete their studies.
They had no other reliable source than shadowy figures, known as Resurrection Men, who roamed the graveyards at night with their shovels and were prepared to provide a freshly-buried corpse at the back door for £4.

Not the least of the attractions were teeth which could be made into dentures. A resurrectionist named Murphy is said to have earned £60 in one burial vault simply by going around, yanking out teeth.
The infamous Ben Crouch Gang used to pay bent grave-diggers in London to slip a fresh body from its coffin soon after mourners left the open graveside. The hole would be filled in with the corpse on top, under a thin layer of earth, to await “collection after dark.”
Grave robbers William Burke and Bill Hare also made a lucrative living selling corpses but went over the top by murdering at least 15 people to step up their supply.
They started their gruesome trade in Edinburgh, then moved to London in the 1820s where there was more demand. Burke was eventually hanged, largely on the evidence of his dim companion who survived to beg on East End streets for many years.
Burke confessed to the world at large after his conviction but was outraged by what he thought was a real wrong-doing. He claimed he had not been paid in full for one of his last bodies and wanted the balance to buy a decent coat for his execution.
Some undertakers took special precautions to thwart grave robbers. An example is recorded of 73-year-old Mary Mason, buried at Christ Church, Spitalfields, who had three iron bands fastened around her coffin. Another was chained to the wall.
Undertaker William Horne was so concerned about his own resting place, at Spital-fields in 1826, that he had three coffins, one inside the other. One was lead, another iron and the last one wood.
Death was almost as important as life to Victorians, and it was many years before fears of bodysnatching finally receded and relatives of the deceased slept soundly in their beds.
For further reading: Bodysnatchers by Martin Fido; and Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700-1850 by Margaret Cox.

Hannah Billig – Angel of Cable Street

Hannah Billig - Angel of Cable Street

To her neighbours and patients she was the Angel of Cable Street. But the life of Hannah Billig was an extraordinary story that took her from Russia to Calcutta and Israel – while keeping a lifetime’s dedication to the people of the East End.

The story started one October day in 1901 when Barnet and Millie Billig, Jewish refugees from persecution in Russia, had a child at their adopted home, 41 Hanbury Street. The Billigs were poor but, like so many who settled in the Jewish community around Brick Lane, immediately set to bettering themselves.

Jewish Maternity Hospital

Barnet worked all hours as a newsagent and then hand-making cigarettes and cigars, while Millie slaved over the cooking, cleaning and washing for her husband and six children.
And the kids had to work hard too. There was no playing in the streets like the other children of the neighbourhood, Hannah and her siblings were encouraged to sit and diligently study in their library-like front room.

The Billig parents got their reward when four of the youngsters became doctors – an especial achievement for Hannah in the 1920s when women were expected to marry and keep house. But her ambitions didn’t end with qualifying as a doctor, Hannah wanted to put something back into the community that had raised her. Her chance came with a job at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Whitechapel’s Underwood Street.

Billig’s Watney Street practice

Hannah’s big step came with setting up her own practice in Watney Street. She still lived with her parents in Burdett Road and, by word of mouth, she soon had a flood of patients from all over Wapping and Stepney. With no NHS you had to pay for your treatment in those days. Many poor simply didn’t bother to see the doctor – but Hannah would never turn the sick away, following her father by working endless hours. And like her father too, Hannah would encourage the children she saw, telling them to bring along their books so she could read aloud to them.

Blitz hits Wapping & George Cross

As war drew on even the Blitz couldn’t stop Hannah and her work, as she darted around, tending the sick, even as the bombs were dropping around her. On 13 March 1941 she was helping the injured at a blast in Orient Wharf, Wapping. Suddenly there was an explosion and Hannah was blown down the shelter steps. Picking herself up and shaking off the dust she bandaged up her sore ankle and set about pulling others out of the rubble.

After four hours toil she finally took a break – to discover her own ankle was broken. For her bravery Billig won the George Medal, the civilian’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross – the Angel of Cable Street had been born.

In 1942 the Angel spread her wings, signing up for the Indian Army Medical Corps as a Captain and tending the sick and wounded soldiers in Assam, as they retreated from the terrible battles in the jungles of Burma. Malaria and typhus were two of the new diseases Hannah had to contend with and there was worse to come. In 1944 a grain shortage forced thousands of starving peasants into Calcutta in desperate search of food.

Her tireless work with the hundreds of thousands of sick and starving mothers and babies earned Captain Billig, GC another honour – the MBE in the 1945 New Year’s Honours List. True to form the down to earth Hannah asked them to post the gong to her – she was too busy to collect it!

Billig back in Cable Street

Back in Cable Street the good work continued until she decided to retire, in 1964, to Israel.
Parties and dinners were held all over the East End in her honour, testament to the deep impression she had made on her home. Hannah with a new life awaiting her took a sad leave of the people she called “the salt of the earth”, and headed for a well-earned rest.

It didn’t last long though. The restless Hannah soon started working again in the Arab villages and Jewish settlements around her new home in Caesarea and for 20 more years worked tirelessly for her new patients and friends.
In 1987, aged 86, the Angel died peacefully, having made almost as much of a mark in her new home as back in Cable Street.
The words on her grave in Hadera Cemetery sum up her life: In loving memory of Hannah, who devoted her life to healing the sick in England and in Israel.

If you would like to know more, read “Hannah Billig, the Angel of Cable Street”, price £3 inc p+p. Send cheques payable to Rosemary Taylor to R Taylor, 5 Pusey House, Saracen St, E14 6HG. An exhibition of Hannah’s life and work is currently running at the Ragged School Museum, 46 Copperfield Road, E3.

Bedlam Hospital, Bishopsgate

Bedlam Hospital, Bishopsgate by John Rennie
TODAY, mental illness is treated as just that – an illness to be treated. But an understanding of its causes, and the treatments for it, is a recent development – if we go back just 100 years, the sick were treated as a danger, to be incarcerated. Go back to the Middle Ages and the ill were possessed by demons.
The treatment of mental patients was often brutal, and nowhere more so than in the most notorious ‘hospital’ of them all, whose very name passed into the language as a byword for the chaos associated with mental illness.
Bethlehem Royal Hospital was founded in 1247 by the Bishopsgate Sheriff, Simon Fitz Mary, as the Priory of St Mary Bethlehem. Today, the site is in the heart of the City of London – Liverpool Street Station occupies the space. But back in the 13th century it would have stood on the edge of open farmland.
Like many abbeys, convents and friaries, whose religious interns led a less cloistered and isolated life than those in the monasteries, the priory conducted pastoral work among the people of London. The hospitals, such as they were, were based in the religious houses, and by 1327 there are records of a hospital at Bethlehem.

Early on the priory catered for general complaints but, in 1346, the Mayor and Corporation of the City took over stewardship of the hospital and, in 1377, Bethlehem began to look after ‘distracted’ patients.
Treatment was rudimentary to say the least. Patients were kept chained to the wall in leg irons. When they became restless or violent they were whipped or ducked in water.
In 1547, the priory was finally dissolved, the Corporation bought the site from the King, and Bethlehem was officially re-classified as a ‘lunatic asylum’.
The definition of a hospital or asylum was a loose one. Little or no distinction was made between criminals, beggars and the insane – all were considered idle in an age when hard work was the road to redemption, hence the whippings and beatings handed out to the lunatics.
The mother of the painter JMW Turner, known for his seascapes, was one of the unfortunate inmates of Bedlam – like many others, she was committed there for “mental instability” and never left it alive.
So, as the insane were considered a badge of shame upon a decent family – and to enable the West End gentry to tuck away their unfortunate offspring in an asylum on the wrong side of town – a grotesque sideshow grew up at Bethlehem.
From the early 1600s, visitors had been allowed in to view the inmates. Soon a trip to Bethlehem, or ‘Bedlam’ as it became known for short, was one of the great treats of a Londoner’s leisure time, like a trip to the theatre or, more accurately, the zoo.
100,000 people a year were paying to see the patients, who were placed in cages on the hospital’s galleries. Much later, Charles Dickens imagined the scenes in his piece “A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree” in the magazine “Household Words”:
“Bethlehem Hospital was ‘a dry walk for loiterers’, and a show; when lunatics were chained, naked, in rows of cages that flanked a promenade, and were jeered at through iron bars by London loungers.’
By the time Dickens wrote those words, in 1852, things had changed, at least slightly, for the better. The porphyria of George III had increased the sympathy of the public for the mentally ill and, in 1770, the hospital bowed to pressure. It reluctantly foresook the tuppeny entrance fees being paid by the 100,000 visitors who ‘tended to disturb the tranquillity of the patients’, and shut its doors to the public. The warders even stopped using whips.
By now, the expanded hospital had moved to Moorfields, then to Lambeth, and on to Surrey. Today, the Bethlehem Royal Hospital is in Beckenham.