Nonnatus House was situated in the heart of the London Docklands. The practice covered Stepney, Limehouse, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, Cubitt Town, Poplar, Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel. The area was densely populated and most families had lived there for generations, often not moving more than a street or two away from their birthplace. Family life was lived at close quarters and children were brought up by a widely extended family of aunts, grandparents, cousins and older siblings, all living within a few houses, or at the most, streets of each other. Children would run in and out of each other’s homes all the time and when I lived and worked there, I cannot remember a door ever being locked, except at night.
Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car, so it was perfectly safe to play there. There was heavy industrial traffic on the main roads, particularly those leading to and from the docks, but the little streets were traffic-free.
The bomb sites were the adventure playgrounds. They were numerous, a terrible reminder of the war and the intense bombing of the Docklands only ten years before. Great chunks had been cut out of the terraces, each encompassing perhaps two or three streets. The area would be roughly boarded off, partly hiding a wasteland of rubble with bits of building half standing, half fallen. Perhaps a notice stating DANGER — KEEP OUT would be nailed up somewhere, but this was like a red rag to a bull to any lively lad over the age of about six or seven, and every bomb site had secret entries where the boarding was carefully removed, allowing a small body to squeeze through. Officially no one was allowed in, but everyone, including the police, seemed to turn a blind eye.
It was undoubtedly a rough area. Knifings were common. Street fights were common. Pub fights and brawls were an everyday event. In the small, overcrowded houses, domestic violence was expected. But I never heard of gratuitous violence children or towards the elderly; there was a certain respect for the weak. This was the time of the Kray brothers, gang warfare, vendettas, organised crime and intense rivalry. The police were everywhere, and never walked the beat alone. Yet I never heard of an old lady being knocked down and having her pension stolen, or of a child being abducted and murdered.
The vast majority of the men living in the area worked in the docks.
Employment was high, but wages were low and the hours were long. The men holding the skilled jobs had relatively high pay and regular hours, and their jobs were fiercely guarded. Their skills were usually kept in the family, passed from father to sons or nephews. But for the casual labourers, life must have been hell. There would be no work when there were no boats to unload, and the men would hang around the gates all day, smoking and quarrelling. But when there was a boat to unload, it would mean fourteen, perhaps eighteen hours of relentless manual labour. They would start at five in the morning and end around ten at night. No wonder they fell into the pubs and drank themselves silly at the end of it. Boys started in the docks at the age of fifteen, and they were expected to work as hard as any man. All the men had to be union members and the unions strove to ensure fair rates of pay and fair hours, but they were bedevilled by the closed shop system, which seemed to cause as much trouble and ill feeling between workers as the benefits it accrued. However, without the unions, there is no doubt that the exploitation of workers would have been as bad in 1950 as it had been in 1850.
Early marriage was the norm. There was a high sense of sexual morality, even prudery, amongst the respectable people of the East End. Unmarried partners were virtually unknown, and no girl would ever live with her boyfriend. If she attempted to, there would be hell to pay from her family. What went on in the bomb sites, or behind the dustbin sheds, was not spoken of. If a young girl did become pregnant, the pressure on the young man to marry her was so great that few resisted. Families were large, often very large, and divorce was rare. Intense and violent family rows were common, but husband and wife usually stuck together.
Few women went out to work. The young girls did, of course, but as soon as a young woman settled down it would have been frowned upon. Once the babies started coming, it was impossible: an endless life of child-rearing, cleaning, washing, shopping and cooking would be her lot. I often wondered how these women managed, with a family of up to thirteen or fourteen children in a small house, containing only two or three bedrooms. Some families of that size lived in the tenements, which often consisted of only two rooms and a tiny kitchen.
Contraception, if practised at all, was unreliable. It was left to the women, who had endless discussions about safe periods, slippery elm, gin and ginger, hot water douches and so on, but few attended any birth control clinic and, from what I heard, most men, absolutely refused to wear a sheath.
Washing, drying and ironing took up the biggest part of a woman’s working day. Washing machines were virtually unknown and tumble driers had not been invented. The drying yards were always festooned with clothes, and we midwives often had to pick our way through a forest of flapping linen to get to our patients. Once in the house or flat, there would be more washing to duck and weave through, in the hall, the stairways, the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom. Launderettes were not introduced until the 1960s, so all washing had to be done by hand at home.
By the 1950s, most houses had running cold water and a flushing lavatory in the yard outside. Some even had a bathroom. The tenements, however, did not, and the public wash-houses were still very much in use. Grumbling boys were taken there once a week to have a bath by determined mothers. The men, probably under female orders, carried out the same weekly ablution. You would see them going to the bath-house on a Saturday afternoon with a small towel, a piece of soap, and a dour expression, which spoke of a weekly tussle once again waged and lost.
Most houses had a wireless, but I did not see a single TV set during my time in the East End, which may well have contributed to the size of the families. The pubs, the men’s clubs, dances, cinemas, the music halls and dog racing were the main forms of relaxation. For the young people, surprisingly, the church was often the centre of social life, and every church had a series of youth clubs and activities going on every night of the week. All Saints Church in the East India Dock Road, a huge Victorian church, had many hundreds of youngsters in its youth club run by the Rector and no less than seven energetic young curates. They needed all their youth and energy to cope, night after night, with activities for five or six hundred young people.
The thousands of seamen of all nationalities that came into the docks did not seem to impinge much upon the lives of the people who lived there. “We keeps ourselves to ourselves,” the locals said, which meant no contact. Daughters were carefully protected: there were plenty of brothels to cater for the needs of the seamen. In my work I had to visit two or three of them, and I found them very creepy places to be in.
I saw prostitutes soliciting in the main roads, but none at all in the little streets, even on the Isle of Dogs, which was the first landing place for the seamen. The experienced professional would never waste her time in such an unpromising area, and if any enthusiastic amateur had been rash enough to attempt it, she would soon have been driven out, probably with violence, by the outraged local residents, men as well as women. The brothels were well known, and always busy. I daresay they were illegal, and raided from time to time by the police, but that did not seem to affect business. Their existence certainly kept the streets clean.
Life has changed irrevocably in the last fifty years. My memories of the Docklands bear no resemblance to what is known today. Family and social life has completely broken down, and three things occurring together, within a decade, ended centuries of tradition — the closure of the docks, slum clearance, and the Pill.
Slum clearance started in the late 1950s, while I was still working in the area. No doubt the houses were a bit grotty, but they were people’s homes and much loved. I remember many, many people, old and young, men and women, holding a piece of paper from the Council, informing them that their houses or flats were to be demolished, and that they were to be rehoused. Most were sobbing. They knew no other world, and a move of four miles seemed like going to the ends of the earth. The moves shattered the extended family, and children suffered as a result. The transition also literally killed many old people who could not adapt. What is the point of a spanking new flat with central heating and a bathroom, if you never see your grandchildren, have no one to talk to, and your local, which sold the best beer in London, is now four miles away?
The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer going to be tied to the cycle of endless babies; they were going to be themselves. With the Pill came what we now call the sexual revolution. Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!
The closure of the docks occurred gradually over about fifteen years, but by about 1980 the merchant ships came and went no more. The men clung to their jobs, the unions tried to defend them, and there were numerous dockers’ strikes during the 1970s, but the writing was on the wall. In fact the strikes, far from protecting jobs, merely accelerated the closures. For the men of the area, the docks were more than a job, even more than a way of life — they were, in fact, life itself — and for these men, the world fell apart. The ports, which for centuries had been the main arteries of England, were no longer needed. And therefore the men were no longer needed. This was the end of the Docklands as I knew them.
The above is an excerpt from the book The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Midwife
Copyright © Jennifer Worth, 2002
Jennifer Worth, author of The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, trained as a nurse and then moved to London to become a midwife. She lives with her husband in Hertfordshire. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.