By Ian Miller, Ulster University
The experiences of pregnant women, and those going through childbirth is hard to find in the archives. However, in 1992, the Women’s Committee of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) produced a short book of oral histories that recorded Northern Irish women’s experience of health across the twentieth century. Mary Ferris, Anna McGonigle, Belfast Marie Mulholland, Patricia McKeown and Theresa Moriarty compiled the collection. All were active NUPE members interested in labour and women’s history. The authors described the interviewees as ‘invisible’ women whose lives and struggles would have remained forgotten if the oral historians had not recorded them for posterity. Childbirth and maternity featured prominently in the interviewees’ health-related memories.
The Women’s Committee first developed the Health and History project in the 1980s. The timing was not accidental. The 1980s was a time of severe economic depression, and when concern was high about the effects of unemployment on physical and mental health. The conservative government denied that job loss harmed health and made plans to privatise parts of the NHS. NUPE saw women’s health problems in relation to class politics. Working-class women bore the brunt of flailing economies and suffered with poor health. Economic decline hit Northern Ireland particularly hard. Its industries were in decline. Because of NUPE’s workshops held in Belfast and Derry, and the recording of oral histories, we have some direct access to the voices of working-class women and their intimate experiences of pregnancy and childbirth.
Image: Women’s Committee of National Union of Public Employees, Women’s Voices: An Oral History of Northern Irish Women’s Health (Dublin: Attic Press, 1992).
Memories of childbirth featured heavily in working-class women’s recollections of their health. Until mid-century, most births took place at home with the help of a handywoman, a local women often criticised by doctors for being unhygienic and unprofessional. The criticisms were exaggerated. Interviewees spoke highly of these highly experienced local women. Nonetheless, handywomen were gradually replaced with district nurses and doctors but until the 1940s these had to be paid for. One interviewee, Mary, a Belfast canteen worker, recalled that ‘none of our grandmothers had a full medical, and if they fell into bad health they called on the handywomen who lived in the district’.
Belfast had its own lying-in hospital, established in 1794. The Ulster Hospital for Women and Sick Children was founded in 1872 and was originally located in Chichester Street in the City Centre. It later moved to Mountpottinger Road but suffered significant damage during the Belfast Blitz. The hospital then moved to Templemore Avenue and relocated to Dundonald in 1962. Outside of Belfast, maternity provision was sparse until the 1940s.
Mothers regularly died during childbirth, a tragic situation highlighted in the women’s memories. In the 1920s and 1930s, this situation worsened. Belfast women were more likely to die in childbirth in 1938 than in 1923. In 1940, the numbers of Belfast babies dying during birth peaked. Evidently, the replacement of handywomen with district nurses did not improve survival prospects much. Meanwhile, severe economic depression took its toll on health, nutrition, poverty levels and life expectancy.
No post-birth care existed. Psychological problems such as post-natal depression were not fully recognised. One interviewee, Kathleen, a home help worker, recalled:
There was post-natal depression, but there wasn’t a name for it. Women were put away in the asylum. It was taken that they were gone around the twist. Sometimes, women were put away if they were having a baby and they weren’t married. That was a disgrace.
It was usual for women to continue working soon after giving birth. Bringing in a wage took priority over any health concerns or physical tiredness. Kathleen recalled women giving birth and still being expected to make her husband’s dinner when he returned home later from work. Kathleen also recalled rural women delivering their baby and leaving them in a box for the rest of the day until their shift had finished. Hospital births became more popular from the 1940s, although Kathleen complained that ‘at the beginning when women had babies in hospital, they were treated like animals’.
Health prospects for pregnant women were worsened by poor working conditions. Early twentieth-century Belfast was one of the unhealthiest cities in the British Isles. Rosaleen, a Belfast health worker, recalled the following conditions in Belfast’s mills:
There weren’t any health or safety regulations. Most of the women that worked in the mill had very bad feet, because they stood in water all the time. They had leg ailments because of the time they had to spend standing. And they had very bad chests because of the pouce [airborne lint] that was in the air…but believe it or not, one of the good things was, you could always have told a mill worker by the skin on her hands and feet and face. They always had beautiful skin.
Health and safety was hardly better in the shirt making industries (which Derry was particularly famous for). Rosaleen also remembered:
Workers often got their fingers caught in the sewing machine. You were lucky if the needle broke off. Most times it did. They sent you around to the mechanic and he just hauled it out with a pair of pliers. You ran your finger under water and stuck a plaster on it and you were settled back at your machine. So that was their idea of health and safety.
Image: A.H. Freeland Barbour, The Anatomy of Labour (Edinburgh ; London : W. & A.K. Johnston, 1889). Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.
Many of the women confessed a lack of knowledge of sexual matters compared to modern women. One discussed a socially imposed silence passed down through the generations:
You did not talk to your mother about it. Even if you were married, you did not talk about it because she never told you anything told me anything about pregnancy and sex.
Of course, a major problem with refusing to discuss sexual matters is that young women were left unaware of how to avoid becoming pregnant, or what to expect when the time came to give birth. One interviewee recalled her mother’s horror when, at a young age, she announced that she was pregnant.
Revealing the various myths surrounding conception, another interviewee stated:
Anne thought that if you ate a coloured pea you got pregnant. One woman remembered her mother telling her that if she washed her hair [while on her period], she would end up like the woman around the corner who had a mental defect. Iris had fallen at a horror film before she had her first period. She thought that the fall had caused the blood. Rita remembers a priest giving her a book about her periods. Kathleen thought that periods were necessary to get rid of pints of old blood to be replaced by new blood. Mary was told not to wash her hair or her feet when she had her period.
Social attitudes towards unmarried mothers were harsh, and another interviewee stated:
I know a girl who was put into a mental home by her parents because she became pregnant. We reckon there are women in mental homes today whose only crime was getting pregnant.
 Douglas Black, Inequalities in Health: The Black Report (London: Penguin, 1982); Richard Smith, Unemployment and Health: A Disaster and a Challenge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). For more recent discussion of links between the economy and health, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being (Allen Lane, 2018
 Women’s Committee of National Union of Public Employees, Women’s Voices: An Oral History of Northern Irish Women’s Health (Dublin: Attic Press, 1992), p. 45.
 Women’s Committee of National Union of Public Employees, Women’s Voices: An Oral History of Northern Irish Women’s Health (Dublin: Attic Press, 1992), p. 20.
 Women’s Committee of National Union of Public Employees, Women’s Voices: An Oral History of Northern Irish Women’s Health (Dublin: Attic Press, 1992), p. 29.
 Women’s Committee of National Union of Public Employees, Women’s Voices: An Oral History of Northern Irish Women’s Health (Dublin: Attic Press, 1992), p. 81.