Posted in Country House, Decorative Arts, History, Mrs Beeton, Theatre History

Victorian Cookery Hero – Alexis Benoit Soyer

In recent years the career of flamboyant French chef, Alexis Benoît Soyer (1810-1858), has attracted considerable interest from historians. There have been a number of biographies published (see ‘Suggested Further Reading’ section) and his own writings are frequently reprinted. Soyer’s life story has also been turned into a bio-drama, Relish, written by James Graham and performed in 2010 by members of The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at Tramshed, Shoreditch, London.

Alexis packed a lot into his forty-eight years. He began his career at the tender age of eleven as an apprentice chef in the Palace of Versailles. His brother Philippe already worked there as a chef.  It made sense for young Alexis to join his brother and take full advantage of an opportunity to train amongst the world’s finest chefs.  After Versailles, Alexis worked in several restaurants in France and become second chef to the French prime minister, Prince Polignac.

Following the Second French Revolution of July 1830, Alexis fled to England to join his brother Philippe who was now working as head chef in the London household of Prince Adolphus, 1st Duke of Cambridge (1774-1850).  On 24th May 1836, the newly styled Reform Club, Dysart House, 104 Pall Mall, London, next door to the Carlton Club, opened its doors and were looking for a head chef, Alexis was offered the position.  Alexis relished the opportunities that such a role could offer to him and began working there in 1837.  Together with architect Charles Barry he designed the Club’s spectacular kitchens. He remained at the Reform Club until 1850.

Alexis married the artist Elizabeth Emma Jones (1813-1842) on 12th April 1837.  The marriage ended abruptly in 1842 when Elizabeth died of complications following a miscarriage. Alexis was completely heartbroken and threw himself into his work in an attempt to cope with his grief.  He died following a stroke in 1858 at his home 15 Marlborough Road, St. John’s Wood, London. He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.

Alexis was more than a chef, he was a culinary genius, visionary, prolific writer of cookery books, entrepreneur (although he was terrible with money!), inventor of kitchen gadgets and one of the most important figures in the history of mass catering – particularly in relation to army field kitchens.  He also wrote a comic ballet, La Fille de L’Orage (The Daughter of the Storm), to flatter ballerina Fanny Cerrito for whom he had a particular fascination. However, the ballet was not one of Soyer’s finest creative achievement and its humourous content was by all accounts pretty terrible.

Below are a just a few highlights of Alexis Soyer’s career:

  • The first chef to cook using gas;
  • Catered for two thousand guests at Queen Victoria’s coronation breakfast on the 28th June 1838;
  • In 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852), he set-up portable soup kitchens for the starving Irish at the Royal Barracks in Dublin. He cooked and served twenty-six thousand people a day.  The portable kitchen carriages were brilliantly clever and subsequently used on the battlefield in army field kitchens. The carriages were pulled by two horses and a driver. Around the driver’s seat there was a reservoir for water which could be drawn from a stream nearby to wherever the carriage came to rest.  The water is turned into steam by the heat from a lit boiler. The lower part had a circular steam boiler and the upper part an oven. ‘Within one hour after the fire is lighted the steam would be up and rations for 1000 men could be cooked by baking and steaming in about two hours and the apparatus moved on again, or it would cook whilst on the march’ (Soyer writing in 1854);
  • He set-up soup kitchens for the destitute Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, London;
  • He created a range of bottled sauces and relishes for sale to the public – like a Victorian Jamie Oliver!;
  • He invented a range of kitchen utensils and equipment, including: a stewing pan; cooking clock; baking dish and vegetable strainer;
  • He invented the famous ‘Magic Stove’ which enabled food to be cooked at the table: ‘….his [Soyer] unique and almost equally celebrated lilliputian apparatus, not inappropriately denominated “The Magic Stove”.  The Magic Stove is as simple as it is useful and ingenious.  In it there are two spirit lamps – one which rarifies the spirit in a receptacle placed above, and the vapour, thence airing is ignited by the flame of the second lamp.  The flame then passes through a bent tube, called the chimney of the apparatus, at the top of which tube the cooking processes are conduced, without any smoke or smut.  In this manner, rapid and perfect combustion is produced, and intense heat evolved by means of a self-acting blowpipe.’ (The Leeds Mercury, Saturday February 1st, 1851);
  • He was commissioned by the Admiralty to investigate logistics of catering on long sea voyages;
  • He rented Gore House (now the site of the Royal Albert Hall, London) in 1850 and took moved in on Wednesday 1st January, 1851. Gore House was built in the 1750s with interior decoration by Robert Adam.  Between 1808 and 1821 it had been the home of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was prominent in the abolition of the slave trade. The Countess of Blessington (1789-1849), a novelist, and Count Alfred D’Orsay (1801-1852) lived there from 1836 to 1849. At Gore House, Alexis created the ultimate ‘pop-up’ dining experience called Soyer’s Symposium. His aim was to mass-cater for visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. He said of the Symposium: ‘It will be my study to devote this establishment entirely for the display of the gastronomic, where I am now making preparations to accommodate thousands daily at my Symposium of all Nations’ (A letter written to The Preston Guardian and published on Saturday January 18th, 1851). After the Great Exhibition, the Symposium was forced to close at a £7,000 loss.  Please see the end of this article for more detail about Soyer’s Symposium;
  • In March 1855 he travelled with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), on Lord Panmure’s full authority, to the old Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey.  He had been tasked with re-organizing the Hospital’s catering. Florence said of Soyer: ‘..others have studied cookery for the purpose of gormandizing, some for show.  But none but he [Soyer] for the purpose of cooking large quantities of food in the most nutritive and economical manner for great quantities of people.’ (Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 by Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1952, p. 172).  ‘He proceeded to attack the kitchens of the Barrack Hospital.  He composed recipes for using the army rations to make excellent soups and stews.  He put an end to the frightful system of boiling. He insisted on having permanently allocated to the kitchens, soldiers who could be trained as cooks.  He invented ovens to bake bread and biscuits and a Scutari teapot which made and kept tea hot for fifty men.’ (ibid. p.172);
  • He helped redesign Wellington Barracks which opened in July 1858;


Délassements Culinaires. (1845)

The Gastronomic Regenerator (1846)

Soyer’s Charitable Cookery (1847)

The Poorman’s Regenerator (1848)

The modern Housewife or ménagère (1849)

The Symposiorama: Book of Gore House (1851)

The Pantropheon or A history of food and its preparation in ancient times (1853)

A Shilling Cookery Book for the People:Embracing an entirely new system of plain cookery and domestic economy (1855)

Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857)

Instructions to Military Cooks (1857) – Pamphlet.

A Few of Soyer’s Recipes

Camp Soup (For Army Catering): Put half-a-pound of salt pork in a saucepan, two ounces of rice, two pints and a-half of cold water, and, when boiling, let simmer another hour, stirring once or twice; break in six ounces of biscuit, let soak ten minutes; it is then ready, adding one teaspoonful of sugar, and a quarter one of pepper, if handy.

New Way of Making Beef Tea: Cut a pound of solid beef into small dice, which put into a stew-pan with two small pots of butter, a clove, a small onion sliced, and two saltspoonfuls of salt; stir the meat round over the fire for ten minutes, until it produces a thickish gravy, then add a quart of boiling water, and let it simmer at the corner of the fire for half an hour, skimming off every particle of fat; when done pass through a sieve.  I have always had a great objection to passing broth through a cloth as it frequently spoils its flavour.  The same, if wanted plain, is done by merely omitting the vegetables and clove: the butter cannot be objectionable, as it is taken out in skimming; pearl-barley, vermicelli, rice, etc, may be served in it if required.  A little leek, celery, or parsley may be added.

Little Fruit Rissolettes: I also make with the trimmings of puff paste the following little cakes: if you have about a quarter of a pound of puff paste left, roll it out very thin, about the thickness of half a crown, put half a spoonful of any marmalade on it, about one inch and a half distance from each other, wet lightly round them with a paste-brush, and place a similar piece of paste over all, take a cutter of the size of a crown piece, and press round the part where the marmalade or jam is with the thick part of the cutter, to make the paste stick, then cut them out with one a size or two larger, lay them on a baking-tin, egg over, place in a nice hot oven for twenty minutes, then sugar over with finely sifted sugar, so as to make it quite white, then put back into the oven to glaze and serve.

Good Plain Family Irish Stew: Take about two pounds of scrag or neck of mutton; divide it into ten pieces, lay them in the pan; cut eight large potatoes and four onions in slices, season with one teaspoonful and a half of pepper, and three of salt; cover all with water; put it into a slow oven for two hours, then stir it all up well, and dish up in deep dishes.  If you add a little more water at the commencement, you can take out when half done, a nice cup of broth.

Soyer’s Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations

The transformation of Gore House, Kensington to the people’s palace of gastronomy was an unbelievable achievement by Soyer and his team. It cost diners one shilling to enter the building, half a guinea to dine in the House and less to dine in the grounds. A French-English meal cost two shillings per diner. From 5pm each day, in the main House, private dining parties took place. Soyer produced a book on the Symposium called, The Symposiorama (Book of Gore House).  In it, Soyer enthuses about the eating experience that would await diners:

Dinner in the Temple of Danae, lunch in the vintage chamber, supper with the domains of the ice king, eating and drinking everywhere!  Why the sight is enough to turn a heart of stone, enough to make a hermit relinquish his roots and black bread, and a teetotaler break his pledge all to fragments.

Coverage in contemporary newspapers of the interior was extensive, below is an extract from The Standard, Monday April 28th, 1851:

You enter the doorway, and stand in the Vestibule de la Fille de L’Orage, you read, ‘Soyer’s Symposium’, struck by arrows of lightning from a hand clenched convulsively over the head.  From this you pass into L’atelier de Michel Ange, the walls of which are covered with the existent marvels of architectural and engineering art – the Pyramids, the Palace of Westminster, St. Paul’s, Pompey’s Pillar, the Tubular Bridge, and the like, shouldering each other with amusing defiance of time and concord.  Turning to the right, the visitor finds himself in what once, was the Blessington Library, but now La Salle du Parnasse in plainer and less metaphorical English, a spacious dining-room, brilliantly fitted with mirrors, marble consoles, and Grecian vases, the prevailing characteristic of white and gold being extremely effective, and affording a delicate contrast to the ‘Salle des Noces de Danaë, the speciality of which is the Alhambra spirit of the ceiling, displayed in its gorgeous varieties of colour, while gem-like tears cover the pale green walls, dropping, as it were, from the heavily gilt cornice.  The eight globes of silvered glass which are to hang here will produce an ensemble, when reflecting the floods of gas with which the salle will be charged of which, we can form but little conception….the ante-chambers of the mansion of which is striped and starred a la Jonathan.. La Cabinet de la Pompadour – embellished with  flutings of white and pink, and a triumphant arch of roses and foliage; La Foret Peruvienne, the colour of which is blue.. La Chambre ardents d’Apollon a circular apartment, intended for the Ghebirs, who can, if they like, before they eat their curried spiders, prostrate themselves before the before the brazen sun which fills half the plafond with its circumference..Grotte des Neiges Eternelles encrusted with sparkling pendents…Vintage Palazzo, Italian Saloon enclosed in a trellised gallery overhung with vine leaves, through which the eye looks upon the plains of Lombardy, the fastnesses of Calabris, and the ruins of Campagns…Bourdoir de la Valliere, enter the state bed-chamber, papered with zig-zag stripes and diagonal bands of black velvet and silver lace… Pagode du Cheval de Bronze, Chinese hall, tea-chest, crimson curtains, statuettes of Fo and Buddha, fat-bodied bronzes and lantern.

There were nine acres of gardens at Gore House and Soyer ensured that he packed every inch with dining opportunities.  He installed an American bar, serving egg noggs, shandygaffs, mint juleps and brandy smashes.  Les Pavillons des Zingari had a Grotto of Ondine showcasing cases of gold and silver fish.  The centrepiece of the gardens was the Baronial Banqueting Hall, measuring 100ft long and housing paintings produced by his late wife Emma as well as a selection by Count d’Orsay. It was also possible to dine in the Baronial Hall, a English-French dinner cost three shillings and sixpence. At 2pm, each day in the Hall, hot meat joints, vegetables, Symposium pies, mayonnaise salads, cold meats, hams, poultry, pastry, jellies and creams were served.

Another feature in the grounds were the Pyramids of Morning Dew. Grassy mounds upon which plaster figures were placed, surrounded with layers of vases filled with flowers.  Le Pavillon Monstre d’Amphytrion, measuring 400ft long, provided an opportunity to experience Soyer’s brilliance for the logistics of mass catering.  This gigantic dining encampment could seat one thousand five hundred diners at any one time.  Covering the dining table was an enormous one-piece tablecloth that took two men to carry it across the meadow to the Pavillion and six people to unroll it.  The kitchens in the main House had the capacity to roast six hundred joints of meat each day and on the green an ox was roasted every hour. Each night there was also fireworks and music for dancing.

As you can see, Soyer was a culinary genius who has, until now, been overlooked by historians, in favour of that other Victorian cooking genius, Isabella Beeton. Finally, Soyer is emerging from Mrs B’s shadow and exciting historians with his body of work and contribution toward the evolution of Victorian social and domestic cookery. Incidentally, a quick check of my 1915 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management reveals that a number of Soyer’s recipes were included by Mrs B in her publication.  These include his recipes for goose stuffing and a sauce for plum pudding.

Suggested Further Reading

  • The People’s Chef: Alexis Soyer, a Life in Seven Courses by Ruth Brandon (2004), published by John Wiley & Sons;
  • Relish:The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef by Ruth Cowen (2007), published by Phoenix;
  • The Portrait of a Chef: The Life of Alexis Soyer, Sometime Chef to the Reform Club by Helen Soutar Morris (1938), published by The University Press;
  • The Chef at War by Alexis Soyer (2011), published by Penguin;
  • ‘Hot on the Trail’ by Professor Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen, Cabinet magazine, Issue 37, Bubbles, Spring, 2010. An excellent and well-written article on Soyer’s field stoves, including images of the Magic Stove, field stoves in the Crimea and the Dublin soup kitchen in 1847.  This article inspired me to research Soyer further. For article, CLICK HERE.
Posted in History of Medicine, Mrs Beeton, TV Programme

Call The Midwife – An Historical Perspective

The hit tv series, Call The Midwife, is a real gem in the BBC’s Sunday night viewing schedule and its popularity is supported by viewing figures topping nearly nine million. I am not at all surprised that a second series has just been commissioned.  The series finale is on Sunday 19th February, BBC 1 at 8.30pm. Based on the books by Jennifer Worth (formerly Lee) about her own real life experiences as a newly qualified midwife in London’s East End during the 1950s.  I am currently reading Call The Midwife and will then move on to In The Midst of Life.  There are two further books, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End.  These books are well-written, fascinating, at times heartbreaking and a must-read for anyone with an interest in the history of medicine.  Worth decided to write down her memoirs after reading an article ‘Impressions of a Midwife in Literature’ that appeared in the January edition of Midwives Journal, 1998. The article struck a chord with her, why were, as Coates concluded, midwives virtually non-existent in literature? Worth immediately decided to rectify this and thus her wonderful books and the subsequent television series was born.

The history of midwifery is a complex subject and when conducting research for this article, I discovered that there is definitely a shortage of academic books on this highly skilled branch of nursing.  I have listed a few at the end of this article which you may be able to source through your library or view at a specialist medical library.

During the 17th century, City of London midwives had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship before delivering a baby on their own.  Historically, midwives have had a strained relationship with physicians, who would often viewed their practices with suspicion.   Debates surrounding the creation of strict guidelines for the practice of midwifery are often found in contemporary newspapers and medical journals.  In a number of the examples that I found, it struck me just how vulnerable the midwife was at the hands of the law if a delivery went tragically wrong or simply that the midwife was poorly trained in the first place.

In one such example, from an 1845 edition of Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, a thirty-five year old carpenter’s wife had died soon after giving birth and an inquest was launched into the circumstances surrounding her death.  Her medical history indicated that in two previous pregnancies she had suffered from retention of the after-birth and in her current pregnancy the scenario had occurred once more.  She was attended by a legally qualified practitioner who was an admitted licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Company since 1822.  This was a home birth that took place in a tiny rural English village. Following the woman’s death, the body was examined and found to be missing the entire uterus together with several feet of the large intestine, both of which had been forcibly extracted.  A verdict of manslaughter was put forward by the coroner and the midwife practitioner committed for trial at the next assizes.  This case had highlighted, once again, the need for a regulatory body to be established for all practitioners engaged in midwifery procedures.  A Petition was subsequently put forward to parliament.  The Petition read:

‘That your Petitioners, in the pursuit of their professional duties, have frequently witnessed and deplored the evil consequences ensuing from the indiscriminate practice of Midwifery, not only to themselves, but to society in general, for the want of some adequate legal protection or recognised body to test the competency and qualifications of those who practice in that peculiar department of the medical profession, the existing medical candidates for their diploma as to their obstetric knowledge; and your Petitioners are of opinion that the practice of Midwifery has not hitherto received that degree of attention from the Legislature, or protection from the Government, which is commensurate with its importance.’

In the UK today practicing midwives are governed by strict legislation and guidelines set-out by The Nursing and Midwifery Council which was established in 2002.

Historically, a majority of working class women gave birth at home, if this wasn’t possible then they would be admitted to a ‘Lying-in’ hospital.  The reason for this was often social rather than medical and the most common type of lying-in hospital would have been found in the work-house.  St. Thomas’ Hospital in London had lying-in wards during the fifteenth century and was set-up by a charitable donation by Richard Whittington for unmarried mothers. However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the number of non-workhouse lying-in hospitals in London was on the increase:

  • General Lying-In Hospital, York Road, Lambeth.  Originally, opened in 1767 as the Westminster New Lying-In Hospital in Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth.  Single mothers as well as married women were admitted.  In 1818 it changed its name to the General Lying-In Hospital and moved to York Road, Lambeth in 1828.  The Hospital closed in 1971 but this fine-looking building still exists today.  Florence Nightingale took a particular interest in the Hospital’s midwifery training programme;
  • Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, Goldhawk Road.  The Hospital opened in 1809, moved to Marylebone Road in 1813 and Goldhawk Road in 1940.  The Hospital admitted both single and married women;
  • City of London Lying-In Hospital, City Road, Finsbury.  Opened in 1750.  The building was badly bombed in 1940-1. Eventually the Hospital was moved to Hanley Road, Islington and closed in 1983;
  • British Lying-In Hospital, Endell Street, Holburn.  Opened in 1749 and closed in 1913.  Only married women were admitted;
  • New General Lying-in Hospital, Oxford Road, near Hanover Square.  Opened in 1767 under the name Queen’s Hospital.  It moved to Store Street near Tottenham Court Road, where patients did include single women.  The Hospital closed in 1800.

These hospitals were predominantly intended for the “wives of poor industrious tradesmen or distressed House-keepers and the wives of soldiers and sailors”.  London teaching hospitals did not admit women for childbirth before the late nineteenth century.  Medical students and staff sometimes delivered women in their own homes.

19th century midwifery instruments. Bottom right a 1850 copy of the Midwife’s Vade Mecum by Aristotle.

In the 18th century, male surgeons would often intervene in the delivery process and a new group of medical men emerged, men-midwives or ‘accoucheurs’. Developments in obstetrical instrument design helped to improve the chances of a successful labour, particularly for those women whose babies lay in different positions in the birth canal.  Pain relief options for women were limited and included, opium, brandy and after 1847, chloroform. The pioneer of the use of chloroform in childbirth was Sir James Simpson.  Ergotamine was also given to women to stem the flow of blood.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is an important figure in the history of midwifery and pressed for midwifery as a career for educated women.  She established a training school for midwives in King’s College Hospital at the end of 1861.  A fully-equipped maternity ward was set-up at the Hospital and the physician accoucheurs agreed to give six months’ training to the midwives.  The midwives were trained to work in hospitals and also to deliver women in their own homes.  The tuition was provided for free but the students had to pay for their own board and lodging.  However, after just 2 years the scheme suffered a devastating blow – an outbreak of Puerperal Sepsis in the lying-in wards, following the delivery of a woman suffering from Erysipelas.   This event forced the training programme to be shut down.  Florence Nightingale was devastated and she immediately launched an investigation into the incident, writing to numerous physicians to seek opinion and advice.  She wanted to establish a set of reliable statistics of mortality in childbirth for women who gave birth in the lying-in wards.  She soon discovered that this information would be extremely difficult to come by.  The medical profession viewed her ‘interference’ with suspicion and many would not co-operate with her repeated requests for data.  However, Florence was not of the disposition to give-up easily and eventually, with the help of Dr John Sutherland (of the Sanitary Commission), was able to publish a slim volume of her findings in 1871, titled, Introductory Notes on Lying-in Institutions.  She calculated that the death rate for women giving birth in the lying-in institutions was 33.3 per thousand and the rate for home births was 5.1 per thousand.  The conclusion was drawn that death in institutions was due to the prevalence of Puerperal fever, an infection caused by insanitary conditions.  Florence advocated smaller hospitals, individual rooms for delivery, scrupulous cleanliness, shorter stays in hospital and banning medical students from attending births immediately after visiting the dissection room, which was common practice at the time.  She believed that in taking these measures the huge morbidity figures could be drastically reduced.

Puerperal Sepsis, or childbed fever as it is often referred to, has claimed the lives of many women over the centuries, including a number of famous individuals such as Henry VIII’s wives Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, Mrs Isabella Beeton and Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft.  The disease is a iatrogenic disease, caused by doctors and remained a common cause of death in childbirth until the early part of the 20th century. Infectious organisms on the hands of the birth attendants are transferred to the woman’s uterus.  The most common organism is  Streptococcus, the virulent beta-haemolytic (group A).  The disease usually begins on the third day after delivery.  Typical symptoms include: high temperature; severe headache; raised pulse; severe abdominal pain; vomiting and diarrhoea.  Death occurs when the infection spreads, resulting in peritonitis and septicaemia.

Obstetric forceps first appeared in the 17th century and many of the instruments were named after the obstetrician who invented them.  In each set of delivery instruments there would be two or three forceps, often with ebony or ivory handles, perforators, cranioclasts and decapitation hooks.  When there was no safe way of delivering a live baby, the delivery was obstructed and the mother’s life hung in the balance, gruesome measures were resorted to.  The perforators were used to open the baby’s skull, then the cranioclasts were brought in to crush it and finally the hooks were employed to remove the deceased infant in parts. The vectis, half a forcep, was a popular delivery instrument during the nineteenth century.  The vectis was used to manoeuvre the foetus into the normal position for child-birth.  Technically it converted the impassable brow or shoulder positions to the normal vertex (top of the head) presentation.  On the left of the image below you can see the spoon-shaped vectis with its wooden handle, metal shaft and elliptical hole in the scoop.

19th obstetric instruments. Vectis forceps shown on the left. The Old Operating Theatre Museum, London.

Caesarean Section is now a much practiced form of delivery in the UK, with nearly 163,000 procedures performed in 2010-11. Caesarean delivery dates back to ancient times with Egyptian and Roman law sanctioning its use after the mother’s death in order to allow the infant a chance to survive. In medieval Christian times it was believed by some that those infants that survived such a procedure were in possession of great strength and special powers.  Although many medieval Christians also viewed this practice with suspicion and as an ‘unnatural’ birth.  In the Renaissance, midwives were brought in to perform post-mortem caesareans. The first successful caesarean on a live woman took place in 1500. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were even reports of women performing the operation upon themselves.  A midwife called Mary Donelly was the first to perform a successful caesarean operation in Ireland in 1738.  Although popular, the caesarean remained a rare procedure until the late nineteenth century.  Eduardo Porro (1842-1902) was an Italian obstetrician who pioneered a technique to minimize haemorrhage and sepsis risks in caesarean operations by removing the mother’s uterus at the same time. During the 1950s, when Jennifer Worth was practising as a midwife, the caesarean section rate was 3%.  Today the rate is approximately 25%.

Nipple shield and baby’s feeding bottle on display at The Old Operating Theatre Museum, London.

In 1928, Sister Mary Laetitia Flieger, R.N. published a report in The American Journal of Nursing on current midwifery practices in the UK.  She reports that pregnant women were instructed to take care of their breasts by washing them with hot and cold water, morning and evening, then rub the nipples with a rough towel.  In the last month women were told to clean the nipples with soap and water using a soft nail brush.  Sister Flieger reported that diet was taken seriously by the British midwives, who suggested that no red meat should be allowed during the last month and only a little chicken and rabbit, together with plenty of fish should be consumed.  Once labour had commenced, unless it was to be a breech delivery, a forceful enema would be given.  She also mentioned that The Central Midwives’ Board (the then governing body for UK midwives) recommended that the number of intimate examinations given to the women should be limited in order to avoid the dangers of sepsis.  It is interesting to note that by the 1920s the practice of infection prevention is taken seriously. Thanks must go to the hard work and research that Florence Nightingale conducted nearly seventy years previously.  Flieger also reported on the delivery style in the UK for a non-breech delivery.  The woman should lie on her left side and an assistant raise the woman’s leg to affect delivery.  If there is a pendulous abdomen, breech delivery or forceps delivery then the women is delivered on her back.  During the puerperium (lying-in period) the woman’s perineum is swabbed about five times a day with a weak solution of iodine or lysol under thoroughly aseptic conditions.  She also gives UK childbirth mortality rates for the mother in 1928 as being approximately 3,000 deaths in relation to 800,000 babies being born.

  • If you want to find out more about the BBC One series, Call The Midwife, click here;
  • The Florence Nightingale Museum, in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital London. For more information click here;
  • If you want to visit The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, London, which I strongly urge you do if you are interested in the history of medicine, then Click here for further information.  I only feature museums on my blog which I believe are exceptional in terms of visitor experience.   This Museum is one of those and ranks in my top five.  I took a friend with me who is a nurse and we simply didn’t notice the time fly by as the exhibits are so engrossing and the staff, particularly the Curator, are helpful and friendly.  The museum is very small and can only accommodate a limited number of visitors at any one time.  You may find that you have to wait at the foot of the stairs before you are escorted up to the Museum, which to be honest actually adds to the whole experience.  It might be an idea to phone on the morning of your visit to check when would be the best time to arrive that day.  On the day we visited, we had to wait a while before going in as there was a large group of medical students booked in.  Also on that morning Channel 4’s Time Team had been filming there.  Please do persevere, you will be very glad that you did.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Ehrenreich, Barbara and English, Deirdre (2010), Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Feminist Press at the City University New York;
  • Pam Lieske (2007) (12 Volumes), Eighteenth- Century British Midwifery, Pickering and Chatto;
  • Mangham, Andrew (2011), The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, Liverpool University Press;
  • Reid, Lindsay (2011), Midwifery in Scotland: A History, Scottish History Press;
  • Rutherdale, Myra (2010), Caregiving on the Periphery: Historical Perspectives on Nursing and Midwifery in Canada, McGill-Queen’s University Press;