Nuns on the (BABY) run: They braved the squalor and violence of London’s East End in the Sixties to deliver babies. Now a new TV drama tells the Sisters of St John’s tales…
All human sin was there in the bomb-damaged, deprived East End of London in 1957.
Not only did the Kray Brothers rule the backstreets in their reign of terror, but under-age pregnancies, prostitution, illegal abortions, binge-drinking and wife-beating abounded in the crowded, TB-infested slums.
But the nun-midwives of the Anglican Community of St John The Divine, as broadminded as they were saintly, were there not to judge but to help.
Sisters doing it for the East End: The cast of Call The Midwife
They got on their bikes day and night to deliver an average of 80 babies a month on their eight-mile patch, in the time-honoured tradition of religious charities serving the poor.
Now the experiences of those nuns, the young NHS midwives drafted in to work alongside them and their impoverished patients have been dramatised in a new six-part BBC1 drama, Call The Midwife.
Scripted by Cranford and Upstairs Downstairs writer Heidi Thomas (herself delivered by nuns, in Liverpool, in 1962) and with a cast led by Jenny Agutter, Pam Ferris and comedienne Miranda Hart in her first straight drama role, it’s based on a trilogy of best-selling books by the late Jennifer Worth.
She wrote from experience, having been sent by the NHS to East London’s Poplar in the 1950s as a young district midwife attached to the St John Community.
Tragically, Jennifer died of cancer of the oesophagus last May before the TV series was completed, but she had worked closely with the producers for two years.
Call The Midwife offers storylines about women having up to 25 children in those pre-Pill days, a brother and sister living together as man and wife, and a pregnant 15-year-old girl forced into prostitution by a sex-trafficker, so clearly East End midwifery wasn’t for wimps!
WHY WIMPLES ARE LIBERATING!
actresses playing the nun-midwives felt strangely liberated in their
costumes. ‘Wearing a wimple was very releasing – you’re not wondering if
someone else is getting a better costume,’ says Jenny Agutter, who
plays Sister Julienne.
Adds Pam Ferris (Sister Evangelina, below), ‘I just thought, “Whoopee! Comfortable shoes!”’
THE YOUNG MIDWIVES
Hart (below) was picked by author Jennifer Worth for the role of Chummy, unflatteringly described in her books as resembling ‘a bloke in
Yet Miranda wasn’t insulted. ‘I was thrilled to play this
eccentric character. She fits with my comedy characters.’
But there were
drawbacks to playing 1950s midwives. ‘We had to get used to the scary
equipment, such as glass enema kits,’ says Helen George (Trixie), ‘and
the challenging underwear – suspenders and pointy bras!’
There were only eight beds in the maternity ward at the nearby hospital, so the majority of children were delivered at home, and the insanitary conditions there came as a shock to the mostly middle-class nuns and nurses.
One of the St John Community’s surviving nun-midwives, 93-year-old Sister Teresa, recalls a case where ‘all the bedbugs walked out of the mattress’ as soon as a fire was lit in one expectant mother’s icy bedroom.
‘But although the conditions were a shock at first, I grew to love the people – there was a magic about the East End, community-wise,’ she says.
‘I felt sorry for the women with their endless births and their lack of know-how about running a house because of generations of slum-dwelling, so we befriended them.’
The St John Community was created in 1848 as a ‘nursing sisterhood’ that sent nuns to the Crimea to work with Florence Nightingale. The nuns continued their work back in the East End, and when the NHS was founded in 1948, the nuns served alongside NHS midwives and doctors for several more decades.
The area could be dangerous, but even around Cable Street, the red-light district where policemen walked in fours for self-protection, the nuns felt safe.
They were highly visible in their white wimples and long tabards, which they tucked into their belts when they rode their bikes and, later, mopeds. But they enjoyed protected status because they were a comforting presence at the two greatest events in people’s lives – birth and death.
‘People always said the sisters did the lying-in and the laying-out,’ says former St John midwife Sister Christine, 72. ‘What I loved about the East End was that these were poor people with big problems but an amazing sense of friendliness. What they lacked in material goods, they made up for in love.
We weren’t trying to convert the people, but simply treat them as unique human beings, with love and respect.’
The work could take an emotional toll, however. Delivering babies when the nuns’ vows of chastity barred them from motherhood meant midwifery could be a bittersweet experience.
Sister Christine remembers that once a baby was abandoned on their doorstep – ‘everyone was milling around it in the kitchen; you’d think we’d never seen a baby in our lives.
We called him John Divine.’ Asked if her work made her feel broody, she says, ‘You go through a time when you have to question whether you have a vocation for the religious life or have a call that may involve marriage and children.’
In the end, the Community’s bishop did what even the Luftwaffe couldn’t do – drive the nun-midwives out of Poplar, in 1978, after raising the rent on their Mission House.
‘The bishop and the archdeacon weren’t very interested in us by then,’ says another former nun-midwife, Sister Margaret. But the sisters cherish their East End memories.
Sister Christine says, ‘It’s such a privilege to be involved in a birth, and I think a midwife is able to share part of a mother’s joy because you’ve been walking with her on her journey.’
Call The Midwife starts on BBC1 later this month.