I recently watched a mini-series on our ABC television channel called "Call The Midwife".
Set in the East End of London around the docklands in the early 1950s, it told of the nuns and the nurse/midwives who attended the women of the area and tried to introduce more modern methods of hygiene among other things.
I enjoyed this series very much, so I bought the book, (Call The Midwife, by Jennifer Worth), because everyone knows there is more information and detail in a book than what is shown in a short television series.
I discovered that the author (one of the midwives) had written more books about this era, so bought those too. I'm currently reading "Shadows of the Workhouse" which tells of a few incidents where people have had to declare themselves destitute and go to live in the "Workhouse", where they were fed and clothed and given very menial work to do. Families were separated in there, men had their own workhouse, women too, babies were taken from their mothers and raised separately, boys separate from the girls, until they were seven, then the boys were taken away to another separate workhouse.
In this current book, the oldest nun in her 90s is reminiscing with the author, (a young woman in her early 20s), about her childhood and her mother, in the 1870s and 1880s.
The family was quite well off and the elderly nun had been talking about the twenty-seven dinner services each with ninety-six pieces and fourteen sets of silver plated cutlery and how every fish fork and sugar tong etc had to be counted and checked before it could be put away. She'd despaired of spending the rest of her life counting fish forks etc.
This is what the nun then had to say about her mother:
"I doubt she knew a day of real freedom in her whole life. .........My father ruled her life. Every move. Do you know, my dear, he had all her hair cut off and her teeth pulled out when nshe was less than thirty-five?"
"She was never strong, always ailing. I don't know what was wrong with her, except perhaps that her corsets were too tight."
(Corsets. The accepted instrument of torture for women.)
".......I remember my mother lying in bed with doctors present. One of them told my Father that all her strength was going to her hair and teeth and they would have to go. She was never consulted in the matter......."
"Her head was shaved and all her teeth extracted.
I was in the nursery and heard her screaming. It was barbaric and ignorant."
I know from things I've read and seen on television and in movies, that earlier times were very hard , especially for women, (those corsets!) and that many unfounded beliefs and practices were rife.
This boggles the mind!
How anyone, much less a doctor, could believe that the hair and teeth of a woman were taking away all her strength, is just too much to believe.
I cried when I read this, it's just horrifying.
All of this makes me very glad that I am now living in much more enlightened times and I have much admiration for the women and men who managed to bring new ideas of health and hygiene to the peoples of earlier times.
They battled poverty, filth and ignorance, to bring us to where we are today.
Imagine living back then, in a tenement block, where whole families, some with as many as ten or fifteen children, lived in one or two rooms, with only cold running water, but no lavatory. In the entire tenement there would be one lavatory for all those people, down in the yard. Some buildings had a lavatory on each floor, at the end of a hall. One toilet, for hundreds of people!
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