the mind boggles - how could they believe such things?

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.

But this!  
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!


  1. Makes you want to weep for them it does. Makes me count my blessings too.

  2. Wow, that is very extreme. Poverty is never pretty.

  3. The series and the books were both quite revealing and in parts astonishing.

    What I really appreciated was the way those nuns and nurses not only didn't judge what other people would have seen as criminal or moral behaviour, but also a genuine level of understanding and insight.

  4. I will be nipping right onto my library website and locating those books! Actually you are describing the childhood of my father and his siblings, the result of birth control denial by Irish Catholics, and a father who left. Just left. And they survived. One of my aunts became a nun.

  5. It does make you wonder how people survived back then. I also watched Call The Midwife mini series and thought it very well done. I'll be buying the DVD which is out now when its at a reasonable price.

  6. Horrifying what women had to endure in days gone by, and some of the barbaric practices that once passed for acceptable medical practice. At one time, doctors didn't wash their hands between seeing patients, and wearing a garment covered with the blood and pus of patients was considered a badge of honor.

  7. My mother was born in the lead up to the depression, at 7 she walked 200km inland with the family and cleared Mallee scrub to make a farm from scratch. She told stories of boiling Nettles for food. I couldn't understand the hardships she suffered and cant believe the things people can endure.

  8. You can see why Tuberculosis was the scourge of the time. One infected person in a house could wipe out families. It happened to my family in Melbourne in the 20s.

  9. we are very lucky to live in these times.

    And yet, in a hundred years will our great great grandchildren look back at our lives with horror?

  10. Someone recommended the program to me, but it clashed with something the skinny portion was watching. Horror. I suspect that once the shaven, toothless woman was up again she was expected to squeeze back into those dreadful corsets as well. We are so lucky in so many ways. Thanks to some brave individuals.

  11. Delores; I often count my blessings when seeing or reading about those times.

    Andrew; poverty is ugly, but at least great strides have been made in medical matters. And these day women aren't required to wear those awful tight corsets. Unless they want to.

    FruitCake; that stood out for me too. The selflessness and compassion. I'm not at all sure I could have done it.

    Joanne Noragon; there are four books in the series. 1. Call the Midwife; 2. shadows of the Workhouse; 3. Farewell to the East End; 4. In the Midst of Life.
    I think it is/was utterly shameful that religion would deny a woman birth control. Those women would have far too many children and be living in extreme poverty while the Catholic Church got richer and richer. and did they help the families feed and clothe all these children? No, they did not!

    Windsmoke; people would have been so much tougher back then. I preferred to buy the books, because of the extra little details often left out in a TV series because of time constraints.

    Susan Flett Swiderski; I remember once reading about such doctors in a novel written by Taylor Caldwell. I don't remember the name of the novel, but the story focussed on a doctor (gynaecologist) who discovered that washing his hands between patients resulted in much fewer infections and deaths.

    Tempo; your mother was one of the tough old Aussies who settled this land. Times were hard, but scratching out a farm from nothing had to be harder. Nettles are very nutritious. Once cooked, they have no sting left and are rich in iron, much like spinach.

    JahTeh; yes. In the book there is mention of TB being rife in the Workhouses and testing revealed maybe 3 children in 100 who didn't have it.

    kelley@magnetoboldtoo; we are very lucky and I have also been wondering what future generations will think of us when they learn their history. In particular, I wonder what future archaeologists will make of the crap they unearth at many of our landfill sites.

  12. Oh my goodness! No wonder she became a nun...

  13. HeptaparaparshinokhNovember 9, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    Apropos to one part of this dreadful, dreadful tale: there is an old joke in Scotland my Father told me. It goes along the lines of "What does a Scots lass lose on her wedding day? Her Teeth". It was de rigueur in the old days (gee as far back as the 30's!) for the dentist to whip out a young woman's full set of gnashers and stick in some falsies in time for her wedding. No matter what the condition of the originals. Indeed both my Aunts went through this.
    Also, I just received an email from a friend who has relocated to Glasgow and she enthuses about the "beautiful old tenement" she has just moved into. My parents, who both grew up in tenements near Glasgow (I had the good sense to be born over the other, more beautiful and refined side of the country) must be laughing in their shrouds at the thought of those shitty hellholes now being thought of as "beautiful".
    Hope that's not too off topic.

  14. The poverty and misery of the poor in the dark ages, medieval times, Victorian times never fails to shock me.

    My father still can't walk down some parts of Norwood for the very sad memories he had for some poor little kids who suffered there. Yuppies have now done up those little 'workers cottages' but Dad can't see any of that for the miseries he witnessed in the past.

  15. I loved watching the series of 'Call the Midwife' too. Life was tough, especially for the women.

  16. There are some good comments here. I have the same feeling as Kath's father, seeing slums turned into expensive places to live is strangely upsetting. But you'd need to have known the dirt, broken windows, matresses on the floor, to appreciate the joke of seeing those hovels now selling for $750,000.

    The problem in old Prahran, Richmond, Collingwood, Fitzroy and so on, was hard work on low wages. Most families where I grew up were decent families having to count every penny. Drunken fathers like mine were an embarrassment to them.
    Low wages for hard work is a continuing disgrace. The only
    difference nowadays is that these underpaid have been enticed into mortgages they can't afford on ugly cheap new houses in ugly new suburbs around outer Melbourne.
    At the same time there are loud women calling themselves feminists whose narrow concern is only for their own middle-income class. They just can't see beyond it. Feminism is a narcissism with nothing to offer women working beside low-paid men in factories and places who even if they can get equal pay are still on shit wages.
    It would be a good thing if feminists and other yuppies who've taken over and tarted up the slums added poor white anglos to their list of people whose troubles they make a big noise about. THe poor are the poor: white, black, refugee or whatever.

  17. Believe it or not a doctor told my mum when I was about 15 that my long hair could be taking away my strength!! That was in 1947 so even then it was thought to be the case. My husband's mother actually worked in a Work House so she would have some dreadful tales to tell. I was doing some genealogy recently and found that an 85 year old widow's occupation was given as washerwoman. There were no aged pensions back in the 1800s and times were very hard indeed. Women without men to support them just had to work or if they were lucky enough to own a house would take in lodgers. You come across some very interesting information with genealogy looking up early censuses. We've come a long way since those days, at least in the Western World.

  18. Or even if you were the eldest in a family of three, a woman and your parents passed, how your brothers could make up some crap and sign you into the local insane asylum or hospital so that they could have the land, and not have to marry you off and give away part of the land. Or how if as a woman you refused to do as you were told, or live as you were told you had to live, how you could be dragged to a doctor, found to be crazy and signed in to save your family / husband's face...cruel times, very cruel times.

  19. The above comment is nonsense, insanity does not disqualify anyone from recieving their share of an inheritance.

  20. Elephant's Child; it clashed with something else for me too, but I decided the other program could wait and watched all of Call the Midwife. then I knew I had to buy the books. Corsets are a curse.

    drb; she trained as a nurse first, then became a member of a working order so that she could help people in need. She was 32 before she was brave enough to leave home and go her own way.

    heptaparaparshinokh; that's terrible! In the 20th century, to be forced to have all your teeth out just to get married. As for the tenements, I would imagine if they were cleaned and restored, they might be okay, but I don't think I could ever live in one. My single bedroom flat in a block of four is small enough.

    Kath Lockett; every time I read or see something about those times, i get upset at what they went through just to survive. Norwood is full of little cottages, so I'm not sure which ones are the workers cottages that your dad remembers. Like the tiny little single fronted ones in the side streets off The Parade? Margaret Street? Wall Street? Elizabeth Street?

    Molly; the series was a real eye-opener for sure.

    R.H. the problem everywhere was hard work on low wages, or in some cases no work at all, so no wages at all. Many times there would be hundreds of men lining up hoping to be chosen to work that day, when there were only jobs available for maybe a dozen.

    Mimsie; a lot of similar information is in the book I'm currently reading, Shadows of the Workhouse. The book has many tales of women who worked fro pre-dawn to past dusk in several jobs, just to get enough for a few mouthfuls to feed their children, while they themselves went hungry. Is your mother-in-law still alive? Ask her permission to write down her stories and get her talking. Memories (history) should not be lost. I'm astonished to think that the long hair-loss of strength notion still existed as far as the 1940s!

    The Wicked Writer; yes, there is a tale in the book about a well-off man who wanted to be rid of his wife and take a younger woman, so he paid two doctors to declare her mentally unstable and his wife was then locked away in an asylum, leaving him free to marry the younger woman.

    R.H. you're wrong. In those days, the 1800s, women were not allowed to own property, men had all the power and many women were declared insane and locked away. Often their children were then sent to the workhouse.

  21. Dig around in the 1800s and you'll find corrupt doctors, and etc. Small children were working in factories too. So what? Is it happening now? The most powerful person in England at the time was a woman, Queen Vic.
    In the previous century you'll find Catherine the Great of Russia, a sure root if ever there was one, who turned it on, turned it off, with half the aristocracy of Europe. There are women who've been powerful, I could include the Medici, and so on, and on, it's all about CLASS. Go back in history far as you like, that's the division!
    It's the division here - in this greatst little country of the world - right now. Middle class feminism for example has nothing to offer working class women. Nor is it interested. One hundred years of it and the servant class like yourself who work checkouts and change sheets in hotels are still paid shit money. Nothing changes, there'll always be class. There'll always be the educated middle class, benefitting from low wages paid to people like you. They are the loudest, the noisiest, responsible for everything that's crass in art and society; and they are permanent, because Capitalism created them, put words in their mouths, words like feminism.
    Nothing changes. Not really. All the talk, the chatter, "OH the poor aboriginies!" but then someone has to clean up, wash the dishes, and get paid fuck all for it.

  22. Everything is something to do with sex.

    And cafe ladies talk, chatter; and the night man cometh, to take away their shit.

  23. Anonymous; i think you're right, it all comes down to sex in the end.

    R.H. I stand corrected. But even in the middle and upper classes abuse against women happened. Corruption was and is everywhere, always will be.

  24. Corrected? Not at all. Never, not by me.

  25. Dear RH, I studied history in uni and have a BA in History, Politics and Sociology, and an MA in Women's Studies. I live in Ireland, and not only did men have their wives and sisters incarcerated to gain their inheritance and ensure their behaviour, but they also incarcerated young women who were pregnant out of wedlock, and made them work in laundries, or have you never heard of the Magdalene laundries either. Now if you wish to discuss this further, then come over to my page and I'll be glad to debate it with you and even offer proof, but until then, I suggest we just agree to disagree on Rivers Blog. Cheers.

  26. Dear Wicked, thanks.

    Women's Studies is something I've been doing most of my life, I consider myself good enough at it to be called a professor (or a pervert, suit yourself).

    I left school at fourteen, having obtained my Merit Certificate at Yarra Park primary. From there on it's been labouring work and crime.

    If it weren't for the internet I'd never have contact with people of your scholastic wonderment, and (if I may say) level in society. You bet. And indeed, thanks to blogging, I've even been booted up the arse by PhDs!

    University students get fed knowledge like battery hens and come out going quack quack quack.

    Well golly, they're all the same.

    What's missing is imagination.


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