Nell's Story: Childbirth, Babies and Families

Posted on 01 August 2012 | Narrative

In the first of two personal York Stories, Nell remembers starting her brood…

“I had five boys and a girl. The last one was a boy.

Everyone had all their babies at home then.

Everyone had big families too. I was one of six. My mother-in-law had seven girls and two boys… seven girls before she had a boy. My husband was the youngest of the two boys, and of all the children, he died first. It was said that his mum wanted a lad so much she took him first.

When I was having my babies, my mother told me not to make a noise during childbirth! She said: “You’ve had the sweet, now you have the bitter!” I think I did make a noise though! No gas and air in those days.

I had big babies. When you became pregnant, you got in touch with your midwife, who would come and see you on her bicycle maybe once a month – and when your time was due, she would come and stay with you through your confinement.

I had long labours with the lads… Lads are lazy, and don’t want to leave you. It was an easier confinement with the lass, and easier to bring up.

When we got married, we were two little virgins. We didn’t know anything. We weren’t going to have a family for three years, but after three years I had a pram with three in it! No one talked about the facts of life.

My mother said when you had a period you didn’t ride a bike, wash your hair and certainly didn’t go near any lads.

I took real pleasure in seeing all the nappies hanging out nice and clean. My mother said, “Never hand a mucky line out, lass!” You were judged by your washing! Scrubbing, boiling and rinsing washing – it took you all day.

It was the worst disgrace if you had a baby and weren’t married. Men got away with it.

When I was little there was a workhouse on Huntington Road. Some relative of ours, we called her Polly, my mum used to bring her each Saturday afternoon to our house, on one condition – that Polly never went near men or the bottle.

But one time, she gave my mum the slip, and got drunk – she was never allowed out again. She had a baby when she was 15, – they took the baby away from her, and she was in the workhouse for the rest of her life… I remember her scrubbing the floors.

When I was a little lass, there was a dispensary in Duncombe Place. It was a sort of clinic for poor people, you would go there to have a tooth out .

I would go and hand in either one penny or two pennies a week so that when my mother was going to be confined, there would be a nurse in attendance. Otherwise it would be your mother. Childbirth was considered a natural thing.”