Introduction (excerpt from the midwife)
Nonato house was situated in the heart of London's Docklands. The practice covered Stepney, Limehouse, Millwall, Isle of Dogs, Cubitt Town, Poplar, Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel. The area was densely populated and most of the families had lived there for generations, often does not move more than a street or two away from his birthplace. Family life lived nearby and children were largely reared by a family extended aunts, grandparents, cousins and older brothers, all living within a few houses, or at most, the streets of the other. Children who enter and leave their respective homes all the time and when I lived and worked there, I can not remember a door is never locked except at night.
Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars on the streets again because nobody had a car, so it was perfectly safe to play there. There was heavy industrial traffic on major roads, especially those leading to and from the docks, but the streets were clear of traffic shortly.
The blast sites were adventure playgrounds. They were numerous, a grim reminder of war and the intense bombing of Docklands only ten years earlier. Large chunks had been cut from the terraces, each covering perhaps two or three streets. The area would be approximately dealt out, partly hidden in a desert of debris, with pieces of the construction of half standing, half down. Perhaps a notice stating DANGER – Keep out would be stuck somewhere, but this was like a red rag to a bull to any lively boy over the age of six or seven years, and every scene of the explosion had secret records on the tour is carefully removed, allowing a small body to pass through. Officially not allowed in, but everyone, including the police, seemed to overlook.
It is certainly a rough area. Knives were common. Street fights were common. Pub fights and fights were a daily occurrence. In the small, overcrowded houses, was expected to domestic violence. But I never heard of children or gratuitous violence towards the elderly, had a certain respect for the weak. This was the era of the Kray twins, gang warfare, revenge, organized crime and intense rivalry. Police were everywhere, and never came to pace himself. However, I have never heard of an elderly woman had been shot down and having their pensions stolen, or a child abducted and murdered.
The vast majority of men living in the area worked on the docks.
Employment was high, but wages were low and the hours were long. The men who occupy the skilled jobs had relatively high pay and regular hours, and his works were heavily guarded. His skills were usually kept in the family, from fathers to sons or nephews. But for casual workers, life must have been hell. Would not work when there were no boats to unload, and men are hung around the doors during all day, smoking and fighting. But when a ship had to unload, it would mean fourteen, eighteen hours of manual work relentlessly. It starts five in the morning and end around ten at night. No wonder he fell in pubs and drank themselves silly at the end of it. They began in the docks, at the age of fifteen, and was expected to work as hard as any man. All men had to be members of unions and unions strove ensure fair rates of pay and fair working time, but were devastated by the shops closed system, which seems to cause as many problems and labor unrest as the benefits accrued. But without unions, there is no doubt that the exploitation of workers would have been so bad in 1950 as it was in 1850.
Early marriage was the norm. There was a high sense of sexual morality, even bigotry, among respectable people of the East End. Partner, were virtually unknown, and no girl would never live with her boyfriend. If she tries, there would be hell to pay from his family. What happened at the bomb sites, or trash behind sheds, not spoken. If a girl becomes pregnant, the pressure on the young to marry her was so great that few resisted. Families were large, often very large, and divorce was rare. Rows of intense and violent families were common, but the husband and wife usually stick together.
Few women went to work. The girls were, of course, but as soon as a young woman was established that would have been frowned upon. Once the babies started coming, it was impossible to life without raising children, cleaning, washing, shopping and cooking would be his fate. I often wondered how these women managed, with a family of thirteen or fourteen children in a small house, containing only two or three bedrooms. Some families of that size lived in the homes, which often consisted of only two rooms and a kitchenette.
Contraception, if done at all, was unreliable. It leaves the woman, who had endless discussions about the periods of insurance, elm, gin and ginger, hot showers and all, but very few attended any birth control clinic, and from what I heard, most of the men, refused to take a pod.
Washing, drying and ironing took most of the workday for women. Washing machines are virtually unknown and clothes dryers had not been invented. The courtyards were always adorned with drying clothes, and midwives often had to pick our way through a forest of clothes flapping reach our patients. Once in the house or apartment, there would be no washing of duck and weave through in the hall, stairs, kitchen, lounge and bedroom. Laundries not introduced until the 1960s, so all that had to be washed by hand at home.
In the 1950s, the Most houses had cold running water and toilet in the courtyard of washout. Some even had a bathroom. The homes, however, did not, and the public wash houses were still in use. Sounds children were brought there once a week to take a bath given by mothers. The men, probably under the orders of women, completed the weekly washing it. You will see the bathhouse on a Saturday afternoon with a small towel, a piece of soap, and a dour expression, he spoke of a fight a week, once more employees and lost.
Most homes had a radio, but I did not see the TV set only during my time in the East End, which may well have contributed to the size of families. Bars, clubs for men, dancing, cinemas, music venues and dog races were the main forms of relaxation. For the young, surprisingly, the church was often the center of social life, and each church had a number of youth clubs and activities at every night of the week. The Church of All Saints in the East India Dock Road, a large Victorian church, there were many hundreds youth in youth club run by the Rector and no less than seven young energy treatments. It needed all his youth and energy to cope, night after night, with activities for five or six hundred young people.
The thousands of sailors of all nationalities, who entered the port does not seem to affect much in the lives of people who lived there. "We kept to ourselves," he said locals, which meant no contact. Daughters were carefully protected: there were plenty of brothels to meet the needs of seafarers. In my work I had to visit two or three of them, and I found very strange to be in places
Vi seek prostitutes in the main roads, but none at all in the small streets, even on the Isle of Dogs, which was the first landing of seafarers. The experienced professional will never waste time in an area so little encouraging, and if some enthusiast had been unwise enough to try, soon to been fired, probably with violence, outraged local residents, both men and women. The brothels were well known, and always busy. I dare say they were illegal, and occasionally attacked by the police, but did not appear to affect business. Their existence certainly keeps the streets clean.
Life has changed irrevocably in the last fifty years. My memories of the Docklands are unlike what is known today. Family and social life has completely broken down, and three things that occur together within a decade, ended centuries of tradition – the closure of the docks, the removal of slums, and the pill.
Removal of slum began in the 1950s while I was still working in the area. Undoubtedly, the houses were a little seedy, but they were people's houses and very dear. I remember many, many people, young and old, men and women, with a piece of paper from the Council informing them that their houses or flats would be demolished, and were to be rehoused. Most were crying. They knew no other world, and a movement of four miles seemed to go to the ends of the earth. The movements shattered the extended family, and children suffer as a result. The transition also literally killed many elderly who could not adapt. What is the point of a spanking new apartment with central heating and a bathroom, if you never see their grandchildren, they have no one to talk, and premises, which sell the best Beer of London, is now four miles away?
The pill was introduced in the 1960s and the modern woman was born. Women no longer going to be linked endless cycle of babies, who were to be themselves. With the pill came what we now call the sexual revolution. Women may, for the first time in history, be like men and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty-one hundred deliveries a month in our books. In 1963 the number had reduced to four or five months a. Now that is a social change!
The closure of the docks occurred gradually over about fifteen years, but by about 1980 merchant ships came and went no further. The men clung to their jobs, the unions sought to defend them, and there were numerous strikes by longshoremen during the 1970s, but the writing was on the wall. In fact, strikes, far from protecting jobs, only accelerated the closures. For men in the area, the docks are more than a job, even more than a lifestyle – that were, in fact, life itself – and for these men, the world collapsed. The ports, which for centuries had been the main arteries of England, were no longer needed. And therefore men were no longer needed. This was the end of the Docklands, as I knew.
The above is an extract the book The Midwife: A Memoir of birth, joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Valer. The above quotation is a digital reproduction print scanned text. Although this extract has been corrected, errors can occasionally occur because of the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book precision.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., a midwife
Copyright © Jennifer Worth, 2002
Jennifer Worth, author of the midwife: A Memoir of birth, joy, and Hard Times, was trained as a nurse and then moved to London to become a midwife. She lives with her husband in Hertfordshire. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.
About the Author
To learn more about The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times please visit http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780143116233,00.html?The_Midwife_Jennifer_Worth
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