The Midwife of St. Giles Cripplegate

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Sarah Fox an AHRC funded student in her third year of postgraduate study at the University of Manchester.

“The Tryal of a Midwife of St. Giles Cripplegate”: the fate of infertile midwives in eighteenth-century London

Many of you will have read Dr Jennifer Evans’ excellent blog post on the ‘Mistaken Midwife’ last month. Her post focused on a ballad of the same title dated 1674 in which a midwife pretended to be pregnant in order to both please her husband and preserve her business. As Jennifer discussed, experience was considered a vital part of midwifery training and, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries female midwives were expected to have children of their own. Under the circumstances, one would be forgiven for thinking that the midwife of the ballad was an allegorical figure except, that is, for an almost identical case heard at the Old Bailey on the 1st June 1677[1].

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey note:

“This Midwife whether to satisfie her Husband (as she now alleadges) who was very Impatient to have a child, or whether it were to preserve her credit in her imploy which she thought somwhat prejudiced by the imputation of barrenness, I cannot say, but so it was she resolved to pretend to have a Child, in order hereunto by wearing a small Pillow, &c.”

Lying-in scene showing bath and cradle Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Lying-in scene showing bath and cradle
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It was important to emphasise that the midwife was married. Single women were entirely excluded from the birthroom and, whilst married women could act as birth attendants if they were childless, those that were mothers were considered preferable.[2] Yet this woman was a professional midwife and, whilst the Court notes that continued infertility might have had an impact upon her business it did not appear to have prevented her from building a profitable practice. How did she gain her reputation – essential to attracting clients in a market dominated by word-of-mouth recommendation?[3] The most probable explanation is that she was trained by apprenticeship, either formally, or by her mother if she had practiced midwifery. It is also possible that she had trained informally by acting as a gossip on a regular basis (though in this case, it is unlikely).[4]

In order to facilitate her deception, the midwife:

“….perswaded many of her neighbours that she was great, and about a week before her pretended Labour enquired very earnestly of a poor Woman if she could not help her to a young Child as soon almost as born, either alive or dead, For says she there is a Lady whose husband will not live with her because she never had a Child, and he is now in the Country and if I could get a Child, I should do a good office in rendering love between them, and get something my self…”

The poor woman “refused not knowing how to assist her” so the midwife enlisted the help of her co-accused – “the two searchers of Whitechappel” – who procured the body of a newborn infant at a price of “20s being promised 9l. more”. The mother of the infant appeared in Court along with her midwife “who testified it to be still born, and that they coming to search it, and seeing her a very poor woman, told her they would save her the charge of a Burial, &c.”.

The price paid for the infant suggests that the midwife was of moderate status at the very least – something that was not unusual for London midwives at this time.[5] It also increases the likelihood that she had paid for some kind of formal training and was therefore licensed to practice by the ecclesiastical authorities.[6]

A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The number of people that were complicit in the plan is remarkable – five different women were involved in facilitating this deception none of whom were recorded as defending themselves against the charges. In fact, the court clerk noted that the midwife and two Searchers had “no suspicion of murder appearing, but only a strange extravagant humour”. This comment raises questions about the social acceptability of such a plan. Certainly, the burial of infant bodies was a financial burden on poor parents and this, along with the social and cultural importance of childbearing to early modern society may have made such a proposition attractive to all parties involved. [7] Perhaps the midwife was benefitting from the collective support of women from her community that understood the pressures upon her to produce a child? The ensuing birthroom scene shows that the opposite was true.

Pretending to fall into labour, the midwife cleared the birthroom of all but one assistant before pretending to deliver the infant herself. That assistant then insisted upon placing her hands in the Bed upon which she discovered the wrapped body of the infant in the early stages of decomposition. As a result of this discovery, the midwife was intimately examined by ‘several sober matrons’, in all probability women whom she knew as peers, colleagues and neighbours, and found to have never given birth. Her humiliation was reported in the local papers before being repeated in the popular Old Bailey publication.

Although acquitted of murder, the midwife’s punishment was enacted by her community through both her very public discovery and trial and, it is to be presumed, the loss of her profession. Despite having built a business in London – where women had much greater choice in their midwifery practitioner than elsewhere in the country – this midwife was willing to risk her reputation in order to prove her fertility showing how central it was to both her personal and professional identity.

Sarah Fox Headshot Perceptions of Pregnancy BlogSarah Fox is an AHRC funded student in her third year of postgraduate study at the University of Manchester with interdisciplinary research interests in social and cultural history and material culture. Her research, supervised by Professor Hannah Barker and Dr Sasha Handley, examines the experience of childbirth in the eighteenth-century North of England with a particular focus on non-medical practices and beliefs.

___________________________

[1] Old Bailey Online, reference t16770601-6, dated 1st June 1677, [www.oldbaileyonline.org, accessed 14:02, 19th August 2014].

[2] Laura Gowing, ‘Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England’. Past & Present, 156, (August 1997), pp.87-115; Linda Pollack, ‘Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England’, Social History, Vol.22, no.3, (October 1991), pp.204-234. Both of these articles look at inclusion and exclusion from the birthroom. Adrian Wilson has also written on the role of the ‘gossip’ in The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770, (London: UCL Press, 1995).

[3] Doreen Evenden. ‘Mothers and their Midwives in seventeenth-century London’, in Hilary Marland (ed.), The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe, (London: Routledge, 1993), pp.9-26.

[4] Her infertility along with her age makes it unlikely that she had trained informally as her perceived lack of experience would probably lead to older/ more experienced women being chosen to act as gossip above her. It would therefore be difficult for her to gain the experience necessary to practice as a midwife until much later in life.

[5] Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth Century London, (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), particularly Chapter Four on the Social and Economic Profile of London Midwives.

[6] Unfortunately, the lack of names in this case makes it frustratingly impossible to confirm.

[7] The Old Bailey records include several records of infant bodies being dug up by pigs or dogs having been laid to rest in a secluded spot in order to save on burial costs.

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4 thoughts on “The Midwife of St. Giles Cripplegate

  1. Pingback: The Mistaken Midwife | Early Modern Medicine

  2. Pingback: The Midwife of St. Giles Cripplegate | The History Fox

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