In the 21st Century childbirth is safe and uncomplicated in the majority of cases, medical care is good so that early problems are mostly overcome .If the mother cannot breast-feed good substitute dried milk is available.

In the 18th Century parents could have no confidence that their children could be born safely and thrive.

About a quarter of all marriages were childless, half of these through infertility, the others due to the early death of the children. Many lower class women were several months pregnant when they were married. This was partly due to the need to be sure of fertility before the marriage was undertaken.

The risk of death in childbirth increases with the number of pregnancies especially after the fifth. This combines with the extra dangers faced by older mothers. In this time before the use of birth control many pregnancies were the norm. One woman Mrs. Hodgson of York died aged thirty eight in her twenty fourth labour. Even the highest in the land were not exempt. The Duchess of Chandos though marrying as late as the age of thirty had nine children in fourteen years and four miscarriages, seven of her children died in infancy. Many tried to space their confinements by delaying weaning the previous infant, by coitus interruptus, or by refusing their husband access to their bed. Condoms were on sale in London but were used as protection against venereal disease by men using whores as described by Boswell in his “London Life”. Childbirth itself was a dangerous process. Any complications could have a fatal outcome. Sepsis and puerperal fever took many lives.

Even very poor women had some sort of birth attendant. This was partly due to a statute of 1647 which forbade the concealment of a birth. English midwives evidently had a good reputation as Mrs. Stanley a midwife in Savannah, Georgia who had delivered 128 babies decided to be delivered herself in England in 1737 rather than trust herself to the other midwives of Georgia. Labours were difficult and there were few painkillers. An obstructed delivery could led to the death of both mother and child since Caesarean sections were not successfully performed until the nineteenth century.

The greatest man-midwife of the century was the Scot William Smellie (1697-1763), who came to London in 1739. His “Treatise on Midwifery” appeared in 1752 and gave a clear account of the mechanism of labour. He had attended 1150 cases himself. He laid down good rules for practice. He taught about 900 students. His most famous pupil was another Scot, William Hunter (1718-1783).who did much to improve midwifery.

Women of substance would go from the country to the town for the birth to benefit from these more skilled doctors. Theresa Parker of Saltram in Devon wrote;

“Mr. Parker begins to grow uneasy at my staying so long in the Country, but I am convinced I am safe if I am in Town by the 1st of October I am not desirous of going sooner than necessary, tho’ in reality I have no objection than that of leaving the little boy a week earlier.”

In fact the child was born before she could leave the country. Fever followed and a few weeks later she was dead. After the birth the mother unless in poor circumstances spent several weeks in bed. During this time she received visits from friends and neighbours. This period ended with Churching a service of thanks for the safe delivery of the infant.

Baptism took place within hours if the child was likely to die, otherwise usually days later.

If the Mother did not have milk, or was of high social status, a wet nurse was employed, that is another mother who had recently given birth and was feeding her own child. The wet nurse usually came from a lower social class and did not usually live in the child’s house, only the richest parents could afford to keep the wet nurse in their home; so most often the infant was sent from his parents’ home to live in the wet nurse’s home for weeks or months until weaning was possible. The musician Stevens mentions arrowroot, a pure nutritious starch, as a very early food for his son, this foreshadows the fine starchy foods which are still the first solid items to be offered to infants on weaning.

Wet nursing resulted in the child living in unhygienic conditions, and the possibility of being exposed to even more dangers to his health. Yet parents living in cities believed they were giving them a good start by sending them to live with a wet nurse in the country.

Dr. Peter Oliver’s entry that his wife suffered from sore nipples reminds us that some breast feeding problems have existed from time immemorial and the mothers of our century will empathise with women of earlier times as this problem still troubles them and little has been suggested to alleviate it. The use of a wet nurse was not confined to cases of necessity. In the higher social classes it was an accepted procedure. The quality of the wet nurse varied from excellent in a few cases to tolerable in most and a hazard to the child’s life in others. William Hickey became very fond of his, but both doctors Claver Morris and Peter Oliver had very bad experiences.

The period after the birth was referred to as the confinement until recently and it was literally so in earlier times. We see Mrs. Morris was kept in her bedroom and probably in bed for two weeks after her son’s birth. Another two weeks passed before she left the house to be churched. After this rite a woman would slowly resume normal life. Another 18th Century woman Mrs. Custance referred to in Nancy Woodford’s diary was in bed for months after one child birth due to complications.

Thomas Marchant’s diary illustrates the vast number of children who died soon after birth even the one who survived to become a student died then of smallpox.


Dr. Morris lived from 1659-1726/7.

In an age of very little medical training, of barbers as surgeons and quacks galore his qualifications were outstanding. He was an Oxford BA, MA, and MD. He was effectively a consultant to wealthy people who lived over a wide area within reach of Wells.

He made up the medicines he prescribed in his own laboratory.

His three marriages brought him wealth and land. He became a prominent citizen in Wells. In 1706 he was appointed a Commissioner for Land Tax, in 1709 he became a Commissioner for Sewers. He was also a District Commissioner for collecting the tax imposed on Catholics and a Burgess of Wells.

His hobby was music and he belonged to a musical society which met weekly to perform contemporary music. Every year they performed Purcell’s Cecilia music on that saint’s day. By his second marriage he had a daughter. In 1709 his third wife gave birth to a son to his great joy. This son, though he survived his father, was never strong and died in his 30th year. Morris records that in 1712 he had to dismiss a nurse, Hester Harding, to whom he gave £1-5s,;

“because put off for having the King’s Evil (i.e. scrofula) and infecting my little son with it whom she attended,”

This entry shows that though their nature was quite unknown, the Infectivity of the so-called scrofulous lesions was recognised.

The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson suffered the same bad start. This affected his health and appearance all his life. Morris’ diary records the event.

17 October 1709

“About 6 a clock my wife began to fall in labour.” 20 October 1709 “At 20 or 22 minutes after 6 in the morning exactly, my wife was very happily delivered of a son. I had many congratulations on that occasion: and in the evening Mr. Mills, Mr. Henry Gapper, & Mr. Henry Purchase were with me & we were merry but temperately so, & play’d >”Drink if you please.”

The baby was well enough to avoid immediate baptism in the house. Ten days later Morris wrote: 27 October 1709

“My son was at Evening Service Baptiz’d by the name William in the Cathedral at Wells.

Colonel Berkeley & Colonel Prowse, for Major Brag, with Bishop Hooper’s lady and my sister Farewell for my sister Leigh were suretys [Obsolete word for sponsor] I had a great company both of men and women at mine house (especially men) & some of them staid with me till 4 a clock next morning & seem’d very well pleas’d with their entertainment. Colonel Berkeley (my house being full ) lodg’d with me in my Bed.”

In the 18th Century it was not unusual for people of the same sex to share a bed. Difficulties of transport made overnight stays necessary and people of necessity tolerated sharing rooms and beds. William had a baptism appropriate to his father’s social status, one of the sponsor’s being the Bishop’s wife. Mrs. Morris followed the custom of spending two weeks after the birth in bed. This practice survived until the 20th Century among reasonably affluent people.

2 November 1709

“My Wife went out of ye Parlour Chamber & walked a little in the Hall-Chamber, being the 17th day after her Delivery.”

17 November 1709

“My Wife was Churched by Mr. Mills. She was carried in a Sedan & was clad in a Vail. No woman went with her but Mrs Rogers, the Midwife. Mr. Mills dined with us. My son Will went to Mrs. Poor to Nurse.” [one month old]

29 November 1709

“I visited Mrs. Poor & my Son.” Churching is the ceremony of going to church to give thanks, most notably after a safe childbirth.

5 December 1709

“My Son was very ill of the gripes. [Intermittent spasmodic pain of the bowel ] I went to him & order’d a Clyster [A medicine injected into the rectum] & some medicines for the Wind & he was much better.” Years later Dr. Morris refers to the weaning of his grandson.

26 July 1725 >

“I lent my Calesh & Servant to carry Mr Burland, my Daughter, & Molley to Mr Newman’s at Cadbury, to stay some time while Jacky is weaning.” .

Thomas Marchant’s bald recording of the facts of his childrens’ illnesses and deaths seems to indicate a lack of feeling. This was not the case. Religious teaching affected people very strongly and taught them to submit to the will of God, however hard. Diaries often expressed the need to accept the will of God which was seen to control these events. So it was customary not to express openly the grief and torment which most parents felt internally. By such fortitude one was working towards one’s own salvation. A similar acceptance of fate was expressed by Dr. Oliver when writing of the birth of his first child.

Thomas Marchant

A Sussex yeoman farmer 5 September 1715

“Paid William Nicholas 1s.6d. for raising the graves of my four deceased children Ann b.1706, d.1706 Mary b.1707, d.1707 Thomas b. 1703 ,d.1707 James b.1710, d.1711

10 September 1715

“My wedding day. We have been married 15 years today”

24 September1715

“My wife brought to bed of a girl. May went to Cuckfield Mill with Mrs. Howard. I gave her 5s. and my wife gave her a guinea.”

May would have been out to fetch the midwife.

4 October1715

“My daughter Ann christened. Mr Hart was godfather, Mrs. White and my sister Nanny godmothers. Mr. Sixsmith christened her here, at home, on account of the bad weather.”

26 February 1728

“Marrian set out for Oxford to bring J.Marchant home, on account of the smallpox , which is much there.”

29 February 1728

“Marrion returned from Oxford without John, who had caught, and was laid up with smallpox.”

1 April 1728

“A letter from Mr. Ratcliff, of Oxford, to inform us that John has come out with and is very full of the smallpox and that it is a very bad sort.”

8 April 1728

“Thos. Elvey and Marrian returned from Oxford, and brought us the sad news that John Marchant died on friday night last, about 11 o’clock.”

John had been intending to take Holy Orders. Thomas Marchant presented the living of Rusper to Mr Marten

“which he is to resign, should either of my sons take Orders, and I took a bond of him to this effect.”

This was on 7 December 1721.

#Dr. Thomas Wilson

A typical Whig clergyman of his time, he was the son of the saintly bishop of Sodor and Man. His early life was taken up with seeking preferment and he eventually became rector of St. Stephens, Walbrook. He married his widowed cousin, a marriage which appears to have been happy except for the death at one year of their only child. During the 18th century midwives were slowly beginning to be superseded by men. The Reverend Dr. Thomas Wilson gives an early and rare example of both being present at a birth and the competition between them.

Tuesday 18 March 1734-5

“This morning about 6 my dear wife began to be in labour. I went immediately for Dr. Bamber to be present at the labour and he came at 8. At 14 minutes after eleven she was delivered by Mrs. Gates of Gower Street of a fine boy, with very little pain. God be praised for his mercies. The Dr. was afraid some of the skirts of the after burthen was left behind by the midwife’s being so very quick, and pulling it with the child away at the same time, which is very wrong practice.

“In the afternoon I wrote to Mr.Thoresby to give me leave to baptise my child privately, afraid of any mischance, intending, God willing, to present him publickly in the Church. Baptised him by the name of Thomas.

Wednesday 19th

“My wife much better and the child in a fair way to do well.”

Thursday 20th

“Dr. Bamber came here and found all very well.”

Friday 21st

“I measured my boy and he was 27 inches long. My dear wife tried to suckle her little one but her nipples were so sore and so small that the child could not get hold of them and so I hope it will be pardoned for I know that it is every woman’s duty to nurse her own child.”

Monday 24th

“My dear wife taken with a disorder like the Stranguary” (a disease of the urinary organs, slow and painful emissions of urine.) “I am afraid she got cold by having her room washed this morning.”

Tuesday 25th

“My Molly made water freer but had a great forcing afterwards. I am afraid her midwife did her some injury. She drunk Emulsion.”

Wednesday 26th

“Still the same disorder, weak, restless, no stomack, drinks Emulsion. I cut my finger to the bone.”

Thursday 27th

“The same disorder, tho’ a little better.”

Friday 28th

“I would have sent for Dr. Bamber, but she did not care for it.”

After a great forcing of water on Saturday he sent on Sunday for Dr. Bamber. He ordered her

“A stoupe of warm spices and white wine twice a day and spermatic tea draught every six hours.”

On the following Tuesday she was still feverish and he ordered 25 Gr. Of Gascoin’s powder and 25 Gr. of Crabbs Eyes every 6 hours. By 7th April she was improving. Dr Bamber came and ordered the Spermacetea draught and the Gascoin’s powder every 8 hours. But Dr. Wilson’s cut finger was very much inflamed. By Friday 20th April all was much better.

“My dear boy was received in Newington church by Mr. Thoresby. Father Patten (his Wife’s father) stood himself. Mr. Hayward for my father and Aunt Jackson for Cousin Thomas Patten’s wife.”

The priest Mr. Thoresby was the son of the diarist Ralph Thoresby.

Mrs. Pendarves

(later Mrs. Delany) Lived from 1700-1788 She was the niece of Lord Lansdowne. In 1718 her family forced her to marry an old man Alexander Pendarves. She was seventeen. Her husband died in 1724 leaving her with nothing but her jointure. She repelled suitors including Lord Baltimore.

From 1731-1733 she visited Ireland with her friend Mrs. Donnellan. She met Dr. Delany and Dean Swift with whom she occasionally corresponded after returning to England. In 1743 Delany came to England expressly to ask her to be his wife. Her noble friends and her brother were indignant at this misalliance, but she resolved this time to have her way and was married on June 9. 1743. They lived happily until Delany’s death in 1768.

She was introduced to the royal family, and George III called her his “dearest Mrs. Delany.” She became well known for her flower work,and for paper mosaic cut out of bits of coloured paper. It was praised by Darwin in his >”Love of the Plants”. Between 1774 when she began it and 1784, when her eyesight had failed she had finished nearly one thousand specimens some can be seen in the British Museum today..

We get some idea of the preparations for a new baby from the letters of Mrs. Pendarves. No easy visit to Mothercare for ready made garments. Long nightdresses reaching well below the infants feet were cut out and sewn at home and the same long dresses were used in the day by both boys and girls. Such long nightdresses were still in use in the 1950s for the first 6 months. The change came when new materials with greater elasticity led to the all in one baby garment the “babygrow”. This was followed by babies being dressed in cut down versions of current adult clothes and fashionable materials like denim which would have been considered too rough for a baby’s tender skin by our ancestors.

To her sister Mrs. Dewes April 23. 1741

“I will get myself perfectly informed of the new dress for the bantling, that I may instruct you when I come to Gloucester. I have sent you four yards of course long lawn, and two yards of finer for the little nightcaps, etc.; I suppose you will line the cradle with dimity or white calico, quilted…as for pins, I think you must pay the compliment to Gloucester of buying pins there.”

November 12. 1742 to her sister

“I am as much perplexed for you as you can be for yourself in regard to my godson, but I think you can be reconciled to the nurse’s house, that the story you have heard can be no great objection, but will for the future make her more careful, as she seems a good sort of woman. A deaf nurse is not to be endured; the poor little dear may make his little moans, and have a thousand uneasinesses that she will hear nothing of.”

February 28. 1745-6 Delville to her sister

“Mrs. Viney tells me you are better than you have ever been yet, and that my niece eats paps purely. It will save some trouble if you can bring her up by hand, and since she is naturally so stout I believe it may perhaps be done.”

March 8. 1745-6 Delville

“I am very glad my niece Mary takes so well to her food; I don’t see why it should not rear her up as it did me.”

The system of wet nursing could produce excellent results both in the health of the child and in providing happy early years as seen in William Hickey: Memoirs of a Georgian Rake.

#William Hickey


William Hickey, a man who loved good company and pleasure, sowed his wild oats in London. He spent 27 years in India, as an attorney at the Supreme Court in Calcutta. He claimed that the object of the Court was to counteract the prevalent notion that Europeans could with impunity harass the natives. He worked hard and like others there at that time was very well rewarded. He kept 60 servants including an Italian hairdresser. He was fortunate in escaping the many fevers which overcame most Europeans and returning to retire in Beaconsfield in 1807 where he wrote the story of his many adventures.

“I made my appearance …on the 30th of June 1749. I was soon pronounced a most lovely child. My mother had suckled the first three infants herself, but, this being deemed prejudicial to her health, she was forbid continuing it, and I was therefore sent to be nursed at Hampstead, at a clean and neat cottage, the property of a respectable old woman named Page, from the breast of whose daughter, Ann Page (for she had married a person of her own name), I drew my nourishment. Ann Page was an uncommonly beautiful creature, who also adored me….At Hampstead I remained until nearly four years old, when my first breeches were put on, and I was then taken away from my dearly loved, ‘sweet Ann Page’, the separation from whom wrung my little heart with the first sorrow it ever felt, nor did I ever forget her extreme affection for me”.

A different aspect of childbirth is dealt with by James Lackington. In the 18th Century paternity was assumed on the allegation of the pregnant woman. Some innocent men must have suffered but in this case events saved Lackington.

#James Lackington

James Lackington was a man from the humblest of backgrounds who taught himself to read after his conversion to Methodism. He rose so far as to become one of the most well known and biggest London bookseller. Instead of destroying books which did not sell well he sold them cheaply thus starting the modern way of selling remainders. Lackington, then a journeyman shoemaker, left his mistress at Taunton after a quarrel and made his way by stages to Bristol. Later:

“The Taunton carrier gave me a letter from my good (former) mistress Bowden. The contents of this letter very much surprised me. It informed me that a day or two before I fell out with my last mistress…Betty Tucker, a common lass, had sworn a child to me; that the parish officers had been at my Mother’s shop within an hour after I had left to go to Wellington, and they had been at Wellington just as I had left that place, and afterwards hearing that I was in Bridgewater, they had pursued me thither. But the morning they arrived I had set off for Exbridge; and believing that I had intentionally fled before them, they had given over this chase for the present…I was weak enough to imagine that a kind of miracle had been wrought to save me from a prison, or to save me from living with a woman I could not bear the idea of living with a single week..I had not any knowledge of her being with child (not having seen her for three months before). This girl was delivered about two months afterwards of a still-born child, so that I was never troubled for expenses.”

Elizabeth Drake’s advice that Mrs. Wrightson should feed her baby herself indicates that towards the end of the 18th Century ideas about the use of wet nurses were changing in good Society.

Towards the end of the century people in higher social circles were evidently accepting the idea that breast feeding by the mother was much better for the child than wet nursing. Mrs. Drake to Miss Heber Mary Heber of Weston 1758-1809 Not a diarist nor a letter writer but a recipient of many letters which throw light on her time. They were published as >”Dear Miss Heber” edited by Francis Bamford in 1936. The letters were found in a trunk in Weston, Northamptonshire by Sir Sacheverell Sitwell. Mary Heber’s portrait, a miniature by Richard Cosway shows her as delicate and beautiful. Among her correspondents was Lady Banks, wife of Sir Joseph, the naturalist and botanist.

Elizabeth Drake

Elizabeth Drake was wife of Francis William Drake, Vice Admiral of the Red, 2nd son of Sir Francis Henry Drake, 4th Bt. A descendant of the Elizabethan Sir Francis Drake.

Tuesday 20 May 1788

“I much wish to see your little Niece, but hope that you will not admit anyone for a fortnight at least to visit your Sister, [Harriot Wrightson] as her future health depends greatly on her being kept quiet. I hope she means to nurse the dear little Girl herself, for I am sure it will be a great pleasure to her, and of advantage both to her health and the child.”

Mrs. Wrightson to Mary Heber Swalcliffe. 8 March 1789

“The child has now pretty quiet nights, but that nasty humour still continues & has lately disguised her amazing by breaking out in scabs on her face. She yesterday became possess’d of a 7th Tooth, which like the former she cut with ease. She is remarkably quick in understanding everything that is said to her.”

Mrs. Drake to Miss Heber Decr. 1789 “…I feel inconceivable pleasure at your sister being so well and able to perform what I think the duty of every Mother to her little Boy, who will, I dare say, thrive much better than if he had a wet nurse.”

Mrs. Drake to Miss Heber Hillingdon Heath. 17 Febry. 1793

“…Mr. Fane and Lady Elizabeth [her sister] came; their four daughters with them. Augusta is the name of the youngest: she has had three Wet Nurses and none gave satisfaction, so the old Lying in nurse came here with her, and she is fed with pap made of Asses’ milk and it seems to agree with her for she looks extremely healthy and well.”

#Dr.Peter Oliver

Dr. Oliver was born in 1741 and raised in Boston, New England. He was a Loyalist and left his home for England in 1776 when the danger from rioters became unbearable for supporters of George 111 He attended lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons by John Hunter. Though very well qualified he does not mention practising in England . He settled in Birmingham and devoted himself to bringing up his three children after the death of his wife. His wife and two of his children died of tuberculosis.

“On the 7th Day of Jany. 1771 early in the morning Mrs. Oliver was delivered of a fine Girl. She was put to bed as well as any Woman whatever & had a fine getting up, but little milk & the Child throve but poorly, however at 5 months old it was weaned, it then grew very fast was a great favourite with everybody whereupon I thought myself exceeding happy but immediately gave it up to the Care of Heaven as it was only lent me.” [Margaret Hutchinson Oliver, first child and only daughter known as Peggy. The last sentence seems to suggest she died in infancy, but must have been a pious sentiment as Peggy lived to be a young woman, but only just.] “In July the 15th 1772 Mrs. Oliver was brought to bed of a son [Thomas H. Oliver] a good Travail, but the child weak and feable. She made out to suckle it & did well only she was severely troubled with sore nipples.”

23 Sept. 1774

“Mrs. Oliver was brought to bed of another son a fine hearty boy.” This was Peter. These children were born in Middleborough, Mass. Their parents had been born in Boston. The family fled to England in 1776.The chapter on parents and children tells more of their childhood.”

April 19th 1775

“The fatal Battle of Lexington which blocked us up in Boston.”

June 17th

“Following: the fatal battle of Bunker’s Hill We remained blocked up in Boston till the beginning of March 1776 when we were ordered to embark. Governor Hutchinson’s Family [Oliver’s wife was Sally Hutchinson] went aboard the Hyde pacquet for England.

March 25 1776

“We set sail for England after a tedious passage of 35 days we arrived at Falmouth the last day of April following. The day before we set sail from Nantucket Tommy’s Wife was delivered of a boy which had not a drop of milk during the whole passage was much emaciated & no one thought it would have lived- the Lady well. As to myself I was sick 21 days without any support reduced almost to a skeleton- 7 children on board ship & the oldest not 6 years old.”

They landed in Falmouth and on 6 May 15 of them set out in Post Chaises and came to London.”

12 May

“to St. James St at the Govrns.”

23 Dec. 1778

“Mrs. Oliver was delivered of a fine boy christened Daniel & the same complaint of the breast [sore nipples] from suckling.”

April 1 1779

“I inoculated the child at 4 months old but what with the Death & the anxiety of its Mother he was so loaded with it that it killed him-26 days from inoculation.”

Dr. Oliver’s agony and grief at the loss of his wife and subsequently his children is intimated by his manner of writing the date, the month and days of the life. They are noted as if he is meditating on each day the life lasted as precious and pointing the gulf between those days and a barren future. He seems not to have remarried .At that time it would have been highly unusual for a widower with 4 children, one an infant, not to have remarried rather quickly. He lived as what today is called a single parent, mainly in lodgings which he changed frequently. This sounds uncomfortable, but house ownership was rare at that time when most people would rent houses,

18 May 1780

“Mrs. Oliver delivered of a son- put to bed well but in 3 days she faltered. Mrs. Oliver grew worse faster every day ’till she died which was the 28th of June past 3 o’clock in the morning. That day I compleated my 39th Year. She was 36 Years & 7 months old. She died perfectly resigned to the Will of Heaven, but in great agony of body.”

July 3

“She was buried in Croydon Church next to her Father.”

July 21

“I set off with a wet Nurse and my 4 children for Oxford.”

July 22

“From Oxford to Birmingham.” [where his father now lived.]


“I put my two oldest boys to School at Winson Green under the care of Mr. Pickering.”

July 27

“I put my daughter to school at Moseley in Worcester.[now South Birmingham] under the care of Mrs. Henrison. & the Nurse & Baby in New Hall Street. Thus I had disposed of my Children in the best manner I possibly could. It appeared at first hard to part with them but I have got reconciled at last to it-but the pleasing reflection I had of seeing them often was soon turned to sorrow for my dear little Infant who was very near my heart particularly was drooping in a few weeks after I had got lodgings for it and finally was seized with convulsions the 20th August, lay in that state till the morning of 27th, 3 o’clock and then died in the greatest agony. I had it opened by Tomlinson Its Lungs, Heart, Diaphragm, Stomach & Intestines & all its Viscera were in the soundest state–whatever produced the fits was something on the Brain which could not have been perceived if we had opened its head. I moved the 29th August to High Street opposite New Street at Mrs. Ballard’s one bedroom only at 3/6d. per week for the Hotel.” [bed without board]

August 30th

“I buried my little baby the Northside of St.Philip’s Church [now Cathedral] near the Vaults 6 feet deep. Mr. James read Prayers.”

August 31. “I paid off and dismissed Nurse Dove hoping never to see her again.”

[The deep burial of the infant is an indication of the care of his father. The note on the dismissal of the nurse suggests that at the least Dr. Oliver thought her care of the child inadequate.]

R.J.S. Stevens

Organist and song writer Stevens was trained as a choir boy, became a glee club singer, and a private teacher. His fortune improved after Lord Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor, engaged him to teach his daughter Caroline. His love story deserves a place among the more extraordinary stories of devotion. More details are in the chapter on music.

Just over thirty years after Peter Oliver’s last baby was born an only son and first born child was born to a 43 year old mother. On August 7th 1811 Anna-Maria Stevens gave birth to a son after a labour of only 4 hours. Considering her age and that it was her first pregnancy all went well and quickly. Stevens got the apothecary, Mr. Spry to his wife in time to assist her, then spent the rest of the night walking about in search of a doctor, arriving back with Dr. Sims half an hour too late.

“When I saw my dearest Woman, I was happy to find her much better than I expected. My son looked very small, but cried stoutly, which I thought a sign of strength. My Footman, John Farndell, was exceedingly active in going to our nurse Mrs. Howard: by his exertion she was at the Charterhouse time enough to dress the child. Mrs. Gunn who slept at Charterhouse was likewise very attentive to Anna while I was absent before Mrs. Howard’s arrival.”

Thursday August the 8th

“It was discovered that the child had not strength sufficient to draw his Mother’s Milk. We then applied to Mrs. Greenwood, who was suckling her infant, and she came occasionally to my Son; all of us thinking that her milk would flow much easier than my dearest Anna’s milk.”

Monday August the 12th

“My dearest Anna -Maria, and my Son were gaining strength every day: this continued to the 15th of August. On Friday the 16th of August, we did not think the Child quite so well, and I applied to the Reverend Arthur Trollope of Christ’s Hospital, and Curate of St. Botolph, Aldersgate, to half baptize my son. This he did in the morning by the names Richard George.” Saturday August the 17th “We were advised by Mr. Croft (I believe very foolishly) to have a wet nurse for my Son. We engaged one, Sarah Cole her name. Notwithstanding this engagement, Mrs. Greenwood came to the Child occasionally, and her son John Greenwood used to draw Anna’s breast, having more strength than my Son Richard.. ”

Sunday August the 18th, “I thought my dearest Anna-Maria and my Son Richard were in better health. They both gained strength daily! and on Tuesday August the 20th, Mr. Croft said, “my little boy was now perfectly safe”. We parted with Sarah Cole our wet nurse, this day, as it was thought her milk did not agree with Richard.”

Friday the 23rd of August

“Mr. Croft recommended Anna to have another Wet Nurse to my little boy, as Anna’s milk was still so backward. He mentioned an Irish woman to her, and she agreed to come to us immediately; at the same time this woman came to the Charterhouse, and Anna saw her she gave her a Dollar. the woman was so base, as never to come to us afterward!”

Sunday the 25th August

“We had a third wet nurse to my Son. Anna’s milk was notwithstanding every effort, so backward. Her name I have forgotten. She would not let my Son have more than the produce of one of her breasts; she brought her child with her. not withstanding this, the child got forward with a little of her milk, and a good supply of arrowroot.”

Thursday the 29th of August

“Anna and myself, were determined that our son Richard,should endeavour to suck his mother. The child was a little griped at the first operation, but according to Mr. Spry’s strong advice, by perseverance, and the greatest attention on the part of my dearest woman, the child did succeed in getting his nourishment from his Mother’s breasts.”

The 31st of August, Saturday

“My dearest Anna came down into the dining room for the first time since her confinement. My son was improving every day in health, in consequence of having his Mother’s milk. This day we discharged the 3rd Wet Nurse as she was of no use to us. She was a very fine lady.”

This account illustrates very clearly the difficulties of feeding babies when there was no alternative to breast milk either from the mother or some other lactating mother who was willing to feed both her own and some other child. A slightly unusual aspect of this case is that the two women Anna & Mrs Greenwood at times exchanged babies to enable the weaker child to suckle from the woman whose milk flowed more easily. Today with the epidemic of AIDS hospitals do not allow stronger mothers to help in this way. The Stevens were clearly desperate in trying every possibility both breast-feeding and wet nursing and in engaging one wet nurse after another. Two weeks later Anna Maria became ill with violent night perspiration. The child also began to droop. Stevens consulted Dr. Babington who recommended leaving London immediately. They went to Mr. Jeffery’s house in Peckham, at that time a village in the country. During the next fortnight Stevens feared he would lose both of them, but on

Sunday the 22nd of September

“Our dear little treasure was thought to be better! a very great comfort to his anxious father and mother, and all Mr. Jeffery’s family.” Happily this much loved child survived to manhood. The birth saga ended with the Churching of Anna in the parlour of their house at Charterhouse on October the 8th. This private ceremony seems odd as the purpose of Churching was to give public thanks and marked the woman’s return to the community after childbirth. Richard was weaned on August 11th, four days after his first birthday.

The last extract is an amusing account of a consequence of breast feeding which was a little embarrassing to the gentleman, a clergyman in the early 19th century. The writer Eliza was wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, later Viscount Hampden.

Eliza Brand to her husband Henry Brand

August 25th 1844. Glynde

“Dearest Henry I went yesterday to see the small St. Croix, a very nice baby but there is some difficulty about the nursing. Mrs St. Croix told me in a plaintive voice that she had sat up in bed four hours in the early morning trying to make the baby eat as it should in vain. At last she was obliged to send for William to pump out some milk for it. I looked naturally a little surprised. Oh! she said I have a little air pump to do it with, but cannot manage it myself. I laughed internally, fancy the dear William pumping. I must say it strikes me as rather a queer occupation for a gentleman.” [Mr. St, Croix had recently become vicar at Glynde.]

Note Breast pumps were used to relieve breast engorgement. Some mid-Victorian examples consisted of decorative brass pumps, with a shaped milk reservoir stored in a polished velvet lined mahogany case. Women who fed babies well after the eruption of teeth needed the protection of nipple shields which were made in sterling silver, glass, pewter and rarely boxwood.

The use of wet nurses virtually ceased in the19th Century after the invention of formulas to replace breast milk. The first was invented in 1869 by Justus von Liebig and was mixed with cows milk. Henri Nestle later created a formula which was mixed with cows milk. Formulas have continued to improve but today the mother28s breast milk is considered to be the best option for a baby. Medicine too has made great progress so that in the West today it is unusual for a baby not to survive infancy.

3 responses to “Childbirth”

  1. Holy crap! Punctuation much? This was like reading with glass in my eyes.

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