Midwives in Laindon ( 2 of 10)
Some thoughts on the manner in which attitudes can be altered by changing circumstances
This indefensible attitude upon the part of society generally, an attitude that in the Victorian era had been carried to absurd extremes such as the covering up of some furniture fittings in case their similarity to the legs of females might inflame male passions, was, in the 1930s and into the period of WWII, only just being broken down. Even in the setting of the 1950s and the background of TV’s “Call the Midwife”, the ignorance of many concerning childbirth was only just being dissipated. Thus, the early years of Maude Burling’s widowhood were marked by anonymity as far as what her true profession was concerned with. For it was her “profession” that was the problem, given the general taboo that prevailed and the conspiracy that ensured that what she “did” should only be talked about in whispers or from behind the hand. The brief mention she received in her deceased husband’s obituary concealed the fact that far from being only engaged in the work of being the treasurer of the women’s section of the British Legion, she was a lot more.
Here I, the writer, must make a confession; the many years that separate us now from the events I am here trying to describe, means that much I recollect is rather now rather hazy and, in any case shrouded not only by the obsessive secrecy that I have already described but doubly so by the fact that when Maude Burling first came into my understanding I was of immature years. Firstly, there was the juvenile misunderstanding over names. In the 1930s, children did NOT address their elders, especially unrelated elders by their first names. Close relatives like aunts and uncles had first names which would have to be prefaced, out of respect, by “Aunt”, Uncle” or “Auntie” while people like Maude Burling, who were un-related, being neighbours or general acquaintances were known only by their surnames suitably prefaced by a “Mr” or “Mrs”. Thus there was, for many years, confusion in my early years concerning the lady of whom I write here. For a start, always spoken of as “Mrs. Burling” (only years later did I establish the Maude bit) because of the amount of talk about the uncertain matters in the international field, an impending war with Germany, led to the confusion that her surname was spelled “Berlin”, like the capital city of that country!
This initial misunderstanding on my part became even more confused when, after the passing of some of the events now being described and Maude’s remarriage, she became known as “Mrs Burgess”. However, before this further complication happened, some readers of this article might actually begin to query how it is that so much or, (in retrospect) so little is known about Maude Burling. The straightforward answer is to be found in an understanding of the nature of the 1930s Laindon area and what made it so distinctive as an expanding urban area.
By 1945 the descriptions most frequently applied in political circles about the expanded townships in the parishes of Dunton, Langdon Hills, Laindon, Lee Chapel and the southern part of Little Burstead (collectively thought of as Laindon) was either that the district was a “makeshift landscape” or it was a “rural slum”. Having started to expand slowly upon a widespread strictly rural and agricultural district at the end the 19th century with the construction of the LT&S railway between Upminster and Pitsea Junction, the population of the district received a boost following the end of the First World War. From its very beginnings, the incoming population had largely tended to be derived from those parts of the London Metropolitan area now known as Hackney, New Ham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest. Here it might be recalled that Jennifer Worth’s story about midwives was centred on Poplar which is a part of Tower Hamlets. There was, inevitably, a close affinity with many of the people of Laindon and those of Worth’s story although her story relates more to the decade that followed WWII.
This affinity largely has its roots in the east end of London. Traditionally, the area to the east of London, because of its proximity to the easily navigable Thames Estuary and the equally navigable reaches of the river Lee, had attracted the greater mass of the industry that the expanding capital city needed. Hand in hand with that industry grew a greater concentration of a populace beset with an inevitable increase in poverty, poverty that was to encourage and foster a unifying effect, a single-minded sense of purpose, a camaraderie, even a common sense of “togetherness” which translated into what came to be regarded and recognised specifically as the “East-End Spirit”. Inevitably since Laindon’s expanding population sprang from those same roots, there was a similar expansion of that same spirit into the new district.
Some evidence of this transference of the “East End Spirit” can be found in the every-day need of the Laindon community for water. As the new community began to expand so the need to find a water supply became problematic. Every new well that was sunk in an area notable for its low rainfall meant a diminution of the water-table to satisfy that need. Inevitably, as the problem became more acute, pressure grew for a commercial answer to be found. The Laindon’s own solution in that direction having failed to take off due to lack of investment meant that commercial interests in the shape of the Southend Water Works Company moved in. Their solution was, rather than affecting a connection to every dwelling in the district, many of which, either through concerns of the initial cost or the consideration that the amount of use to which the facility would be put in the light of the infrequent occupation of the building, to install standpipes at convenient locations in the area. This led to a virtual war of attrition between the Water Company and the population of the district; the widespread belief being held that as water was a very basic of life, it should be freely available to all. In their determination to protect their interests the Water Company’s standpipes were contained within brick built lockers protected by stout wooden locker doors with Yale locks, the keys being available only to those who paid, with additional penalties for those who attempted to evade the rules of possession. Needless to say, a deliberate and widespread disregard took place with lockers deliberately left open, keys copied and all and every kind of device adopted that thwarted the Water Company and its servants to protect its interests.
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