Midwives in Laindon ( 6 of 10)

Some thoughts on the manner in which attitudes can be altered by changing circumstances

Although, as suggested above, there must have been some in the Laindon area who had a prestigious address such as the nursing home and all that implied as a birthplace, for the great majority the place where one was born would be the address that was their mother’s dwelling, however humble, in fact, that might be in the “makeshift landscape” or “rural slum” that was the preWWII district. The small welfare clinic built and run by the Essex County Council in Florence Road, Langdon Hills always had plenty of prams and push chairs outside on “babies” day and the district nurses, welfare visitors of the district were kept busy in and around the un-made up roads of the district.

The Florence Road clinic became an important depot and centre of distribution for the various dietary supplements that the health authorities of the day deemed vital for the nation’s wellbeing. At the conclusion of the 1914-18 war, there was widespread concern at the extent to which poverty had reduced the resistance of so many to the various epidemics with which the general public had been afflicted during the times of straightened economic circumstances induced by the war. The situation was not much exuberated by the conclusion of hostilities, the depression that followed and the economic slump induced by the stock market crash of 1929. As a result, as a palliative measure, considerable effort throughout the period was put into attempts to improve general health, particularly that of the nation’s younger children. Local authorities, like Essex County Council, were encourage to create clinics such as that at Florence Road and the council’s schools undertook the regular distribution of milk and a concoction known as Cod Liver Oil and Malt. Similar facilities were also introduced at the clinic with, for babies, officially approved babies formulae milk powder as a supplement available to nursing mothers. The outbreak of WWII and the restrictions placed on the supply of food as a result of the assault on the convoys at sea by the “U-Boat” campaign led to the introduction of the free distribution of vitamin C supplements such as concentrated orange juice and rose-hip syrup.

Although many who did not experience it may remain sceptical of the fact, there is very little doubt that WWII was an incredibly important watershed for many in the way in which it changed social perceptions. For example, as much of this essay has attempted to show, despite facilities in the shape of maternity hospitals and nursing homes being available, the majority of births in the first half of 20th century were of the home variety, certainly of those taking place in the Laindon area. What this means for those whose birthplace was Laindon is that officialdom has ruled that their births shall have been registered at Billericay, itself a sub-district of the Brentwood area. For those who had the task of registering the birth of a new-born boy or girl, this meant a trip to Billericay, mainly by use of the interconnecting ‘bus service, in order to carry out this function at the Billericay Council Offices in the High Street. Further along the High Street and across the railway bridge on the approaches to Stock Road, on the right, stand the remains of what was once St Andrew’s Workhouse, Billericay, and an institution which serves well as an example of the extent of change of social attitude over time.

Built in 1840 as part of the application of the Poor Law, St Andrew’s, Billericay may become recognisable to many as a good example of the nationalisation of the charitable process in the UK. The prevalent thinking of the time, certainly in the minds of those who held authority in the community, was that the granting of welfare, particularly to the unemployed, should always be counterbalanced by an input of labour from the recipients hence the “Workhouse”. This nomenclature and its attendant attitude was to persist for something approaching some eight decades until the cataclysm of  WWI forced a change in that attitude and the workhouses became re-designated as Public Assistance Institutions, relief itself becoming “outdoor”. Since many such buildings, and St. Andrews, Billericay was no exception, had small integral infirmaries to deal with sick inmates, the addition of a casual ward for the benefit of the itinerant, meant that many such often took up the role of a district cottage hospital. Its social role thus changed, St Andrews was one of a number of such on the peripheries of London that, just prior to the outbreak of WWII, were considerably enlarged by the addition of a number of wards in anticipation of a vast increase in casualties from the Capital consequent on the advance in assaults from enemy aircraft.

Although the worst fears of the pre-war government were not realised, by the conclusion of hostilities St Andrews had taken on the role of a district hospital and its role as a PA Institution was dissipated chiefly because of the social changes wrought by the war made its function superfluous. In 1948 the hospital was absorbed into the National Health Service devised by Labour administration with its landslide victory secured at the general election of 1945.  Thus it was that St Andrews, with many of its original buildings much modified, became the initial district hospital for the new town of Basildon being established under the New Towns Act of 1946. The afore-mentioned adaptations included the creation of a Maternity Unit and a general reaction against home births meant that for many “new-towners” their birthplace was St Andrews Hospital, Billericay. Included among their number are two of the writer’s daughters, born in the 1950s. The attendant general decline in the acceptability of births at home meant a considerable reduction, in the wider community, of the previously familiar sight of travelling midwife. Similarly, the allocation to each and every member of society, young and old, of his or her own personal GP many of whom set up their baby and infant welfare systems, meant a rapid decline in the need for the Florence Road clinic and the building fell victim to the ever busy bulldozer. St. Andrew’s Hospital at Billericay remained the area’s hospital facility until the 1970s when as a new purpose-built building was created at Fobbing adjacent to Lee Wootens Lane and Dry Street. St Andrew’s was then “downgraded” (if that is the right word) to a specialist medical unit dealing with burns and plastic surgery, earning an international reputation for excellence in those fields in doing so, a reputation that persisted until the unit was allocated premises elsewhere.

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