My labour started at 8am but we waited eleven hours before going to the large Edwardian house that had been converted to a maternity hospital. Brian, my husband, dropped me off and I was taken to a room with four beds, three of which were already occupied. I was instructed to get undressed and into bed. Nobody in the room spoke and then I realised that the woman next to me was not sleeping but sobbing quietly. She pulled the covers over her head.
The woman opposite mouthed, ‘Her baby was stillborn.’
An hour later I was horrified and frightened by the sound of a woman screaming. I was angry as I felt she was making an unnecessary fuss and we’d been taught in ante-natal class that childbirth was uncomfortable but not painful for a healthy woman. A little later word got around that she had a retained placenta. I didn’t know what that meant but thought it didn’t sound good. My own pains were increasing in intensity and at nine I was moved again, this time to a smaller two-bed room.
I was beginning to dread the onset of every pain, but the other woman appeared cheerful and was managing her pain very well by gripping the iron bars of the bed and swearing loudly, words I’d never heard spoken before but which shocked and delighted me. She told me when the ambulance came to take her to hospital the whole street turned out to wave her off, and boys chased the vehicle down the road, shouting and laughing. ‘Eee,’ she said, ‘I was that embarrassed.’ Then she was whisked away and I was left alone. It was nearly midnight and I was deep breathing as I’d been taught but it didn’t help at all. Then I heard a hullabaloo in the hall and someone grumbling, ‘Who’s making that awful noise?’
A large drunk Irish woman staggered into my room with the Sister standing behind, holding onto the inebriated woman’s coat. The Irish woman told me to hush, then when a young nurse entered she told her to give me gas and air. The nurse informed me that the drunk Irish woman was the matron, and that she lived in the flat upstairs. She’d been celebrating the start of her holiday. The gas and air didn’t work so I asked for Pethidine. The nurse demanded, ‘Who told you about that?’ She gave me a look of disapproval and left the room. At 3am I was ready for delivery. As I was wheeled away, I heard Sister say to the nurse, ‘You connected her to the empty cylinder.’
Our 9lb, 3oz son was born with a flop and slither. I had a quick glimpse of him before I was taken back to the ward. I knew it was important to memorise his face in case he was swapped for another child. However, next morning when I held out my arms for my child for the first time, the baby I was expecting was carried past me and given to another mother. The same thing happened with the second baby and I wondered what kind of mother I was if I couldn’t even recognise my own child.
Ten days later when Brian collected me and our son, David, on the motorbike and sidecar, I realised I was soon to find out.
Wendy Fearnley moved to New Zealand in 1960 and lives in Christchurch.
Read her story about contracting Scarlet Fever in Manchester in 1941 here.