Christine Edwards, Baby Nurse

The Mothers' Hospital
Interviewed by Toby Butler

Christine Edwards (nee Newton) was born in Yeovil, Somerset, in 1944. Her father was an African American GI who was based in Somerset during World War Two, and who she never knew. Her mother suffered from a mental illness, and was unable to look after Christine and her sister; at the age of six, Christine was put in a children's home.

Christine describes what it was like being the "only black child" in Yeovil. She was often bullied, and repeatedly ran away from home. Despite all the difficulties, she continued to see her mother whenever she could, mainly in the holidays. Christine's maternal grandmother was a Salvationist and Christine was brought up within the Salvation Army.

Below you can listen to extracts from Christine's interview.

Image accompanying MP3 audio clip: Growing up ( KB)

Growing up

Growing up in a children's home in Taunton, Christine believes she was very fortunate to have been a member of the Salvation Army. She worked hard at school, having been told that if she passed her eleven plus she would be able to go home, but despite doing well in her exams, this never happened. Instead she went to a grammar school in Taunton. She found out later that most of her schoolmates were from single-parent families and broken homes.

My mother

Christine's mother had psychiatric problems, and was in and out of hospital for much of her life. Christine remembers how difficult it was for her to bring up two daughters on her own with very little money.

My father

Her father was an African American GI stationed near Yeovil, but Christine knew nothing about him other than his name - and even that was uncertain. American soldiers who got local women pregnant were usually sent straight back to the United States, or else to military prison. By the time she managed to trace him, ten years ago, it was too late.

Becoming a nurse

Christine's grandmother was a Salvationist - and had the bonnet to prove it - and as a child Christine attended Salvation Army Sunday school for a time. But it wasn't her decision to go to the Mothers' Hospital to train as a nurse: the first she knew of it was when her she was summoned to the headteacher's office at school and told she would not be coming back after the holidays. Deprived of any choice in the matter, Christine's dreams of going to university, and of "living a normal life" at home in Taunton were shattered and, from that time on, she decided that the only person she could truly rely on was herself.

Arriving in Hackney

The journey from Somerset to Hackney, by train and bus, was a long one, and Christine and her mother - neither of whom had ever been to London before - were filled with trepidation. But it didn't take long for her fear to turn to jubilation - "it was absolutely mindblowing, it was brilliant" - as Christine realised this was a place where she might finally fit in. "Looking out and seeing so many black people... I realised here was somewhere where I was not going to be different... I loved it," she recalls.

Probationer at the Mothers'

Christine describes life as one of the newest batch of probationary nurses. After learning how to fold their starched nurses' caps, they were put in charge of the newborn babies, with responsibility for bathing and feeding them. Training was minimal, and they learnt on the job. When an antenatal clinic opened at the Mothers', they were also employed to measure blood pressure and take blood, and sometimes they even stood in on caesareans.

Looking after the babies

Probationary nurses swaddled newly-born babies before handing them back to their mothers. The nurses were in charge of washing the babies, making up feeds, and teaching new mothers how to breastfeed - quite a responsibility for a sixteen-year-old girl. But despite their responsibilities for the babies in the care, the probationary nurses were still seen as "the lowest of the low" in the rigid hospital hierarchy.

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 15/10/2009.

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