The Mothers' in the Second World War

Photo:We're off to Willersley Castle... expectant mothers prepare to leave Hackney in 1940

We're off to Willersley Castle... expectant mothers prepare to leave Hackney in 1940

© Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Photo:Evacuated staff from the Mothers' pose outside the castle in 1943

Evacuated staff from the Mothers' pose outside the castle in 1943

© unknown

Photo:From country house to maternity hospital...  Willersley Castle's latest incarnation is as a Methodist holiday centre

From country house to maternity hospital... Willersley Castle's latest incarnation is as a Methodist holiday centre


Rural castles and urban bombs
By Natasha Lewer
Facing up to war

The outbreak of war in 1939 brought a great many changes to the Mothers' Hospital. Pregnant women who were expected to have straightforward deliveries were given the choice of giving birth at home in London, or else of leaving the city for the relative calm and safety of the countryside. Two grand buildings - Willersley Castle, in Derbyshire, and Bragborough Hall, in Northamptonshire - had been requisitioned for this purpose by the Ministry of Health.  


Willersley Castle, in the Peak District, had space for 50 women, all of them evacuated from the Mothers' Hospital. Bragborough Hall - which also served evacuees from St Bartholomew's Hospital, in London, and local Northamptonshire women - had beds for 26 women.  

Many of the staff from the Mothers' decamped too, and the whole of the midwives' training school moved to WillersleyCastle for the duration of the war.  

Every fortnight, a group of expectant mothers would leave London and travel, by train or charabanc, to the countryside. Those going to Northamptonshire stayed in a hostel for expectant mothers at Norton Hall, while in Derbyshire they were billeted with local women in the village of Wirksworth while they waited to give birth. Altogether 5,683 babies were born during the war in Willersley Castle and Bragborough Hall.  

The surroundings at Willersley Castle, which was in dramatic Peak District countryside, were far removed from the crowded streets of Hackney. The Mothers’ Hospital Annual Report of 1941 describes how young mothers “throng the terrace lawn, with its sundial and flower-beds, the tree-clad peak behind, the river flowing through the arches of Old Cromford Bridge far below – a charming scene on spring and summer days.” In the middle of winter, the castle was possibly less appealing, as the only heating came from coal fires in the rooms, and the building was said to be draughty and mouse-ridden.

The Blitz

Back in London, the staff and remaining patients at the Mothers' Hospital were coming to terms with life in the Blitz. There had been doubts about the hospital's safety in wartime, as its predominantly single-storey design made it “vulnerable” in the event of air raids. But it was eventually allowed to stay open, on condition that an air raid shelter was built that would be large enough for both patients and staff.

The hospital buildings changed as a response to the almost nightly bombing raids of autumn 1940: rooms were strengthened with steel girders; windows were obscured by blast walls; and work began on the 'tunnel shelter'.

The shelter was not completed until October 1940. While it was under construction, patients would stay in the wards during air raids, singing hymns to keep their spirits up. But as soon as it was ready, retreating to the shelter became part of the evening routine.

Ambulant mothers

Margaret Basden, obstetric surgeon at the Mothers’, decided that “patients would feel happier and less nervous if they were not completely bedridden but knew they could get up and be independent in case of emergency.” Women were therefore encouraged to get out of bed and walk around for a few minutes on the day they gave birth, while caesarean patients were allowed up on the fifth day, so that they would have the confidence to get to the shelter on their own.

This went against contemporary practice, when women often spent ten days confined to bed, but it had unexpected results. Not only did it create a “carefree and happy atmosphere”, but it had pronounced medical benefits which might otherwise have remained undiscovered. Margaret Basden reported “less morbidity, better involution [reduction of uterus to its normal size] and considerably less venous thrombosis” in these mothers. In addition, “the patients seemed far better and stronger on their discharge, an important consideration in these times of stress.” Becoming ambulant soon after giving birth is now standard practice.

Nights in the shelter

Every evening at dusk, patients went to the shelter, whether or not the air raid siren had sounded. They took with them - in addition to their babies – their coats, gas masks and a spare blanket. The few who were not able to walk were wheeled there in chairs or stretchers by staff or visiting relatives. On a typical evening, according to Margaret Basden, there would be three stretcher and eight chair cases, and it took about seven minutes to get everyone into the shelter. “Speed has proved an important factor,” she remarked, “for more than once the first warning has been the dropping of bombs.”  Despite the rush, there was “a striking absence” of confusion or panic.

As many patients as there was room for lay side by side on mattresses; the remainder had to sit up, propped on pillows, with their babies stowed on a shelf above their heads. The staff, too, lay on mattresses, but more closely packed and sleeping top to toe. The only patients to stay in the hospital buildings were women in labour, for whom a specially reinforced labour room had been constructed.

Margaret Basden recalled trying to get some sleep in the shelter, "despite the ubiquitous snoring," and recollected how it sounded, "at five in the morning when all the babies woke and screamed together and all the mothers shouted a welcoming cry". There were few complaints about these arrangements, remarked Margaret Basden, adding, “It is surprising how much better one can sleep in these conditions than might have been imagined before the war.”

A direct hit

Throughout each night, firewatchers - drawn from the staff and local volunteers - would pace the colonnades of the hospital, watching for where the bombs fell. One night in September 1940 the hospital suffered a direct hit. There were no casualties, but two of the wards were destroyed. Some at the Mothers' - where there had long been plans to get the old hospital frontage demolished and replaced with something more modern - lamented the fact that these “nocturnal visitors” had missed their target.  

Meanwhile district midwives continued to visit women who were giving birth at home, setting off - often through the blackout and in spite of air raids - with a medical bag of essentials strapped to their bicycles and with tin hats on their heads.    

"Babies were born under the stairs, in Anderson shelters, in the cupboard, on the floor, under the table, while bombs were screeching and gunfire shaking the house. Several patients were injured, some losing their lives," recalls the Mothers' Hospital Annual Report of 1942.    

Hospital life

The war changed life at the hospital in all sorts of ways. Strict visiting hours were relaxed; the single visiting hour between six and seven in the evening was extended so that fathers on leave from the armed forces, or doing shifts in munitions factories, could come and see the mothers  and babies at any time of day.  

More babies than ever were being born to young, unmarried women during the war, and there was an acute shortage of space in the bomb-damaged hospital, which now had 50 beds. Nevertheless, 6,677 babies were born in the Mothers' Hospital during that period, while a further 6,032 were born at home with the help of district midwives.

Click here to listen to Hilda Wiffin talk about her experiences as a baby nurse at the Mothers' Hospital during the war.

This page was added by Natasha Lewer on 14/07/2009.

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