The East End in the 1950s

The BBC’s Call the Midwife is one of the channel’s most popular shows. Set in the East End of London in the 1950s, this is a heart-warming programme that also gives us an insight into just what life was like in the East End during this period. Covering the work done by the nuns and midwives based at a convent, Nonnatus House, in Poplar, the show takes us back to an East End that was soon to change.

Call the Midwife and the East End

The author of the original books, Jennifer Worth, had worked as a trainee midwife in the area, although she actually worked in a different convent in Whitechapel.

The East End of London in the 1950s

Although Call the Midwife is a ‘feel-good’ show most of the time, it also tells us a lot about the social conditions in the East End after the war and before the liberation of the 1960s. The occupants of Nonnatus house were working at a time before birth control became common, dealing with up to 100 births a month – many of these babies were born into already large families who were not living in the best conditions. The record number of children in the show for one family is 25!

East London Housing

East London Housing

The show casts middle-class young midwives, who grew up outside of the area, to show us just how bad these conditions could be. Most of the trainee midwives have not seen living conditions as bad as these before, and many of their clients live in poverty and in cramped housing conditions. Many women in the area had no running water or clean sheets for a birth, for example, and gave birth in squalid and slum-like conditions.

You can also still see the effects of the Second World War in the show, although these have probably been a little sanitised for TV. The area was bombed heavily in the war and had not been fully redeveloped by the 1950s. The East End was being redeveloped to repair the effects of the war and parts of the area would have looked like building sites, but you don’t see that so much in the show. In addition, work was still sometimes hard to come by and the welfare state did not always give all the help that was needed. In some cases, older people living in poverty did not know that help was available.

The Welfare State in the 1950s

The nuns and midwives at Nonnatus House are generally respected by locals, many of whom are pleased to be getting free medical treatment under the relatively new NHS system. In some episodes, however, you can see evidence of the transition into free healthcare. Some patients are suspicious of their “new-fangled” midwifery ideas, having spent many years having to have babies at home with no/little access to medical help, as they could not afford to pay for it in the past.

The East End’s population in the 1950s

Call the Midwife does show us quite a lot about local East Enders. We see the traditional family values and close-knit communities that the area is well known for. This area has also historically been attractive to immigrants wanting to work in the UK and, although the show doesn’t cover this in detail, it does use one episode to highlight some of the problems this caused.

In one show, the midwives work with a young West Indian woman whose family has recently come over to London. This episode shows the racial tensions and bias that immigrants often had to put up with. The attitudes of locals to foreigners, especially if they were non-white, was often suspicious and racist. Immigrants often moved into poor areas with few facilities and were looked down on as second-class citizens, even though they were living in in the same conditions as local East Enders.

Social conditions in the 1950s

Although the main focus of Call the Midwife is on women and babies, the show also covers many other cases – the midwives often took on nursing roles for locals as well as delivering babies. These stories highlight some other social conditions of the time. In series two, we see a young mother fighting for life after an illegal abortion and meet adults whose lives are scarred by spending their childhoods in local workhouses.

We are also shown the issues that people living in that period had with illnesses such as TB. The government started screening programs for the disease at this time and one of the nuns is diagnosed with it during a screening at Nonnatus House.  A family who give birth to a child with spina bifida have to come to terms with their baby’s disability or consider putting him in a home for disabled children. This was a common option at the time, as people were less educated about disabilities – there was no stigma attached to putting a child into an institution, but attitudes during the 1950s made it difficult to bring up children with disabilities at home.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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Posted in East End History

12 comments on “The East End in the 1950s
  1. Patricia Young says:

    I was born in the east end in the 1950s. My 3 siblings and I, were all born in hospital. We lived in a flat with central heating etc. I know some friends and family lived in terraced houses, which were referred to as ‘slums’ and were eventually demolished to make way for more flats. Personally, I would have liked to live in one of the so called slums. No, my memories do not match the desperation and poverty depicted in the programme.

  2. I was born at home in Stepney in 1956 and have always wondered if a midwife from nonnatus house delivered me unfortunately my mum has now passed away so I cant ask her , she would have loved to have seen “call the midwife” don’t know if there’s a way I can find out ?

  3. Angela hughes says:

    My mum was born and lived in Chrisp st in poplar with her mum and dad and seven siblings.1929 was the year my mum was born. To watch call the midwife makes me think so much of my mum who I lost in 2015 and am struggling. She did everything thing for us and I miss her terribly

    • Gemma robinson says:

      My nan lived in chrisp street and had several children we are currently on ancesty and believe a relative was one of the a real life midwifes that the story is based on. Dad loves it too for that same reason. Wouldnt suprise me if she knew my nan or grandad by grandad owned the barbers

      • Angela says:

        Hi gemma. My mum’s maiden name was Barwick and there was 7 children as well. My grandad worked in the dock. Please find out if they knew each other. My mum’s name was Mary and her sisters and brothers were : Tommy, pasty,Johnny, Peter and Julie and Elsie.

    • Gemma robinson says:

      Bet my dad would love to chat to you. My nan gradad lived chrisp at and relatives were midwives in 1940 1950

      • Angela says:

        My mum’s mum was called Ann and her dad Thomas. It would be great if they knew each other. Unfortunately I only know some things as my mum and dad have both passed away. Look forward to hearing from you x

  4. brenda says:

    I quite agree margeret about the midwife my mum and dad lived in martin st stratford we had an outside loo but electricity and clean water,my dad was the paper man on the corner of stratford station for many years,he used to hang out of the window watching people go by to work, I had a great childhood and freedom to play on the streets until dusk happy days.

  5. Joan E Nathanson says:

    My husband has asked me to help with a novel set in Chichester and East London. The hero and narrator grew up in Chichester. In around 1967 he graduates from McGill University in Montreal, Canada to do an internship/residency? in East London and ends up living there and working in a clinic. He and his wife, a teacher, become involved in the local community on their return. The book is written as he prepares to retire and looks back on his life. My husband is a retired physician and psychiatrist whose patient charts I used to transcribe. His writing is still too much like patient charts, without character development, attention to setting, etc. Might you be willing to be a local contact to help us out? We have just finished watching a season of Call the Midwife on American PBS!

  6. Margaret says:

    I was born and brought up in the East End. The book “Call The Midwife” appears to be more fiction than fact.
    All my siblings, my cousins from my large extended family, my friends I went to school with, were all born in the hospital. The majority of families had on average 2 or 3 children, and this was before the birth control pill.
    Every family I knew had running water and electricity. Even my parents generation had electricity. Perhaps there was a very deprived area in Poplar that for some reason had no running water or electricity, and families of 24 children, that was not my experience. I dont think much research has been done on this story, and although perhaps entertaining has been accepted as a true account of life in th East End in the 50s.
    I would like to add that I am also a registered nurse with midwifery training (1969)

    • Erika says:

      I just read an article that talks with the nuns that the show portrays all 7 of them say the show is spot on with the way life & the community was back then in the East End.

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