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.

37 comments on “The East End in the 1950s
  1. Denise Burnside says:

    I am from the United States, and live in Meridian, Mississippi. I was born in 1963, and now I am 55. I loved reading the blog, but also all the comments from the other readers. I have loved history and period pieces my entire life. I started watching Call the Midwife on Netflix, after watching a season on PBS. Thankful for Netflix, for the simple reason I was able to watch every season (series) over the course of a few weeks, and caught up with my local PBS station. I look forward to the new season.

    The past two years I have been watching PBS, and all the British shows it offers from the BBC, possibly other stations in the U.K. I watch everything from the Great British Baking Show, Victoria, The Six Wives off Henry VIII, Endeavour, Father Brown, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mystery’s, Sherlock, Death in Paradise, As Time Goes By, Waiting for God, and so many more. I hope I got all the titles correct. Suddenly, I started becoming obsessed with everything British. My ancestors came from England, Scotland, Ireland and France. I wish I could at least go to England and Scotland someday. I so enjoyed your stories of growing up in the East End of London. Both my parents were born during the Great Depression of the 1930’s; my father in 1936 and my mother in 1935. They were born into big families.

    In my father’s family there were 10 boys and 1 girl. In my mother’s family there were 12 children. Having large families were very common before the use of birth control. This past Christmas, we had Christmas Crackers, something I had never heard of till I started watching British television. I even started drinking tea. I recall my paternal grandmother drinking hot tea, with milk and sugar, allowing me to have a sip from her cup. I have mine the same way. I wish the U.K. was driving distance, I would be there tomorrow, but it’s not, of course. My maiden name is Burnside, and was told the Burnside’s came from Scotland originally. My mother’s maiden name is Dean. I hope you all don’t think me foolish, but I just wanted to share this with you all. Hopefully, one day, I can make some memories of my own in the U.K. Be blessed. — Denise

    • Terri Owens says:

      I know this is a cliché but “you took the words right out of my mouth!”

      If you ever have the chance to travel to England, look me up, I’d love to be your travel partner. By the way, I’m a 50ish widowed female who has never been out of the US. Grew up in the southeastern US to be exact. And I’m still here…. Lol!
      Best wishes to you!

  2. Brian Coaker says:

    Well I have watched a couple of episodes of Midwife,and it is in my opinion mostly fiction,born in Whitehorse Road Stepney we lived in a ancient house but had gas and electricity and hot water came from a geyser,we did not have a indoor loo or a bathroom,by the 50’s when this show is supposed to be set,there were still bomb sites these were still about into the 60’s I never did see a road in the 50’s with washing hanging across it,there were coin operated laundry shops,by the 50’s the NHS was up and running and I never saw dirty unwashed kids unless it was at a weekend and we had been playing on a bombsite or down the cut,we even went down a bombsite opposite the Popular baths it was deep and had water in it and was full of newts,us kids had bikes or had scooters some were made of wood and had ball bearing wheels,London never did get much snow and the 50’s was no exception,we of course had the smog,caused by people burning the oil soaked wood that used to be in the tram lines,we used to go to saturday morning kids pictures at the Troxy or the Ben Hur a flea pit cimema,the trouble is with the show is it is set in the 50’s but strays into the 30’s for effect in my opinion.

  3. It’s great to hear all your stories. I just started watching Call the Midwife. As a retired nurse in the USA ( I worked in hospitals and did Home Health with elderly) it warms my heart of these stories. I was born in 1954 and had a great childhood but did not live poorly. I have had a bad experience with Nuns either only good. So I love the Nuns and the midwives of the series how loving/ mostly non judging! My desire as a nurse was not to judge but to love and do my duties. So I laugh / cry/ my heart melts for the people. I just became a Grammy so all these births bring happy tears!

  4. Andrea Giribaldi says:

    I’m Andrea from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I came across this blog while I was doing some research related to midwives in the 50s and 60s.
    I’m an illustrator and I’m taking part in a contest promoted by the AOI (Association of Illustrators) and the LTM (London Transport Museum) called “Poster Price for Illustration 2019”.
    I need to do an illustrated interpretation of a London story. It could be real or fictional, but it must capture a narrative in a single image inspired by London’s history or contemporary city living.
    If I win my work will be issued at the London Transport Museum and also displayed on the London Underground.
    I chose the East End London of the 50s and 60s, trying to show how people lived in Poplar and how St. Frideswide’s Mission House and the midwives helped them.
    If anyone lived there at that time or have a family member who lived there could give me some tips or information to help me with my project I would be very grateful!

    Thank you a lot in advanced.

  5. James Thatcher says:

    1936 Born in Boston St just opp Warner place very close to the QE Childrens hosp in Hackney road .We were a big family as most were in those days people called us Fletcher but our name was Thatcher Dads name was jim his dads me was also jim and of course my name is jim,Evacuated to the Country bedfordshire aged two returned when I was 11 (which I hated ) we moved all over the place we lived in the flats in Goldsmith Row also 359 hackney road and the flats in Upper clapton then in dagenham essex, then back to Hackney road ..go married ended up in some flats there moved to bow ,,there for some years then went to Milton keynes.. a stones throw from where I was evacuated my heart was still in the countryside then out to the country to a village in Northants

  6. Kevin bell says:

    I too grew up in Poplar before moving ‘Up’ to Dagenham lol…. I was born in 1957 in st Andrews hospital but my mum talks fondly of the local midwives…. Call the midwife has led too many Sunday night phone calls and lovely warm memories of a different era…
    I remember like others being taken to Chrisp St and ‘Raffie’ Rathbone St markets….. mum still talks of my first christmas present a second hand childs telephone exchange from a stall on Chrisp st…
    I’m sure my uncle Bill (Lammin) was married to Ivy Barwick…. I’m a Bell but family were Lammin, Edwards and Bells – Orchard House originally

    • Linda Welsted says:

      My dad’s sister was Ivy Barwick; married to Bill Lemmon. They had 4 daughters.

    • Romilly Brown says:

      My nan was from the east end and she was a Bell before she became a Marriott. Her name was Ruby Bell, wonder if it’s any relation to you.

  7. Sarah Roberts says:

    My dad was a GP in Burdett Rd in the 60’s. His name was Dr David Wright and his partner was Dr Walter Depla. He also use to have surgeries at the Seamans mission and worked with nuns somewhere in the area. He trained at the London Hosp. I remember visiting his surgery as a very young girl and it was a big victorian building withbomb sites all around it.

  8. Mrs jackie Hardie says:

    I don’t know if anyone out there can help, my Aunt Lilly and uncle Mike Priceman lived in Moody street, Whitechaple late 50’s early 60’s, we are looking for a girl called Valery who lived in “The tenants” flats around the same time she used to play with my cousin Lesley Booth who was looked after by Lily & Mike not sure what Street the Tenants Flats were on, also Ashfield Street or Moody Street, But it’s most important we try and speak to Valery(surname) unknown, my email address, we do know Valery mum was called Nell, Dad Barny / Michael

  9. Barbara White Nee Belcher says:

    I was born in the east end Bethnal Green in 1956.I remember having a friend called Pat Greenwood she lived with her mum and her Nan and Grandad in Canrobert Street.I can remember going to Teesdale Infant school.It`s so nice to look at old photos of your child hood.

  10. Jean Hoar says:

    Call the midwife brings back loads of memories of my childhood. I was born in 1952 in Poplar. Both my parents were one of thirteen children. My mothers family originally lived in tenement buildings, until my grandparents ran a shop with accommodation. My fathers parents lived in terraced housing. Both sets of grandparents had outside toilets, I remember a long wooden seat, like a bench, (in my nans toilet) with a hole in it, and a boiler, heated by coal, in the out house, out the back, where the washing was done. I remember collecting tar-blocks from the roads, to burn in the boilers, the smell of the clean washing, my Nan using the mangle and hanging out the washing in the garden. I lived in Poplar with my parents and sister, above a shop, until 1971. We had an outside toilet and baths in a tin bath in the kitchen every Friday night. This was heated by pots/buckets of boiling water and was topped up with more hot water after each person had their bath. We had an oil fired heater. We moved down the road in 1971 to a maisonette with all mod cons. I married in 1972 and moved into my own house with an outside toilet, no bathroom, heating or hot water.

    Playing on the debris at the corner of roads where houses had been bombed and knocked down after the war, and in bombed out houses that still stood neglected but in tact, swinging on the bars at the top of lamp posts and playing out in the streets with my friends everyday, are great memories. We used to build big fires on bonfire night, make guys to burn and collect pennies to buy fireworks. We would go to the off license in the evenings to buy niblets and cream soda and sit and eat them on the steps of friends houses. We used to go up to Chrisp Street Market at weekends and in the school holidays, or walk to the island (Isle of Dogs) across the two bridges, then use the subway to go Greenwich Park. I liked going to the local dairy to get bottles of fresh orange juice and to the Farfame? factory at the end of the road to buy broken biscuits. I remember the new clinic that was opened in East India Dock Road where my mum used to take my baby sister, and seeing nuns walking in twos. I remember the processions every year down East India dock road where all the girls were dressed in beautiful white dresses. I had a fantastic, carefree, childhood which I shared with my many cousins, aunts and uncles and friends.

    • Angie says:

      Hi Jean
      Ally of what you said rings bells of what my mum told me. Do you remember the “Barwicks” that lived on Chrisp st?

    • Christina (Tina) says:

      Jean, your name rings a bell, as does some other things you have mentioned. Where did you live?

  11. Tina (Christina) Staines nee Scourfield says:

    I lived in one of those slums, 85 Lindfield St, Poplar. Toilet in the Garden, tin bath hanging on back garden fence. No central heating or hot water just a cold tap coming out of the wall. We lived in the same house as my Aunt and my Nan and grandfather, another Aunt and Great Grandmother lived at No. 94. It was ver cold in the winter the windows would ice up inside! But it was Happy timesI went to Mayflower School Poplar. Then onto Langdon Park secondary.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 ?

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

    • Christina (Tina) says:

      Margaret, we lived in Poplar which I mentioned above, there was only me & my Brother, there were only my mum and my Aunt in her family, but my Dad was 1 of 7, but to be fair my Dads mum died in child birth, an the baby girl died too, another aunt on my dads side had 7 also, but another aunt had 11. So I think it did vary, but I must say I have never never heard of a family of 24! Even in our bombed out St, we had electric but we still had gas mantels on the wall.

      Tina Staines nee Scourfield

    • Jeff says:

      Yes, I think it is more 1930s. I was born 1945 and raised in Aldgate. Went to Fairclough St Primary (changed name to Harry Gosling), then Coopers’ in Bow. Much of the background is of an earlier period. Never saw laundry hanging in the street. London Hospital was not Royal London until much later and where are all the bomb sites?
      For all that a great nostalgia fest.

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