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!
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.