©Wellcome Library, London

Midwife braves a storm to attend a delivery

The stereotypical portrait of a 19th century English midwife is the obese ‘Sarah Gamp' battling her way through awful weather to attend a woman in labour. Her assistant, carrying the instruments, runs alongside. Charles Dickens, who created Sarah Gamp and Betsy Prig for his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), later claimed that these portraits were not meant to be caricatures but were ‘a fair representation of the hired attendant of the poor in sickness'. Florence Nightingale added that, prior to her era, ‘It was preferred that ... nurses should be women who had lost their characters, ie. should have one child'. Most midwives, of course, had borne children but there is no evidence to suggest that they were anything other than ‘respectably' married. Few communities in the mid-19th century would have accepted an unmarried midwife although there were plenty of unmarried doctors delivering babies.

Coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), London 1811.