Part 3: Ellen Shelley and the Lying-In Hospital

general lying-in nurses, wellcome 1908
Midwives weigh and measure a newborn at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

This is the third instalment in a series of posts that examine how to look beyond the obvious records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the basic facts through birth, marriage, census documents, and so on; and Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job.

This time I’ll look more closely at the General Lying-In Hospital, in whose ledger Ellen is listed in 1906. I mentioned in my first post that we learned about the Lying-In Hospital while researching our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Vanson, who gave birth to her last child there, and who — like all the others listed on the page except Ellen — was a married woman.

Established in the 1760s and situated near the Thames just off of Westminster Bridge Road, the General Lying-In Hospital was one of the first maternity hospitals in Britain. In the mid-1890s, it was described this way in Low’s Handbook to the Charities of London:

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 12.13.47 PM

Years ago, when we first started working on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we ordered birth and death certificates for a number of the people we were researching. This was how we discovered that Jennie’s daughter Ada was born at the Lying-In Hospital. We were intrigued by the name, and when we visited England to do more in-depth snooping about many of our characters, we found the hospital’s ledger at the London Metropolitan Archives and photographed the two pages where Jennie was mentioned. That’s all I have to go on now, when hunting for Ellen Shelley clues, since sadly I can’t hop back to the archive whenever I would like (though if I lived in London, I would be visiting obsessively!).

happy midwife
A happy midwife and a not so happy baby at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

It’s interesting to note that single women “of previous good character” had to present “satisfactory testimonials” to a committee in order to receive care by the hospital. I wonder now if the archive’s holdings included such testimony, and who Ellen asked to recommend her? Being an undertaker, her father might have known people associated with the hospital: doctors, midwives, or the local coroner. A quick search of the LMA catalogue shows me that the records do indeed include “registers of recommendatory letters, 1892 – 1939,” as well as the casebooks of doctors and midwives, so there is possibly more that could be gleaned about Ellen’s particular story if a visit in person were feasible. Sometimes the actual record can be disappointing when you finally lay your hands on it — it might just be a list that says who the letters came from and when; but then again, it might include the letters as they were written, and offer more about Ellen’s character, who the father of her baby was, and why she hadn’t married him. If I were actually writing Ellen’s story, I would want to know all of this and more, and if I couldn’t visit in person, I would find someone who could. For The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we did our own legwork during that flurried research trip I mentioned, but we also hired someone with smarts and tenacity to go back for more once we’d returned home to Canada.

Notice in the hospital description above that single women like Ellen could be patients of the hospital “for first confinement only” — I guess they were no longer “of good character” if they’d entered a second or third confinement and still hadn’t married! The ledger shows that Ellen Shelley was admitted “by order of the board,” whereas our Jennie Vanson and the other married women were vouched for by individuals: someone named Mrs Carthew, in Jennie’s case, but a “Lady,” a reverend, and a vicar are also on the list. This same page also lists the date each baby was born, and a surname in the final column. For Jennie, the name is “Montgomeri,” and for Ellen, the name is “Le Mercier.” My guess is that these are the midwives who delivered the babies.

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 4.57.05 PM
The novelist in me has decided that Nurse Woodyer is in love with the photographer, Dr. Basil Hood, both of the Lying-In Hospital. But the researcher in me knows this cannot be proven by the look on her face. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

To check, I returned to Ancestry and entered the surname “Le Mercier” in a variety of ways, since a name like this is often misspelled or incorrectly transcribed. In the UK Midwives Roll 1904-1959, the name Margaret Ann Le Mercier shows up several times beginning in the early 1900s, usually associated with a Lambeth address. Cross-referencing with census records, I’d guess that this is the same woman, born in London in 1870, and living in St. Pancras in 1911, where she is listed as “nurse matron” and the employer of a number of other nurses at the same address. More snooping would be necessary to confirm this, but it seems an excellent fit.

When I am researching a topic that has anything to do with healthcare in this time and place, I always search the wonderful Wellcome Collection, which bills itself as “the free museum and library for the incurably curious,” and which is where I found the photographs placed throughout this post. They come from the album of one Dr. Basil Hood, and were taken at the General Lying-In Hospital around the time of Ellen Shelley’s stay. Some are straight-ahead portraits of the staff, but others are more candid, and even joyful. It surprised me to see these images, because I had imagined, after all I’ve read of this period, that the hospital would be an unpleasant place, if not quite as depressing as a workhouse, simply because it catered to poor women. These photographs make me all the more curious about the hospital and its staff. Perhaps one of the women shown below is Margaret Ann Le Mercier? And is Miss Woodyer, shown alone above, the same woman who appears below, smiling, third from left in the middle row? No, on closer inspection, I’m sure she’s standing to the left of the man, who I know is Dr. Basil Hood, since he is identified in other photos in the album. A little clip can be watched here that recounts his experiences during the WW1 flu epidemic.

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 4.59.57 PM
Nurses of the Lying-In Hospital with Dr. Basil Hood, 1908. Notice the slight difference in some of the uniforms. This probably means something to do with their positions at the hospital. Perhaps some are nurses, some are midwives, or some are still in training? Notice, too, the person peering in at far right. Late for the party? Or announcing that a woman has gone into labour! Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would also search the Wellcome Collection’s Medical Officer of Health reports for mentions of the hospital in this time, and then do the same at the Internet Archive, which I see has a 1912 Clinical Report of the General Lying-In Hospital. Often you can turn up interesting details and statistics through such sources, even if they don’t mention your research subject by name. (And sometimes they do!) The same goes for the British Newspaper Archive. I found many mentions of the hospital over the years, and several articles to do with the hospital needing more funding. One from the Morning Post, dated two days before Ellen’s baby was born, referred to “an urgent appeal for funds” to help pay for an addition that gave the hospital 12 new beds and improved accommodation for nurses and servants. Perhaps the new beds were what enabled Ellen’s stay. The article goes on to say:

“It was felt that if the work of the hospital were more widely known and its present need brought home to a larger circle money must come in; so the matron, Miss B. F. Hancock, yesterday gave an At Home at the hospital, and during the afternoon Lady Victoria Lambton distributed prizes in the form of infants’ garments to patients of the hospital during the past six months whose infants were adjudged to have been best kept during that period. About 170 mothers with their babies were present, and many other visitors were shown over the new storey, and expressed their keen interest in the work done by the hospital.”

That paragraph alone offers a few leads that could be followed up. Who were Lady Lambton and B. F. Hancock, for instance? And what is meant by infants being “best kept”? Did the hospital do home visits to ensure the women were caring for their babies properly? What did the mothers make of such visits? Our Jennie Vanson had had five children before she entered the Lying-In Hospital to have her last baby, Ada. Did she welcome advice, by this time, or would she have found it insulting?

And that brings me to another rather basic question that I realized I’ve overlooked. Why did these women register with the hospital in the first place? Was there something particular about their situations that meant they needed extra care?

Again I turned to the British Newspaper Archive and found a 1902 article in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette:

Queen Alexandra has taken a kindly interest in, and shown practical sympathy with, the family of ex-Trooper Benge, 2nd Life Guards, who met with an accident while in South Africa which affected his brain. The consequent lunacy, it is feared, may prove permanent. On June 26th he presented himself at Buckingham Palace and behaved in such a manner that he was placed under control, and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum, where he is now an inmate. He had a wife and two children, whose case was specially sad, in view of the fact that the mother was in delicate health, and the worry of her husband’s condition was more acutely felt in consequence. This was known to the Queen, who promptly gave Mrs. Benge a nomination for the Lying-in Hospital, Lambeth, and her child is now a month old. …

I do wonder if the LMA records for the Lying-In Hospital show the queen’s name among the recommenders! And I am fiercely resisting the urge to look into the Benge family, since there is still more about Ellen Shelley to be discovered.

In my next post, I’ll start with Maud Pember Reeves’ book, Round About a Pound a Week, which grew out of a study she conducted involving Lambeth mothers registered as out-patients with the Lying-In Hospital. And if all of this seems tangential, I’ll address that too a little later on!