Sunday, 19 January 2020

Read a review of Neither Mischievous nor Meddlesome

Trisha Fielding reveals our remarkable midwives in Neither Mischievous Nor Meddlesome: 
Review by Liz Downes

The family home of Angiolina Borello, Ingham, where she took in private maternity patients. Photo courtesy Margaret Pasquale

A hundred years ago male doctors (were there any other kind?) may indeed have regarded midwives as “mischievous and meddlesome” but for the women who had them by their side through the sometimes perilous experience of childbirth, they were indispensable. They offered homely or increasingly professional reassurance and care, and frequently some very practical post-natal services. Trisha Fielding’s latest book, which charts the lives of North Queensland’s independent midwives between 1890-1940, is based on years of research and provides plenty of evidence that the women’s trust was well justified. In so doing she has shone a light into an aspect of women’s history in the north that until now has received scandalously little attention.

As well as possessing a historian’s innate curiosity and the urge to dig deep into archival documents, Trisha had a personal motive in investigating the lives and work of the north’s midwives: her own great-grandmother had been among them, bringing babies into the world in and around Torrens Creek. Perhaps it is this family connection that makes her book far more than a chronicle of names and dates, of changing legislation or medical practice. It is an inspiring and at times moving testament to the lost lives and forgotten work of a remarkable body of women.
Nurse Jessie Ann Wheeler, who ran the Leonta Villa Maternity Home, in Townsville. Photo courtesy of Helen Barry 
Readers will find themselves closely engaged with these women, the personal stories which Trisha has brought to light and the ways in which they operated: the “Grannies” whose obstetric skills arose largely from their own childbirth experiences or those of neighbours or relatives and who, like her own great-grandmother, would hurry to the home of the woman in labour when the call came. Then there were those, with similar background and experience, who set up basic lying-in facilities in their own homes or sometimes an independent property; and finally, those trained nurses who travelled to hospitals in Rockhampton, Brisbane or interstate for the midwifery training that would allow them to establish their own small private hospitals in their home towns.

It is Trisha’s detailed coverage of the last two categories that provides one of the real surprises of the book. How many of us had any idea of the numbers of lying-in or private hospitals that existed across the north? Owned and managed by the midwives themselves these establishments provided essential service for their communities which, despite their misgivings, some doctors freely acknowledged. But they were also small businesses allowing midwives to earn an independent income, regardless of their marriage status – something no other profession allowed – and often provided employment for auxiliary nursing or domestic staff. For some women this was a chosen career path, but for those widowed by illness or accident, or deserted by a feckless husband, running their own birthing centres provided a much-needed income, allowing them to raise their children and maintain respectability.
Two nurses and a baby, on the steps of Fleurbaix Private Hospital, Cairns. Photo courtesy Cairns Historical Society 
It was another surprise to discover the extent of care which many midwives provided to mother, baby and family after the birth. How different from today’s practice of having new Mums return to their families within hours of giving birth! Within, and even beyond the fifty years covered by this book, ten days of complete bed-rest was the recommendation for new mothers. In many instances it was then the midwife who stepped in to care not only for the mother and her newborn, but also to look after other children and manage the household. As business-women the midwives expected to be paid for their work but Trisha’s research shows that they could also be compassionate and would forego payment (or accept it “in kind”) from those in hardship.
Nurse Elizabeth Edwards, of Bowen. Private Collection 
Trisha does not shy away from the darker and more distressing aspects that attended childbirth during this period, including the tragic consequences of abortions or the unscrupulous ‘baby farming’ of abandoned infants. Nonetheless this is an overwhelmingly positive story of women’s self-determination, resourcefulness, compassion and care for each other. Indisputably, these women and their work deserve to be remembered and Trisha has done them proud.

Trisha Fielding with her book Neither Mischievous nor Meddlesome.

Thank you to Liz Downes for taking the time to write such a comprehensive review! 

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