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Wellcome Film of the Month: Maternity

28 Sep, 2012

Maternity: a film of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital is one of the gems of Wellcome Library’s film collection. This semi-professional film captures many historically interesting aspects of antenatal and postnatal care in the 1930s, before the inception of the National Health Service in 1948.

At the time, both infant and maternal mortality was a concern: the film outlines some of the risks in pregnancy such as labour complications and puerperal sepsis also known as childbed fever, which is a streptoccoci bacteria infection. The film presents Queen Charlotte’s hospital, London, as a centre for excellence in the teaching of nurses and staff and the treatment of pregnant women.

It is not clear who the intended audience of the film was. A film made in the same year, Centenary of the Royal Hospital Sheffield, 1932, chooses a much more formal approach to its subject; looking at a day in the life of the hospital. Maternity is more informal in approach and contains elements of both comedy and tragedy.

The film was made by an organisation, Personal Films, with no other credits in its filmography. It could be fictitious; the film not sponsored officially by the institution and the audience may have been completely internal to the hospital. Other films of this type often satirise the ‘official’ view of the organisation (see Radcliffe ructions: a drama of (un)real life, which is a spoof in the style of a 1920s comedy melodrama). In contrast, a companion film,  His majesty the baby, 193?, relating to Queen Charlotte’s hospital, has a clearer objective. That film features a well-known actress of the time, Jessie Matthews, appealing for funds for the hospital. It too starts in a light-hearted way, through the eyes of a couple about to have a baby, but then goes on to appeal for money to increase the number of beds for maternal care.

Technically, Maternity is relatively sophisticated for an amateur film in terms of the number of sequences edited together; it uses a number of locations outside the hospital as well as medium and close-ups to enliven the story of the hospital’s activities. The film also uses a number of cinematic devices and embeds itself in the language of cinematic melodrama: it starts with a brief scene of a romantic couple getting engaged on a park bench, then, somewhat coyly, a mare and her foal and then a sheep and lamb are shown.

The intertitles tell us “we begin where most films end”. A new mother and her baby becomes the narrative starting point for the film to show all the resources deployed in reaching this happy eventuality. Delightful footage of the district nurses is also shown; they mobilise post-haste on their bicycles. Reaching a dingy tenement building with a number of small children outside, they decide that this is an emergency and one goes to a public phone box and calls for a doctor. Dr Jones from Harley Street is summoned and arrives in a magnificent motorcar of the period with his driver with lots of children looking on.

Sometimes mothers are advised to have their babies in hospital and the film then goes into some detail to show how mothers-to-be are welcomed. A sequence then reveals the ‘Labour ward through the patients eyes’. There are point-of-view shots from the bed with anaesthetic equipment at hand. A masked nurse and doctor lean over and the picture goes out of focus; the image is polarised before it goes completely black (to simulate unconsciousness). Next, the new mother is seen holding her baby in bed. However, there are also bleak shots of gravestones together with a clock pendulum swinging, referring to the reality of childbirth ­– ‘no unmarried mother is refused’ and ‘In Britain every two hours a woman dies in childbirth’.

Some of the most interesting footage featured in the film is of the female ‘almoner’ (a social worker, assessing the circumstances of mothers-to-be) before the mother is booked into hospital. Antenatal care is shown; blood pressure is tested and an examination takes place. At the end, there is a scene where nurses and doctors are shown being trained. Instruction on babycare is given using a life-like doll; the trainee nurse drops the ‘baby’ and the doll is shown sprawled out flat on the floor. The film ends.

Unsurprisingly, this film has proved popular with television documentary makers. Most recently, a television series in two parts by Available Light Production in association with BBC Bristol Timeshift, has made extensive use of the Wellcome Film resource. In the first programme, Health before the NHS: The Road to Recovery, narrated by Sir Robert Winston and broadcast just this week, the following films from the collection featured:

Management of a normal birth in a continental clinic: Part 5 Germany, 1925

Your Children and You, 1946

Training for Childbirth and After, 1940

Childbirth as an athletic feat, 1939

Bathing and dressing Part 1, 1935

Family Doctor, 1946

Here’s Health, 1948

Open Drop Ether (part 1) No2, 1944

Eyes Right, 1937

Skin Conditions, 1934

The preparation of diphtheria antitoxin and prophylactics, 1945

Diphtheria, 1941

Defeat Diphtheria 1941

Home movies of Dr Bolton

Mellanby Films

Pioneer Health Centre amateur films

The centre, 1948

The next episode is to follow on Monday 1 October 2012 entitled Health before the NHS: A Medical Revolution.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film  

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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