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A Brief History of Childbirth: Exploring the National Childbirth Trust Archives

28 Sep, 2015
Erna Wright (founder member and author), teaching NCT antenatal class. The National Childbirth Trust. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Erna Wright (founder member and author), teaching NCT antenatal class. The National Childbirth Trust. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Wellcome Library is a treasure trove of books and archives than span a wealth of biomedical and health related subjects. The newly-catalogued National Childbirth Trust (NCT) archive, containing over 270 boxes of rich archive material, brings to life the history of childbirth and maternity care from the post-war period to the present day. Elena Carter, Project Archivist at Wellcome Library shares what she has discovered in the NCT’s rich archive…

In 1956, a woman gave birth and lost her baby. As she was discharged from the hospital, a sister flippantly commented “that’s the last we’ll hear of you”. Bereaved, and angered at how she’d been treated, this woman – Prunella Briance – decided to take matters into her own hands. In her words, she “wanted to do something positive to prevent such tragedies happening to other mothers”.

So she put an advert in The Times newspaper – a call to arms to form a Natural Childbirth Association, run by mothers, for mothers.

L0079482: The Natural Childbirth Association of GB advertisement in the Times, 4 May 1956. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/A/1/1/1.

L0079482: The Natural Childbirth Association of GB advertisement in the Times, 4 May 1956. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/A/1/1/1.

Letters began to flood through the door from women sharing unhappy stories of childbirth. Some wrote of being left alone in stirrups to labour for hours by themselves; others of how they had gas and air forced on them against their will; of fathers not allowed on maternity wards; and of babies taken away from their mothers as soon as they were born.

Galvanised by this shared outrage, the women set about founding an organisation to promote natural childbirth based on the teachings of Grantly Dick-Read. Their aims were to teach women how to prepare themselves for birth through antenatal classes and education, so that they were able to approach labour free from fear and ignorance.

Erna Wright (founder member and author), teaching NCT antenatal class. The National Childbirth Trust. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The archive available at the Wellcome Library charts the story of this organisation – the Natural Childbirth Association (later National Childbirth Trust, NCT) – from its grassroots beginnings in the 1950s to the present day. Through letters, birth reports, and heated meeting papers, the archive lays bare the challenges facing the organisation as they tried to rail against the ‘doctor knows best’ attitude of the 1950s.

It wasn’t an easy battle and the early papers in the archive show just how fraught the organisation’s relationship with the medical profession often was. These early documents show the group struggled to work out the best way to press for change in the provision of maternity care – with debates raging over whether to fight the medical profession head on, or try to win them over through tact and cooperation.

NCT local publicity flyer

NCT local publicity flyer

There was a fair bit of suspicion facing the organisation in its formative years, so it didn’t take long before the organisation was called to appear before the Ethical Committee of the British Medical Association (BMA). The BMA had received alarmed approaches from doctors concerned that the NCT was “challenging existing hospital rules and teaching midwifery”.

The NCT argued that they were offering something different – by having mothers teaching mothers, they hoped to develop a network of peer support and information unlike that found in the health service; their antenatal classes were offered in support of, and not instead of, medical care. Once the Committee were convinced that the women were not trying to overthrow the medical establishment, they offered the NCT a nod of approval to continue their work – but, interestingly – instructed them to do so quietly.

Havering Branch, 1968: photograph of woman practising using hexham air bolster. The National Childbirth Trust. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/B/1/2/1/3/5.

“Quietly” could be an apt way to describe how the NCT tried to go about their work in these early years. Certainly the language in documents from the 1950s and 1960s in the archive seems to suggest the organisation’s attempts to appease the medical profession – in the words of one member, to work “towards advocacy rather than head-on collision”.

Early documents talk about using “dignity”, “charm”’ and “tenacity” to work alongside doctors, to persuade and influence. In order “to establish cordial and harmonious relations”, it was up to the NCT member to use her feminine charm and middle class connections to speak to doctors on their level.

To avoid treading on any toes, the NCT also asked doctors for permission for women to attend its classes. A few of these permission slips survive in the archive. And in another self-conscious attempt to placate the medical profession, the organisation changed its name from the Natural Childbirth Association to the National Childbirth Trust, dropping the word ‘natural’ to appear more respectable to doctors.

NCT 40th Anniversary postcard: “A Normal Birth?” Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/H/3/2. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

NCT 40th Anniversary postcard: “A Normal Birth?” Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/H/3/2. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

However as time went on, and in the context of the rising consumer and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the organisation was able to grow in strength. A growing dissatisfaction with the ‘do-as-you’re-told-and-don’t-make-a-fuss’ attitude of the 1950s gave way to a developing lexicon around notions of choice, control and individual rights. In this context, it became easier for the NCT to fight its battles more openly and politically.

Through the 1970s and 1980s – a time of the rise of the machines – the NCT became more vocal, raising concerns over the rising rate of inductions, caesarean rates, and use of episiotomies. In 1974, word reached NCT that women due to give birth over Christmas were being told they would have their births induced to avoid the festive period. In anger, then-President Philippa Micklethwait wrote to the papers, voicing her indignation that there was ‘no room at the inn’. NCT was not alone in its outrage, and a larger public backlash against inductions developed, alongside a wider feminist, anti-doctor critique.

Throughout its history, NCT has aimed to bridge the gap between lay-person and medical establishment. Its successes, failures and compromises are all charted in this rich archive collection, which demonstrates how attitudes of doctors towards expectant mothers have changed, as well as how expectations of parents have shifted.

The archive not only tells the institutional history of the National Childbirth Trust, but also contains letters and labour reports from mothers, reflecting the experiences of parents over the years.

This post has been adapted from a post that originally appeared on the Wellcome Library blog. You can find out more about the NCT archive, and other archives that we hold, on the Wellcome Library website.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. 28 Sep, 2015 9:47 pm

    You only have to see one head presenting with a cord round the neck, or experience one post partum haemorrhage to change your views on home delivery (which I did in slums in London and Dublin).

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