Thursday 30 June 2011

Mothers and Babies [2]

Here's what Mrs. Beeton had to say on Monthly Nurses (following on from last post):
2429. The choice of a monthly nurse is of tho utmost importance; and is the case of a young mother with her first child, it would be well for her to seek advice and counsel from her more experienced relatives in this matter. In the first place, the engaging a monthly nurse in good time is of the utmost importance, as, if she be competent and clever, her services will be sought months beforehand; a good nurse having seldom much of her time disengaged There are some qualifications which it is evident the nurse should possess: she should be scrupulously clean and tidy in her person; honest, sober, and noiseless in her movements; should possess a natural love for children, and have a strong nerve in case of emergencies. Snuff-taking; and spirit-drinking must not be included in her habits; but these are happily much less frequent than they were in former days.

2430. Receiving, as she often will, instructions from the doctor, she should bear these in mind, and carefully carry them out. In those instances when she does not feel herself sufficiently informed, she should ask advice from the medical man, and not take upon herself to administer medicines, &c, without his knowledge.

2431. A monthly nurse should be between 30 and 50 years of ago, sufficiently old to have had a little experience, and yet not too old or infirm to be able to perform various duties requiring strength and bodily vigour. She should be able to wake the moment she is called,—at any hour of the night, that the mother or child may have their wants immediately attended to. Good temper, united to a kind and gentle disposition, is indispensable; and, although the nurse will frequently have much to endure from the whims and caprice of the invalid, she should make allowances for these, and command bad temper, at the same time exerting her authority when it is necessary.

2431. What the nurse has to do in the way of cleaning and dusting her lady's room, depends entirely on the establishment that is kept. Where there are plenty of servants, the nurse, of course, has nothing whatever to but attend on her patient, and ring the bell for anything she may require. Where the number of domestics is limited, she should not mind keeping her room in order; that is to say, sweeping and dusting it every morning. If fires be necessary, the housemaid should always clean the grate, and do all that is wanted in that way, as this, being rather dirty work, would soil the nurse's dress, and unfit her to approach the bed, or take the infant without soiling its clothes. In small establishments, too, the nurse should herself fetch things she may require, and not ring every time she wants anything; and she must, of course, not leave her invalid unless she sees everything is comfortable; and then only for a few minutes. When down stairs, and in company with the other servants, the nurse should not repeat what she may have heard in her lady's room, as much mischief may be done by a gossiping nurse. As in most houses the monthly nurse is usually sent for a few days before her services may be required, she should see that all is in readiness; that there be no bustle and hurry at the time the confinement takes place. She should keep two pairs of sheets thoroughly aired, as well as night-dresses, flannels, &c. &c. All the things which will be required to dress the baby the first time should be laid in the basket in readiness, in the order in which they are to be put on; as well as scissors, thread, a few pieces of soft linen rag, and two or three flannel squares. If a berceaunette is to be used immediately, the nurse should ascertain that the mattresses, pillow, &c. are all well aired; and if not already done before she arrives, she should assist in covering and trimming it, ready for the little occupant. A monthly nurse should be handy at her needle, as, if she is in the house some time before the baby is born, she will require some work of this sort to occupy her time. She should also understand the making-up of little caps, although we can scarcely say this is one of the nurse's duties. As most children wear no caps, except out of doors, her powers in this way will not be much taxed.

2433. A nurse should endeavour to make her room as cheerful as possible, and always keep it clean and tidy. She should empty the chamber utensils as soon as used, and on no account put things under the bed. Soiled baby's napkins should be rolled up and put into a pan, when they should be washed out every morning, and hung out to dry: they are then in a fit state to send to the laundress; and should, on no account, be left dirty, but done every morning in this way. The bedroom should be kept rather dark, particularly for the first week or ten days; of a regular temperature, and as free as possible from draughts, at the same time well ventilated and free from unpleasant smells.

2434. The infant during the month must not be exposed to strong light, or much air; and in carrying it about the passages, stairs, &c, the nurse should always have its head-flannel on, to protect the eyes and ears from the currents of air. For the management of children, we must refer our readers to the following chapters; and we need only say, in conclusion, that a good nurse should understand the symptoms of various ills incident to this period, as, in all eases, prevention is better than cure. As young mothers with their first baby are very often much troubled at first with their breasts, the nurse should understand the art of emptying them by suction, or some other contrivance. If the breasts are kept well drawn, there will be but little danger of inflammation; and as the infant at first cannot take all that is necessary, something must be done to keep the inflammation down. This is one of the greater difficulties a nurse has to contend with, and we can only advise her to be very persevering, to rub the breasts well, and to let the infant suck as soon and as often as possible, until they get in proper order.

Mothers and Babies

The institution of the 'monthly nurse' is now largely forgotten (can anyone tell me when it disappeared? presumably with the creation of the NHS?) but it was common for middle-class women to have a paid, live-in helper for the first month after childbirth both - I assume - to let them recover their powers and give them some instruction in the basics of childcare, if they were ignorant. They were, however, not always that much help, as this article from 1859 The British Mothers' Journal attests. The mother's powerless distrust of a 'health professional' in the first couple of paragraphs will resonate strongly with those who have had bad experiences in hospitals; and yet, conversely, you may be comforted with how far we've come with modern medicine, placing it against the traditional 'physic' of the monthly nurse.


NURSE L— was engaged to attend me with my first baby, and was duly installed in the house fully a week before the event took, place : this gave me an opportunity of judging her. She answered very much to the description of monthly nurses in general : she had that bland, quiet, undisturbed look and manner which few of them are deficient in — they study it no doubt; their self-possession inspires confidence, and has its advantages; they never appear hurried or in a fright; no matter what happens or is likely to happen, there is the same calm look and blank expression when they choose, so that it is impossible to read in their face any intelligence of what is passing even at the most critical period, although the doctor and nurse always thoroughly but silently understand each other : this is right, during trying scenes it is well to keep the patient calm and free from fears. I had the utmost confidence (to begin with) in this nurse, as most young mothers have, especially with their first child. She was an oracle of wisdom : all she recommended was done, in fact she had the whole control of the infant. The opinions of grandmammas and aunts fail before the supposed superior judgment of the old nurse.
    Nurse L— was one of the old-fashioned sort, who thought it highly important to administer a liberal amount of "physic," according to the approved ancient custom prevalent in the days of great grandmothers. Doctors seldom interfere with these matters; and so the poor babe was dosed plentifully at intervals, amidst a fearful deal of struggling, choking, and screaming; but I was told it was "all for its good;" and so in very ignorance and trustfulness I allowed it to continue.
    I must digress here a little to remark, that it would be better if doctors did inquire a little more into the state of matters, and how they go on in their absence. Some doctors, I know, are very minute in their inquiries and directions (and their patients generally progress well); they taste the food prepared for mother and child; direct how often and in what quantities it is to be administered. I have heard doctors blamed and ridiculed for looking into things which many persons think are more properly belonging to the care of the nurse ; but I am assured such thoughtfulness on the part of a doctor is of the greatest value and importance, especially with a young and inexperienced patient and an untried nurse. More than two or three hours should not elapse, night or day, without refreshment — at least for the first fortnight, when the food is necessarily slight; but this is too often neglected, for if the infant should have long sleeps which most likely will be the case the first week or two of its existence — the nurse perhaps may be unwilling to rouse, and the patient too weak or not sufficiently aware of the necessity to exert herself to ask. Thus the night passes; and from the ten o'clock supper of gruel, sago, or so forth, to the breakfast hour (though early), is too long to have been left without refreshment; and if the mother, under such circumstances, give nourishment to her infant, both suffer.
    But to return to the daily routine of the monthly nurse. The morning and evening ablutions, with the torments of dressing and undressing. were a sad scene —a daily recurring trial from beginning to end for me and the poor babe: I begged, and begged in vain, that the nurse would desist for awhile, that the child might take breath and not scream itself into convulsions; but I was not heeded. "It must be done," was always the answer, "and the sooner it is got over the better." Then to quiet my fears and reassure me, she would say, "Why, ma'am, it does the little dears good to cry it stretches their lungs;" and, "Babies always cry, it wouldn't be natural if they didn't, would it, my darling?" and would then go off into a long rigmarole of a talk to the baby, in the true old nursery style (as if it could understand), partly to avoid any further remonstrance on my part : and so the dressing was finished, and the poor little creature, instead of being refreshed, was weakened and wearied by its efforts, and went involuntarily into a slumber from very exhaustion. I always thought this a horrible state of things that an infant should be subjected to such a system of daily torture : but I was necessarily passive, because I could not then control things nor command a remedy : but in later years, when I had gained courage to undertake this business myself, I was the more convinced that it is unnatural for an infant to scream through what ought to be a pleasant process, if managed with the smallest degree of judgment and care.
    I now recollect some circumstances attending the administering of medicine to the infant, which I looked upon at the time as more accident; but I discovered afterwards that this woman could not read! She passed her deficiency off with great address,—always putting on her spectacles and seeming to try and decipher the direction on the bottles, then giving it up, saying she was "so near-sighted;" and she ould ask any one who happened to be present to read the label for her : this answered till a fresh bottle arrived, and the same ceremony was again gone through. But one day two bottles stood side by side alike colourless; one was a mixture, the other an eye lotion ; and the entrance of some one to the room of quick observation was the happy means of staying the nurse's hand about to administer a dose of the latter to the infant internally. Another mistake she really accomplished, which caused great suffering for a time, but happily resulted in nothing serious : she applied dill-seed water to the infant's eyes instead of rosewvatcr, both being in the same sort of bottle and, though labelled distinctly, to one who could not read and would not ask, they were alike. She made the venture, and erred. I thought little of these things at the time beyond the temporary annoyance at the infant's suffering through carelessness, as I considered it ; but now I view it in a more serious light: it is unprincipled in the highest degree for people to pretend to what they are not equal to ; and not having the honesty to avow their deficiency, adds to the fault in every way : they are emboldened by their success—or rather their escapes from committing any harm—forgetting that it is to God's providence alone we owe such protection, and not to the ignorant recklessness of those who risk our life and health. We have, indeed, wonderful instances of God's goodness in protecting us : but let us not dare too much;—ninety-nine times we may escape, and the hundreth we are lost.
     Let us then take every precaution to guard against dangers that surround us on every side, and, trusting in his care, we need not be afraid. Let us carry out this precaution, by endeavouring to secure conscientious and intelligent people about us : this plan, if adopted generally, would also have the good effect of setting ignorant, ill-informed people to work in gaining information to fit them for the duties of the capacity they aspire to; so that the demand for intelligent and knowledgeable servants, etc., would tend very much to increase the supply of such.
    But to return to the narrative. The first baby had a tolerably good constitution, and struggled through much mismanagement, the extent of which I was not aware of till this woman nursed me with my second child; it was not so robust as the first, and could not contend with the dosing, etc. At length an indiscretion on the part of the nurse caused it to be "struck with the cold," as she expressed it herself; she took it out of doors at a month old in January, because (as she reasoned) the first child went out at that age in June. Convulsive fits ensued, and it is a marvel that the little creature survived, considering, too, that the warm baths given to restore it to consciousness and to revive it from the fits, were at much too high a temperature. At length I discovered that this woman was a drunkard (it is of no use attempting to soften the term for such a heinous offence in one of her profession), and more, that she used to give the poor babe some narcotic to cause it to sleep, and it was administered in such quantities that the poor little sufferer could arouse from the effects of the torpor only by means of a convulsive effort. I then took entire charge of the dear babe, and slowly, oh! how slowly, did it rally, and at length recover from the sad effects of such mal-treatment." — From "A Few Friendly Hints to Young Mothers."

Tuesday 28 June 2011


A not untypical tale from the Times in 1852. Miserable, but at least a sympathetic ending:-

Bridget Dowling, 25, spinster, was indicted for endeavouring to conceal the birth of her male child.
     Mr. Prendergast prosecuted, and Mr. Robinson defended.
      It appeared that the prisoner, who is a servant out of place, had taken lodgings at 43, Marshall-street, and was noticed by the landlady to be pregnant. After having been there a short time, she was one morning a long time in the yard, which the landlady spoke to her about; but prisoner denied that she had been delivered. The landlady, not being satisfied with the mere denial, made a search, and found in the waterclosot unmistakeable proofs that her suspicions were correct, and, upon looking into the dustbin, there found the body of a male child, wrapped in a piece of old carpet.
     The medical evidence proved that no violence was visible on the body of the child, but it was evident that it had breathed. Mr. Robinson contended that there was no permanent concealment intended on the part of the prisoner, but that she merely wished temporarily to hide her shame from the other lodgers.
     The jury Acquitted her.

Friday 17 June 2011

St. Pancras Renaissance - A Visit

The clock tower.
The clock tower of the old Midland Grand Hotel — now rechristened the 'St. Pancras Renaissance' — is one of London's great Victorian landmarks, its gothic splendour lending the rather unlovely Euston Road a touch of fantasy and romance. I would dearly love to creep out the little door beneath the clock face, stand on that lofty balcony, and survey the metropolis; and I suspect many other London-philes share the same ambition. Hence, when an offer of a free tour of the station arose — well, I snapped it up. I didn't expect to ascend to the giddy heights of the tower (which, if memory serves, is accessed through one of the private apartments that now fill much of the attic space) but I was curious what might be on offer.

The Ticket Office
The story of the hotel and St. Pancras station (the hotel forms an integral facade to the station behind)  has been told again and again — scheduled for demolition in the 'white heat of technology' 1960s (like the classical masterpiece that once stood at Euston, tragically flattened in that devastating decade) St. Pancras was saved and granted listed status, thanks to the nascent Victorian Society and the campaigning efforts of the poet John Betjeman. The hotel had already lost its commercial function in the 1930s, due to changing economic conditions and a failure to modernise — unusually, for such a grand building of the 1870s, its original design did not include the contemporary innovation of the water-closet. By the 1960s, British Rail were using the building as offices. With demolition cancelled, the hotel was occupied with little thought to its long-term maintenance or the beauty of its architecture; rooms were partitioned, decorative murals covered in paint. By the 1980s it was deemed unsafe and looked fated to become a tragic ruin.

The hotel abandoned.
Yet the Midland Grand has risen again, to match the rejuvenation of its station, which now serves (amongst other things) as the Eurostar terminal. The hotel's exterior was given a facelift in the 1990s with money from English Heritage; and, decades after its closure, following a multi-million restoration project under the aegis of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, the building has now reopened for business a luxury hotel — much like in its heyday.


What did I find on my tour? Well, not surprisingly, it looks absolutely beautiful. The principal staircase (which infamously appears on the Spice Girls' first video and numerous movies) is simply glorious — a gothic spectacle to rival any cathedral. The contrast between the state of the hotel in the 1990s (when many of us visited to view the devastation on guided tours) and the present day is astonishing. The old ticket office now serves as a bar area; the central roadway, where hansom cabs once drove through the building to deposit customers inside the hotel under a glass canopy, is now the main reception and a separate function room. The rooms themselves seem sumptuously appointed, although Victorian fans should be warned that the style of decor is tastefully modern, not period. You will find full details about the hotel on the Marriott site — like any five-star accommodation in central London, it's not cheap, but it is undoubtedly a unique location.

If you're fascinated by the building, I would also recommend the historical tour. I don't do this lightly. I normally dislike guided tours — often because the guides lack in-depth knowledge and stick rigidly to a script. No danger of that in this case. The official 'Hotel Historian and Tour Guide' (how many hotels can boast an offical historian, I wonder?) is one Royden Stock, who came to the site in the 1990s whilst working in security, and, from what he told me, has all but lived there ever since. He has seen every aspect of the restoration process, tutored himself extensively in the building's history, and is a charming gentleman to boot. Click here for details of his tour; it's well worth your time and money.

UPDATE 2014: No idea if still the same guide; but tours are now here.

Royden Stock, our guide, and the grand staircase.

If you would like to see more pictures from the building, I have created a folder on Flickr - click here for the slideshow in a larger pop-up version or see below ...

Wednesday 15 June 2011


If you're already interested in my novels, or Victorian fantasy, then please may I draw your attention to this:-

Food, Glorious Food

Bon viveur George Sala is definitely at his best when discussing food. Here's another entry from Twice Round the Clock (1859):

See the pyramids of dishes arrive; the steaming succession of red-hot chops, with their brown, frizzling caudal appendages sobbing hot tears of passionate fat. See the serene kidneys unsubdued, though grilled, smiling though cooked, weltering proudly in their noble gravy, like warriors who have fallen upon the field of honour. See the hot yellow lava of the Welsh rabbit stream over and engulf the timid toast. Sniff the fragrant vapour of the corpulent sausage. Mark how the russet leathern-coated baked potato at first defies the knife, then gracefully cedes, and through a lengthened gash yields its farinaceous effervescence to the influence of butter and catsup. The only refreshments present open to even a suspicion of effeminacy are the poached eggs, glistening like suns in a firmament of willow-pattern plate; and those too, I am willing to believe, are only taken by country-gentlemen hard pressed by hunger, just to "stay their stomachs," while the more important chops and kidneys are being prepared.

Monday 13 June 2011


More from the great George Sala in Twice Round the Clock (1859). This time, a little social anxiety regarding waiters:

I am afraid of waiters. I watch them — him — the Waiter, with great awe and trembling. Does he know, I ask myself, as he fills my tumbler with iced champagne, that half-and-half is a liquid to which I am more accustomed? Does he know that, sumptuously as I dine to-day, I didn't dine at all yesterday? Is he aware that Mr. Threadpaper is dunning me for that dress-coat with the watered-silk facings? Can he see under the table that the soles of my boots are no better than they should he? Is it within his cognizance that I have not come to the Albion, or the London Tavern, or the Freemasons', as a guest, but simply to report the dinner for the "Morning Meteor?" Does he consider the shilling I give him as insufficient? Shilling! He has many more shillings than I have, I trow. He pulls four pounds in silver from his pocket to change one a crown-piece. To-day he is Charles or James; but to-morrow he will be the proprietor of a magnificent West-end restaurant, rivalling Messrs. Simpson and Dawes at the Divan, or Mr. Sawyer at the London. So I am respectful to the waiter, and fee him largely but fearfully; and, were it not that he might take me for a waiter in disguise, I would also call him "Sir."

Thursday 9 June 2011

I can do nothing with these people.

Here's the great George Sala on street nuisances - musicians, acrobats, and his neighbours - from the excellent collection Twice Round the Clock (1859):

First Italian organ-grinder, hirsute, sunburnt, and saucy, who grinds airs from the "Trovatore" six times over, follows with a selection from the "Traviata," repeated half a dozen times, finishes up with the "Old Hundredth" and the "Postman's Knock," and then begins again. Next, shivering Hindoo, his skin apparently just washed in walnut juice, with a voluminous turban, dirty white muslin caftan, worsted stockings and hob-nailed shoes, who, followed by two diminutive brown imps in similar costume, sings a dismal ditty in the Hindostanee language, and beats the tom-tom with fiendish monotony. Next comes a brazen woman in a Scotch cap, to which is fastened a bunch of rusty black feathers, apparently culled from a mourning coach past service. She wears a faded tartan kilt, fleshings, short calico trews, a velveteen jacket, tin buckles in her shoes, and two patches of red brick-dust on her haggard cheeks, and is supposed to represent a Scottish highlander. She dances an absurd fling, interpolated occasionally with a shrill howl to the music of some etiolated bagpipes screeded by a shabby rogue of the male sex, her companion, arrayed in similar habiliments. Next come the acrobats — drum, clarionet, and all. You know what those nuisances are like, without any extended description on my part. Close on their heels follows the eloquent beggar, with his numerous destitute but scrupulously clean family, who has, of course, that morning parted with his last shirt. Then a lamentable woman with a baby begins to whimper "Old Dog Tray." Then swoop into the street an abominable band of ruffians, six in number. They are swarthy villains, dressed in the semblance of Italian goatherds, and are called, I believe, pifferari. They play upon a kind of bagpipes — a hideous  pig-skin-and-walking-stick-looking affair, and accompany their droning by a succession of short yelps and a spasmodic pedal movement that would be a near approach to a sailor's hornpipe, if it did bear a much closer resemblance to the war-dance of a wild Indian. Add to these the Jews crying "Clo'!" the man who sells hearthstones, and the woman who buys rabbit-skins, the butcher, the baker, and the boys screaming shrill Nigger melodies, and rattling pieces of slate between their fingers in imitation of the "bones," and you will be able to form an idea of the quietude of our street. From the infliction of the soot-and-grease-bedaubed and tambourine-and-banjo-equipped Ethiopian serenaders, we are indeed mercifully spared; but enough remains to turn a respectable thoroughfare into a saturnalia.
     I can do nothing with these people. I shout, I threaten, I shake my fist, I objurgate them from my window in indifferent Italian, but to no avail. They defy, scorn, disregard, make light of me. They are encouraged in their abominable devices, not merely by the idlers in the street, the servant-maids gossiping at the doors, the boys with the baskets, and the nurse children, but by the people at the windows, who seem to have nothing to do but to look from their casements all day long. There is an ancient party of the female persuasion opposite my humble dwelling, who was wont to take intense interest in the composition of my literary essays. She used to bring her work to the window at first; but she never did a stitch, and soon allowed that flimsy pretext to fall through, and devoted herself with unaffected enjoyment to staring at me. As I am modest and nervous, I felt compelled to put a stop to this somewhat too persevering scrutiny; but I disdained to adopt the pusillanimous and self-nose-amputating plan of pulling down the window blinds. I tried taking her portrait as she sat, like an elderly Jessica, at the casement, and drew horrifying caricatures of her in red chalk, holding them up, from time to time, for her inspection; but she rather seemed to like this last process than otherwise; and I was obliged to change my tactics. The constant use of a powerful double-barrelled Solomon's race-glass of gigantic  dimensions was first successful in discomposing her, and ultimately routed her with great moral slaughter; and she now only approaches the window in a hurried and furtive manner. I daresay she thinks my conduct most unhandsome. She and the tall man in the long moustaches at number thirteen, all the pupils at the ladies' school next door, the two saucy little minxes in black merino and worked collars at number nine, and that man with the bald head shaped like a Dutch cheese, in the parlour at number nine, who is always in his shirt sleeves, drums with his fingers on the window panes, and grins and makes faces at the passers-by, and whom I conscientiously believe to be a confirmed idiot, are all in a league against me, and have an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the musical canaille below. They cry out "Shame" when I remonstrate with those nuisances they shout and jeer at me when I sally forth from the door, and make rabid rushes at the man with the bagpipes: they inquire derisively whether I consider myself lord of the creation?