Book review: Read – Maids, wives, widows: exploring early modern women’s lives 1540-1740

  Read, Sara (2015)
Maids, wives, widows: exploring early modern women’s lives 1540-1740
Barnsley: Pen & Sword
ISBN: 9781473823402
“A lively exploration of the everyday lives of women in early modern England from 1540-1740”
Reviewed by Dr Julia Allison

Other book reviews

Book review: Christensen – The Popish midwife (2016)

Terri Coates’ review of Annelisa Christensen’s historical novel, The Popish midwife, is now available. It is based on the life of the 17th-century Roman Catholic midwife Elizabeth Cellier.

The book is available from Amazon and all good bookshops. It is also available on Kindle and directly from The Conrad Press website.

The author’s blog discusses her inspiration for writing the book: The Popish midwife (why I wrote her story).

We are looking forward to debating “creative non-fiction” and historical veracity at our forthcoming meeting in York.

Willughby on midwives…

‘I desire that all midwives may gain a good repute, and have a happy successe in all their undertakings: and that their knowledge, charity, and patience, with tender compassion, may manifest their worths among their women, and give their women just cause to love, honour, and to esteem them.’

Percivall Willughby  (1596-1685)   

Willughby, P., & Blenkinsop, H. (1863). Observations in Midwifery, as also the Country Midwifes Opusculum or Vade Mecum … Edited from the original MS. by Henry Blenkinsop. Warwick: H. T. Cooke & Son, p. 12 (full text available online)

Maternity Care and Childbirth in Women’s Prisons

Since the creation of the modern prison system in the mid-nineteenth century, women have been imprisoned separately from their male criminal counterparts. While some historical attention has been afforded to the running of female-only prisons and how this differed from the regimes imposed in male prisons, I am seeking to question if gender distinctions impacted upon the provision of medical care within female prisons. I work as a Research Fellow on the ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland’ project, which is funded by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award.  Please see our website Exploring the History of Prisoner Health for more information.

A major part of my research focuses upon maternity care and childbirth provisions and practices in women’s prisons between the mid-nineteenth century and the present. The research examines the conditions in which pregnant women were incarcerated. It draws upon evidence showing that the medical examination of women upon entry into the prison was often very brief and perfunctory. In addition, it shows that, until they were at a very advanced stage of pregnancy, women were often subject to the normal prison routine, including being locked in solitary confinement for long periods. This was liable to cause psychological stress exacerbated by the limited availability of emergency attention. Furthermore, it examines the extent to which there were specialised maternity facilities in prison hospitals as well as specially trained staff on hand to offer medical assistance to pregnant women. Within this, it questions if there were provisions in place for midwifery visits and contact with health visitors, particularly after the turn of the twentieth century.

Something I would very much like to do is establish contact with people, particularly midwives, who have experience of, or a research interest in, maternity and childbirth in English or Irish women’s prisons. Whether people have years of experience or only a small amount of experience, any information or experiences that people would like to share would be greatly appreciated. The kind of things I would be particularly interested in include: the treatment of pregnant inmates, including provisions for them to attend antenatal classes and if, and how, things such as their diet and exercise were tailored, or not, to their pregnancy. Under what conditions are pregnant women incarcerated and at what stage in their pregnancy would they be moved to hospital?  In addition, I would be interested in any information regarding the conditions and care offered to women and their infants in Mother Baby Units in prisons.

Please do get in touch if you would like further information about the project or the research. In the meantime, I would very much like to hear from anyone who has an interest in maternity and midwifery care in prisons. You can contact me at or through De Partu.

Thank you and I look forward to hearing from, and hopefully meeting, some of you soon!



Jean Donnison (1925-2017)

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Dr Jean Donnison on January 27th, after a long period of declining health during which she bravely continued to work and publish. Jean will be known to many members for the significant contributions that she made to midwifery history, in particular her classic work Midwives and medical men: a history of the struggle for the control of childbirth, first published in 1977, which is still highly cited. Jean wrote a small feature for De Partu, The office of midwife – some historical background.

Readers are invited to add their own tributes to Jean via the comments function. They are also invited to make a donation in her memory to Maternity Worldwide via JustGiving. Maternity Worldwide is a charity saving lives in childbirth by training midwives, providing community maternal health promotion and improving access to health.


Ethelred the Unready’s gift to parturient women: an agate touch-stone said to ease childbirth

From British Library, Manuscript Cotton Nero D i, f.l46v Enlarged so as to represent probable dimensions of original stone.
From British Library, Manuscript Cotton Nero D i, f.l46v Enlarged so as to represent probable dimensions of original stone.

Read here the full version of Professor Michael Swanton’s article:

Ethelred the Unready’s gift to parturient women: an agate touch-stone said to ease childbirth

Professor Swanton is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Exeter.

Happy Christmas and all the best for 2017

Handpainted Christmas card to Cicely Williams from a fellow prisoner whilst in Changi Jail, 1944.

L0029151 C. D. Williams, Christmas card. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Handpainted Christmas card to Cicely Williams from a fellow prisoner whilst in Changi Jail, 1944. Cicely Delphine Williams, 1893-1992. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
L0029151 C. D. Williams, Christmas card.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Handpainted Christmas card to Cicely Williams from a fellow prisoner whilst in Changi Jail, 1944.
Cicely Delphine Williams, 1893-1992.
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

News of the second Knowledge Exchange Partnership study day on Pregnancy and Birth: Changing practices over the twentieth century: Oxford University, May 7th 2016

poster image7mayChanging practices over the twentieth century

The study day to be held in Oxford on 7th May is part of a Knowledge Exchange Partnership, from April 2015-December 2016, conducted by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, the De Partu History of Childbirth Group, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Hardly a week goes by without a story or advice about pregnancy or birth making headline news. The Partnership sets this public fascination in a broad historical context, featuring debates and controversies from early printed midwifery texts to the present day. It aims to widen awareness of the heritage collections of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and of the Royal College of Midwives; and to facilitate dialogue between academic researchers and healthcare practitioners. Our study day on 7th May 2016, held in Oxford, focuses on the twentieth-century birth experience, encompassing antenatal preparation for family life, Leboyer’s theories of gentle birth, and developments in postnatal care in the twentieth century. We shall also have presentations on the RCM’s oral history collection and from the midwifery adviser to ‘Call the Midwife’.


Programme : Study Day on Saturday 7th May, at The Oxford Reseach Centre in the Humanities:

10.15 Registration and coffee

10.30 Welcome (Valerie Worth-Stylianou and Janette Allotey), and presentation on ‘Revisiting The Midwife’s Tale: an oral history collection at the Royal College of Midwives’ by Carly Randall, (Archivist, RCOG)

11.00 Guest speaker: Dr Marie-France Morel (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris): ‘Gentle birth: Leboyer’s theories and subsequent changes to how babies were birthed in France in the 1970s’

12.00 Seminar A: Professor Mary Nolan (University of Worcester) ‘Birth and Parent Education post Dr Spock, 1970-2016: striving to build parents’ confidence rather than destroy it’

12.00 Seminar B: Professor Debra Bick (King’s College London): ‘’Context, culture and contribution of postnatal care over the last century: a missed opportunity for women’s health’

1.00 Lunch

1.40 Seminars A and B repeated ( to allow all delegates to attend each seminar)

2.40 Tea and coffee

3.00 An update on De Partu (Janette Allotey)

3.15 Terri Coates (midwifery adviser for ‘Call the Midwife’): ‘Call the midwife: communicating the art of midwifery though a BBC period drama’

4.15 Concluding remarks and end of study day

Lead contacts for the Partnership:

Valerie Worth-Stylianou, Senior Tutor Trinity College, University of Oxford, and Mellon-TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow

Janette Allotey, Chair of De Partu, Honorary Lecturer, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester

 Booking form


To book for the seminar (limited to 60 places), please complete this form and scan or email it (as an attachment) to When your booking is accepted, you will be asked to send payment for £20 (to cover all refreshments, including lunch). There is a reduced price of £10 for graduate students / student midwives or doctors.


Name …………………………………………………………………………………

Email ………………………………………………………………………………….

I am (select one or more)

a student / academic researcher / archivist / midwife / obstetrician / other practitioner / layperson

Name of institution (if applicable) ……………………………………………………..

How did you learn about this seminar (e.g. which website, research group)?


Do you have any dietary requirements for lunch (e.g. vegetarian, gluten-free)?




Celebrating 500 years of Pregnancy and Birth

Please click on the image thumbnails below for details of a forthcoming event:

Celebrating 500 years of Pregnancy and Birth:


This is being organised by Professor Valerie Worth (Trinity College, Oxford) in collaboration with the RCOG and De Partu. Attendees may also be interested in attending a De Partu meeting on September 3rd 2015, where there will be an opportunity for members to present papers on work in progress; further details to follow shortly.

Information and booking form – PDF version

History of midwifery exhibition – Library, RCPSG, 11th, 18th May 2015 – Glasgow

In this centenary year of the Midwives (Scotland) Act 1915, this exhibition takes a look at the fascinating history of midwifery. Works by William Hunter and the man-midwife William Smellie will be on display.

Crush Hall and the Library Reading Room of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow are open to visitors on Monday afternoons from 2.00 p.m. until 5.00 p.m.

Visit the library blog for more information about the exhibitions.

Sheila Kitzinger 1929-2015

The death has been announced today of Sheila Kitzinger, at the age of 86.

Sheila Kitzinger made a significant contribution to the understanding of birth in its social context from a feminist perspective, and was a catalyst for improvements in maternity services from the 1960s onwards.

She was a prolific author, and became a legend in her own lifetime. Despite her widening fame she was generous with her time, always willing to provide support and help to women and midwives.

BBC News obituary

Transforming Pregnancy Since 1900

Around 1900, few pregnant women in Western Europe or North America had any contact with a medical practitioner before going into labour. By the end the twentieth century, the hospitalisation of childbirth, the legalisation of abortion and a host of biomedical technologies from the Pill and IVF to obstetric ultrasound and prenatal diagnosis had dramatically extended the reach of science and medicine into human reproduction. A special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences published this month reflects on the social, medical and technological shifts that have shaped the experience and management of pregnancy since the turn of the twentieth century. Originating in a workshop held in Cambridge in 2012 supported by the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Generation to Reproduction’ project, the special issue is edited by Dr Salim Al-Gailani (University of Cambridge) and Dr Angela Davis (University of Warwick).



Birth: personal stories to population policies – conference

18th-19th September 2014, University of Leeds

This two-day conference, organised by the School of History’s Health, Medicine and Society research group, brings together those interested in the history of birth, fertility, sexuality, demography and family life, from the medieval period to the present day, and in cultures across the world. The conference aims to situate birth in the contexts of family and society, evaluate the attitudes of individuals, groups and governments to birth, explore the impact of birth, and assess changes and continuities in the experience of birth.

The conference programme includes a public lecture by Professor Simon Szreter, a keynote lecture by Professor Kate Fisher, a roundtable on the politics of procreation, and a handling session with objects from Thackray Medical Museum.

Please follow this link for further information and a full programme. There are limited places available for the conference – register now to avoid disappointment.

The cost to attend the conference is £25 (full)/£15 (students, unwaged, 1 day attendance).

At 5pm on Thursday 18th September, we will be hosting a free public lecture by Professor Simon Szreter (University of Cambridge), in association with the History and Policy Parenting Forum. The lecture is entitled ‘Births and the collective provision of welfare – the long view c.1550-2014’, and is followed by a reception. All are welcome, and no registration is necessary.

For more information, please contact the conference organisers, Alex Bamji (< and Laura King (<

Laura King and Alex Bamji

Health, Medicine and Society research group
School of History
University of Leeds
Michael Sadler Building

The next De Partu History of Childbirth event, to include a members’ meeting and the presentation of papers, will be held at the historic Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester on 14th October 2014.

Chetham's Library
Chetham’s Library

More details of the programme, which includes lunch, a short guided tour of the school and a musical interlude, will follow soon.

Janette Allotey

New book: Pregnancy and birth in early modern France

This new book may be of interest:

Pregnancy and birth in early modern France: treatises by caring physicians and surgeons (1581-1625). François Rousset, Jean Liebault, Jacques Guillemeau, Jacques Duval, and Louis de Serres. Edited and translated by Valerie Worth-Stylianou (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2013), ISBN Softcover 978-0-7727-2138-9; Electronic 978-0-7727-2139-6.  (The electronic edition is available to institutions only.)

The flyer (hyperlinked) will allow you to purchase the book from the University of Toronto Press on its website with an early bird 20% discount should any of you be interested in ordering it for your university libraries.

Pregnancy and birth in early modern France











Janette Allotey
School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work
University of Manchester


De Partu site maintenance

The De Partu site is currently undergoing maintenance. You will notice the new background image (from Muscio, courtesy of the Wellcome Library) and new member login with the logo above. I am pleased to report that I have now identified a solution to the member login issue. The new login box (to be found at the top right-hand corner of each page) will work with the existing member logins, and includes a password reminder facility. Access to the links, archive of blog posts and tag cloud is now restricted to members. Please keep a look out in the coming weeks for additional content, including new images and the full text of the 1936 Midwives Act to accompany those of 1902 and 1918.

Catherine Ebenezer, web editor

Dr Louisa Owsley, midwife and homoeopath (Texas, late 19th century)

 Dr Louisa Owsley Dr Louisa Owsley – the first female homoeopath doctor of Denton County in Texas. She practised homoeopathic medicine and was a skilled midwife, delivering over 4,000 babies in her 34-year career. She was still working at age 75 when, one night in a bad storm, probably on her way to a delivery, her horse and cart were swept off a bridge, and she drowned.

More about Louisa Owsley