House was not a prison. When she did, the chances of her being recognised, Father Joe speculated, were very real, and Mary’s fears of abduction or murder were not a fantasy.
In her eighth month of pregnancy, and still only fifteen years old, she was transferred to a home for mothers and babies run by the Roman Catholic Church. It was in Kent, and I went there once, about a fortnight before the baby was born. Mary was full of excitement and happiness. She enjoyed the company and friendship of the other women and girls, who were not prostitutes, but were from the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. Many of them had babies, and Mary was able to indulge
her instincts in the gentlest and happiest of all feminine activities. The nuns held classes in baby care, and she happily bathed and dressed dolls, and listened to talks on colic, nappy rash and breastfeeding, counting the days until her baby would be born.
The staff at Church House received a postcard the same morning as one arrived for me, telling of the birth of a little girl, Kathleen. I thought one of the nuns must have written it, because I knew that Mary could read a little, but could barely write. However, her name was written in big letters across the bottom, with a row of kisses. I was deeply touched by these straggly X’s, about twenty-five of them, and I
wondered who else she had communicated her wonderful news to with so many kisses. Her mother? Her brothers and sisters? Did she know where her drunken mother was, or her sisters in the orphanage in Dublin? If a postcard had been sent to the old address as she remembered it, had it been received, or had the family moved on? Did anyone else know? Did anyone else care? Tears came to my eyes as I looked at the row of X’s, kisses showered with such lavish affection on someone she had merely picked up at a bus stop.
A few days later, it being my day off, I went to see Mary in Kent, feeling that someone must rejoice with her over
this miraculous event. On the journey, I pondered that it might be the making of her. Motherhood brings out the best in most women, and flighty, giddy young girls often become responsible, reliable mothers, as soon as the baby is born. I had not the slightest doubt that she was a sweet and loving young girl, who was too trusting by half. I reflected that it had been her gentle, trusting nature, combined with the poverty and physical hardships of her life, that had led her to prostitution in the first place. There was no doubt that she hated it, and had been virtually a slave. Now she was liberated.
The train jogged along through the countryside, and I felt a quiet wave of
satisfaction and pleasure. I had not reflected upon how she was going to support herself and the baby.
I found Mary radiant with happiness. The soft glow of early motherhood emanated from her, and seemed to embrace me with its warmth as I entered the door. Two months’ rest, good food and good antenatal care, had worked miracles on her. Gone was the pale, pinched look, gone the nervous hand movements; above all, the fear had disappeared from her eyes. She was completely unconscious of her beauty, which made her all the more appealing. And the baby? Well of course, every baby is the most beautiful in the world, and this little one surpassed all others
without even trying! Kathleen was ten days old, and Mary told me all about her excellence: how well she slept, how well she fed, how she gurgled and laughed and kicked. She prattled on joyously, totally absorbed by her own all-consuming love. I left thinking that this was the best thing that could possibly have happened to her, and that a new life was opening up for Mary.
A fortnight or so later a postcard arrived:
NERS JENY NONATUN HOSE POPLER LUNDUN
It is a tribute to our postal service that it arrived at all, for, apart from the address, it had no stamp. On the back
BABY GON. CUM TOO SE MEE. MARY xxxxxx.
I showed the card to Sister Julienne, feeling concerned.
“Does GON mean gone? If so where? Surely it cannot mean the baby has died?” I asked.
Sister turned the card over in her hand several times, before saying: “No, I think if the baby had died, she would have written DED. You had better go to see her on your day off, which is obviously what she wants.”
The train journey to Kent seemed longer and more tiresome than the previous one. I had no happy thoughts to make the time fly past. My mind was
puzzled, and an unpleasant feeling of foreboding would not go away.
The mother and baby home looked much the same as before, pleasant open grounds, prams dotted about the gardens, smiling young women, nuns going about their work. I entered, and was taken to a sitting room.
I was stunned when I saw Mary. She looked absolutely ghastly: her face was swollen, red and blotchy, with great rings under her eyes. She stared at me, unseeing. Her hair was dishevelled, her clothes were torn. I stood in the doorway looking at her, but she did not see me; instead she leapt up, rushed to the window, and began to hammer the glass with her fists, moaning all the
while. Then she ran to the opposite side of the room and beat her forehead on the wall. It was hard to believe what I was seeing.
I went over to her and said “Mary” quite loudly. I repeated her name several times. She turned, eventually recognising me, and gave a cry. She grabbed me and tried to speak, but words wouldn’t come.
I led her to a sofa, and sat her down.
“What is it?” I asked “What has happened?”
“They have taken my baby.” “Where?”
“I don’t know. They won’t tell me.” “When?”
“I don’t know. But she’s gone. She wasn’t there in the morning.”
I didn’t know what to say. What can one say to such terrible news? We stared at one another in mute horror, then she winced with pain, a pain that seemed to suffuse her entire body. She threw her arms outwards and fell back against the cushions. I saw at once what the trouble was. She had been breastfeeding, and now, with no milk being drawn off, her breasts were horribly engorged. I leaned forward and opened her blouse. Both breasts were enormous, as hard as stone, and the left side was bright red and hot to touch. ‘She could get a breast abscess,’ I thought. ‘In fact she probably has one already.’
She moaned: “It hurts,” and gritted her teeth together to stop herself from screaming.
My mind was in turmoil. What on earth had happened? I couldn’t believe that Mary’s baby had been taken away. When the worst spasm of pain had passed, I said, “I am going to see the Reverend Mother.”
She grasped my hand. “Oh yes, I knew you would get my baby back.”
She smiled, and as she did so, tears flooded her eyes, and she turned her head into the cushion, sobbing pitifully.
I left, and enquired my way to the Reverend Mother’s office.
The room was bare and sparsely furnished: a desk, two wooden chairs,
and a cupboard. The walls were white, and only a bare crucifix broke the smooth surface. The Reverend Mother’s habit was entirely black, with a white veil. She looked middle-aged, and very handsome. Her expression was serene and open. I felt at once that I could talk to her.
“Where is Mary’s baby?” I demanded aggressively.
The Reverend Mother looked at me steadily, before replying, “The baby has been placed for adoption.”
“Without the mother’s consent?” “Consent is not necessary. The
child is only fourteen.” “Fifteen,” I said.
“Fourteen or fifteen, it makes no
difference. She is still legally a child, and consent is neither valid nor invalid.” “But how dare you take her baby away without her knowledge. It is killing
The Reverend Mother sighed. She sat perfectly straight, not resting against the back of the chair, her hands folded beneath her scapular. She looked timeless, ageless, pitiless. Only the cross on her breast moved to the rhythm of her breathing. She said evenly, “The baby is being adopted into a good Roman Catholic family who have one child. The mother, due to an illness, can have no more. Mary’s baby will have a good upbringing and a good education. She will have all the advantages of a
good Christian home.”
“Good Christian home be bothered,” I said, my anger rising. “Nothing can replace a mother’s love, and Mary loves her baby. She will die, or go mad, from the grief.”
The Reverend Mother sat for a moment, quietly looking at the branch of a tree that was moving just outside the window. Then she turned her head slowly, and looked straight into my eyes. This slow, deliberate movement of her head, first towards the window, and then back towards me, helped to check my anger. Her face was sad. Perhaps she is not pitiless, I thought.
“We have done all we can to trace Mary’s family. We have spent three
months searching parish and civil records in Ireland, with no success. Mary’s mother is a drunk, and cannot be traced. There are no living uncles or aunts. The father is dead. The younger siblings are in care. If we could have found any relative or guardian who would take Mary and her baby, and pledge responsibility for them, there is no doubt at all that she would have been able to keep her baby. However, we could find no one. In the wider interests of the baby, the decision was taken for adoption.”
“But it will kill Mary,” I said.
The Reverend Mother did no answer this, but said: “How can a girl of fifteen, with no literacy, no home, no
trade beyond that of prostitution, support and care for a growing child?”
It was my turn not to answer the question.
“She has left prostitution,” I said. The Reverend Mother sighed again
and paused for quite a long time before speaking. “You are young, my dear, and full of righteous indignation, which our Lord loves. But you must understand that it is very, very rare for a prostitute to leave the trade. It is too easy to make money. A girl is hard up, and the opportunity is always there. Why slave away all day in a factory for five shillings, when you can earn ten or fifteen shillings in half an hour? We know from experience that few things
are more damaging to a growing child than to watch mother working on the streets.”
“But you cannot condemn her for what she has not yet done.”
“No, we do not condemn, nor blame. The Church forgives. In any case it is quite clear that Mary was more sinned against than sinning. Our main concern is for the protection and upbringing of the baby. Mary has nowhere to go when she leaves here. Who will take her in? We endeavoured to find a residential post in service for Mary to go to, but with a baby no such post could be found.”
I was silent. The Reverend Mother’s logic was irrefutable. I
repeated my earlier point, “But it will kill her. She already looks half mad.”
The Reverend Mother sat perfectly still, the leaves fluttering outside the window. She did not speak for about half a minute. Then she said: “We are born into suffering, uncertainty, and death. My mother had fifteen children. Only four survived childhood. Eleven times my mother suffered the agonies that Mary is going through. Countless millions of women throughout history have buried most of the children they have borne, and endured the sorrows of child bereavement. They have lived through it, as Mary will, and they have borne more children, as I hope Mary will.”
I could say nothing. Perhaps I should have ranted and railed about the arrogance and presumption of taking the decision out of Mary’s control; I could have sneered at the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church; I could have asked why could the Church not support Mary and her baby for a few years? I could, perhaps should, have said many things, but I was silenced by my own knowledge of the statistics of child mortality, by the depth of understanding in her words, and by the sadness in her eyes.
I merely said, “Will Mary ever know who has adopted her baby?”
The Reverend Mother shook her head.
“No. Even I do not know the actual name. None of the Sisters are ever told. The adoption is completely anonymous, but you can assure Mary that her baby has gone to a good Catholic family, and that she will have a good home.”
There was nothing more to be said, and the Reverend Mother rose from her seat. This was the signal that the interview was over. She withdrew her right hand from behind her scapular and held it out to me. Long, slender, sensitive fingers. It is not often that you see such a beautiful hand, and as I took it, her grasp was firm and warm. Our eyes met, with sadness and, I think, mutual respect.
I returned to the sitting room. Mary
leapt from the sofa as I entered, her face alight with expectancy. But she read my features in an instant and, with a cry of despair, she fell back on to the sofa and buried her head in the cushions again. I sat beside her, trying to console her, but consolation was impossible. I told her the baby would go to a good home, where she would be well looked after. I tried to tell her how impossible it would be for her to work, and live, and support a growing child. I don’t think she heard or understood anything I said. Her face remained hidden in the cushions. I told her I had to leave soon, but she did not respond at all. I tried to stroke her hair, but she pushed my hand away angrily. I crept out of the room, and shut the door
quietly, too sad even to say goodbye.
I did not see Mary again. I wrote to her once, but received no reply. A month later, I wrote to Reverend Mother, enquiring, and was informed that Mary had accepted a residential post as a ward maid in a hospital in Birmingham. I wrote to her there but again, no reply.
Circumstances bring people together, and take them apart. One cannot keep up with everyone in a lifetime. In any event, was there any true friendship between myself and Mary? Probably not. It was mainly a friendship of dependence on her part, with pity and (I’m almost ashamed to confess it) curiosity, on my part. I was intrigued to find out more about the hidden world of
prostitution. That is no basis for a meeting of minds, and true affection, so I let the contact drop.
Some years later - by which time I was very happily married with two children - front page headlines in all the papers carried the story that a baby had been snatched from a pram in a suburb of Manchester. Desperate and tearful parents were interviewed on television, begging for the return of their baby. A nationwide police hunt was launched, and sightings of the possible kidnapper were reported from all over the country. All of them proved to be red herrings. Twelve days passed, and the story receded from public attention.
On the fourteenth day, I read that a
woman had been apprehended in Liverpool, boarding a boat for Ireland. She was carrying a six-week-old baby, and was being held for questioning. A few days later, a larger report carried the story that the woman questioned had been charged with the unlawful abduction of a baby two weeks earlier. The photograph was of Mary.
She was held in custody for five months awaiting trial. During all that time, I wondered if I should go to see her, but did not do so. Part of my hesitation was because I wondered what on earth we would talk about, but also, with two children under three, a home to care for, and a part-time night sister’s post, a trip to Liverpool and back - to
what end? - was an intimidating prospect.
I followed the trial in the newspapers. Mitigating circumstances of the loss of her own baby were raised. Her counsel emphasised the fact that the baby had been well cared for, and stressed that no harm was intended. But the prosecution dwelt upon the suffering of the parents and the vagrant, unstable life that Mary had always led. Twenty-six other offences of soliciting and petty larceny were taken into consideration.
The jury found Mary guilty, with a plea for mercy. Nonetheless, the judge sent her down for three years, with a recommendation that psychiatric treatment should be given whilst the
prisoner was in Her Majesty’s custody. Mary commenced her sentence in
Manchester Prison for Women in her twenty-first year.
Due to a broken shoulder I was unable to take the final midwifery exam, and had to wait several months for the next sitting. Sister Julienne suggested I might join the General District practice for added experience. Thus, I had the privilege of working with old people who had been born in the nineteenth century.
Sister Evangelina was in charge of General District nursing. Whilst I was eager to undertake the nursing, I was not at all keen to work with Sister Evangelina, whom I found ponderous
and humourless. Also, she gave me to understand, subtly but unmistakably, that she did not at all approve of me. She was constantly finding fault: a door banged; a window left open; untidiness; day-dreaming (“wool-gathering” she called it); boisterousness; singing in the clinical room; forgetfulness, the list was endless. I could do nothing right for Sister Evangelina. When Sister Julienn informed her that I was to work with her, she stared at me, her heavy features set in a dour expression, then said “Humph!” and turned and stomped away. Not a word more!
We worked together for several months and, whilst I never grew close to her, I certainly grew to understand her
better, and to realise that all nuns, by the very fact of their monastic profession, are exceptional people. No ordinary woman could live such a life. There must inevitably be something, or many things, that are oustanding about a nun.
To me, Sister Evangelina looked about forty-five; an unimaginable age when you are twenty-three. But nuns always look years younger than they really are, and she had, in fact, been a nurse in the First World War, so therefore must have been over sixty at the time of which I am writing.
The first morning did not start well. The clinical room boiler had gone out, and her instruments and syringes were therefore not sterile. She called loudly
and crossly to Fred to come and attend to it, and grumbled about “that useless man” as he whistled his tuneless way downstairs with his shovels and rakes and pokers. She ordered me to “go to the kitchen, and boil these things up on the gas stove, whilst I sort out the dressings, and look sharp about it”. On the way to the door, a glass syringe fell out of the overflowing kidney dish and broke on the stone floor. She shouted at me about carelessness and clumsiness and what she has to put up with these days. When she got to the bit about “flighty young girls” I fled, leaving the broken glass behind me. In the kitchen, Mrs B. was a the gas stove with half a dozen saucepans boiling away merrily, and she
did not receive me amicably. Consequently it took quite a long time to sterilise the things, and I could hear Sister Evangelina shouting before I had even left the kitchen. She took the equipment from me to pack the bags, commenting on my “dawdling around, and wool-gathering, as usual, and didn’t I realise we had twenty-three insulin injections, and four sterile dressings, and two leg ulcers, and three post-operative hernias, as well as two catheterisations, two bed-baths and three enemas to get through before lunch?”.
All the midwives had gone, and we were the last to leave that morning. The bicycle shed was nearly empty. Sister Evangelina’s favourite bicycle had been
taken, inadvertently, by someone else. Her nose grew red, her eyes bulged, and she muttered under her breath about how she “didn’t like this one, and that old Triumph was too small, and the Sunbeam was too high”, and she supposed she would have to make do with the Raleigh, but it wasn’t the one she liked.
Respectfully, I pulled the Raleigh out for her, fixed the black bag on the back, and watched the tyres sag as her large, heavy body clambered onto it. I think I realised then that she was not in her forties. Her square, bulky frame had no agility, and it was only by sheer determination and will power that she got herself pedalling at all.
Once out on the road her mood seemed to lighten, and she turned to me with something that resembled a smile. Along the streets numerous voices called out “Mornin’, Sister Evie.” She smiled brightly - I hadn’t seen her smile like that before - and called gaily back. Once she tried a wave, but the bike wobbled perilously, so she didn’t try again. I began to think that she was popular and well known in the area.
In the houses she was bluff and gruff, and not at all polite (I thought), but nonetheless everyone seemed to take it in good part.
“Now then, Mr Thomas, have you got your sample ready? Don’t keep me waiting; I’ve got to test it, and I haven’t
all day to hang around waiting for you. Right, hold still for the injection. Hold still, I said. Now, I’m off. If you star eating sweets, they’ll kill you. Not that I would care, and I dare say your missus would be glad to see the back of you, but the dog would miss you.”
I was shocked. This was no way to talk to patients, according to the nursing textbooks. But the old man and his missus roared with laughter, and he said: “If I goes first, I’ll keep a place warm for yer, eh, Sis Evie? An’ we can share the ol’ toasting fork.”
I thought she would be furious at such effrontery, but she stomped downstairs in good humour, with “Out of my way, boy” to a child we met in the
Her good humour, and her rough badinage with all the patients, continued throughout the morning. I ceased to be startled, because I realised that this was what the patients liked about her. She approached them all without a trace of sentimentality or condescension. The older Docklanders were accustomed to meeting middle-class do-gooders, who deigned to act graciously to inferiors. The Cockneys despised these people, used them for what they could get, and made fun of them behind their backs, but Sister Evangelina had no patronising airs and graces. She would have been incapable of them. Imagination was not her strong point, and she could not have
contrived nor invented anything. She was unswervingly honest, and reacted to every person and every situation without guile or affectation.
As the months passed I began to understand why Sister Evangelina was so popular. It was because she was one of them. She was not a Cockney, but had been born into a very poor working-class family from Reading. She never told me this (she hardly ever spoke to me) but, from remarks made to the patients, it became perfectly clear. For example, “These young housewives, they don’t know they’re born. What! A lavatory in every flat? Remember the old middens, do you, Dad, and the newspaper on the seat, and queueing up
in the frost when you’re bursting?” This was usually followed by laughter, and some coarse lavatorial humour, ending up with the old chestnut about the chap who fell in a midden and came up with a gold watch. Lavatory humour was not considered vulgar or in bad taste amongst the working class during the early part of the last century, because the natural bodily functions were a conspicuous event. There was no privacy. A dozen or more families shared one midden, which had only half a door, the upper and lower portions being missing. So everyone knew who was in it, could hear everything and, above all, could smell everything. “She’s a stinker” was not a moral
observation, but a statement of fact. Sister Evangelina shared this robust
humour. Before an enema: “Now then, Dad, we’re going to put a squib up your arse, shake your insides about a bit. Got the jerry ready, Mother, and the clothes pegs to clip on our noses.” Laughter would continue about how he hadn’t “been” for a fortnight, and there must be a turd inside as big as an elephant’s. And no one was the slightest bit embarrassed, least of all the patient.
No, indeed, Sister Evangelina was not humourless. The only trouble was that at Nonnatus House her humour was different from everyone else’s. She was surrounded by middle-class values, and the safety-valve of humour, which was
common to all the nuns, was perpetually closed to her. She simply couldn’t understand their jokes, so she always had to watch to see when everyone else was laughing and then joined in, somewhat half-heartedly.
Equally, her own brand of humour would definitely not have been appreciated in the convent. In fact it would have been greeted with severe disapprobation. Perhaps she had tried in the past, and been required by the Reverend Mother to do penance for loose or unguarded speech, so the young novice had simply buttoned herself up, and outwardly appeared solemn and heavily serious. It was only with her patients in the docklands that she could
truly be herself.
Even her speech slipped from the middle-class pronunciation that she had acquired over the years into an approximation of the Cockney dialect. She never spoke broad Cockney - that would have been an affectation of which she was incapable - but certain phrases and idioms came naturally to her. She would talk freely about “Mystic Spec”, which puzzled me greatly, until I discovered it was Cockney slang for Mist. Expect., “Mist.” being medical Latin, short for “mixture”, and “expect.”, short for “expectorant”. This meant Ipecacuanha, which could be bought at any chemist’s, and was the sovereign remedy for just about everything. She
also talked about “pew-monica” for pneumonia, and “the screws” for rheumatism, “Uncle Dick” for a bit sick, or “a touch of the inkey blue”, meaning flu. She had a variety of expressions for an intestinal disorder - the runs, the squitters, the gripes, the cramps, the needles - all of which were greeted with howls of laughter. She obviously understood a lot of Cockney rhyming slang, although she did not use it much. Having said that, I remember being flummoxed when she told me to get her “weasel”, and just stared at her, not daring to ask what she meant. Someone else fetched her coat.
She shared the older people’s fear of hospitals, a fear which was widely
expressed through scorn and derision. Most hospitals in England, even in the 1950s, were converted workhouses, so the buildings alone had an aura of degradation and death for people who had lived all their lives with the terror of being sent to the workhouse. Sister Evangelina did nothing to dispel this fear of hospitals; in fact she actively encouraged it, an attitude that would have been heavily censored by the Royal College of Nursing, had they known about it. She would say things like, “You don’t want to go into hospital to be messed about by a lot of students”, or “They only make out they treat the poor for the benefit of the rich”, both statements implying that the hospitals
liked to experiment on their poor patients. She proclaimed, from experience, that women who went into hospital with complications after a back-street abortion were deliberately given a rough time. That Sister Evangelina was incapable of inventing, or even exaggerating, anything, spoke to the truth of her statement. Whether or not such treatment was widespread in England in the early part of this century I am unable to say. However, in the mid 1950s, I had witnessed the appalling truth of her remark in a Paris hospital, an experience I have been unable to forget to this day.
Sister Evangelina had plenty of homespun advice to offer her patients: “Where-ere you be, let your wind go
free”, to which the reply was always chanted: “In Church and Chapel let i rattle”. Once an old man followed this by “Oops! sorry, Sister, no disrespect”, and she replied, “None taken - I’m sure the Rector does it an’ all.” Constipation, diarrhoea, leeks and greens, gripes and pipes, flutes and fluffs provided more hilarity than any other subject, and Sister Evangelina was always in the thick of it. After recovering from my initial shock, I realised that it was not considered to be vulgar or obscene. If the Kings of France had been able to defecate daily before his entire Court, so could the Cockneys! On the other hand, sexual obscenities and blasphemy were strictly taboo in respectable Poplar families, and sexual