The Politics of the Mother and Child
The heavy losses borne on the Western Front underlined the value of raising a healthy infant population to replace the lost generation foundering on the battlefields of Europe. Yet, the Government’s own wartime statistics suggested one of every eight children in Britain failed to reach their first birthday, rendering the plight of mother and baby a major issue both during and directly after the conflict.
The First World War challenged many common attitudes towards gender, not just in the public sphere but at home — which was still the most common workplace for the majority of women between 1914 and 1918.
As the fighting wore on and the casualties mounted, the state redirected more and more resources into improving maternity services. This found expression in the rapid rise of child welfare centres, which doubled in number during the war. Wellington’s arrived in May 1916 when a facility was opened at the Wrekin Buildings in Walker Street, operating on Thursday afternoons. Intended for the use of the entire district, the Wellington Journal confidently declared that ‘being market day, the centre should prove particularly useful to country mothers’. In time, that was proved beyond doubt and it became one of the town’s most enduring homefront legacies.
The Endowment of Motherhood
When plans for the centre were announced opinion among local councillors was divided. While its necessity was widely recognised, there was concern about whether mothers would tolerate outside interference in their affairs. The facility represented part of a Shropshire-wide scheme for visiting every birth in the area. A health worker with responsibility for carrying out the task in the Wellington district (one of six administrative divisions in the county) was appointed and she, together with a doctor, also staffed the Child Welfare Centre — weighing babies and providing advice to their mothers where it was needed. In conjunction, the town council set-up a voluntary association to raise funds for the centre and organise baby shows, which were an abiding annual feature of its early years.
Those early discussions also aired some common perceptions that proponents of the national child welfare movement wished vehemently to challenge. While the chair of Wellington Urban District Council welcomed the ‘assistance of qualified women to give them advice at the times necessary for it’ he was in ‘no doubt much of the loss of young life or defects after birth were due to the ignorance of the mothers themselves’. The war had done much to disprove that viewpoint. With their men away fighting, many women for the first time had control of household finances and from 1915 were paid wartime separation allowances directly. This was a critically important moment for prominent campaigners such as Eleanor Rathbone who were able to demonstrate, thanks to the anecdotal evidence of the newly-appointed health workers up down the country, rapid improvements in the quality of infant health that resulted almost overnight from those direct payments. Put simply, her argument was that the poor health of the nation’s children wasn’t simply a matter of maternal fecklessness or ignorance but the material result of a lack of resources, principally money!
A Home for Ailing Babies
A report heard at the Police Court in February 1919 (to the general amazement of all assembled, reported the Journal) showed convictions for drunkenness in Wellington had fallen from 188 to a mere 13 between 1913 and 1918. Whether that reduction in consumption, and money being spent elsewhere, resulted in improvements to the health of the town’s infants is impossible to quantify but the effect of the Child Welfare Centre is not — its activities were transformative. In 1918, the Government introduced a new Maternity and Child Welfare Act, which greatly strengthened the hand of local authorities in making provision for expectant mothers, infants and children aged under five, allowing the provision of services not dissimilar to a modern-day health centre (of which the facility in Wellington was a direct forerunner). By 1924, the number of deaths of infants aged under one had dropped to just five and the mortality rate stood at 35 per 1000 (the national rate was 69), breaking all previous local records. In 1925, the figure fell again and an unprecedented 4402 children aged under five attended the centre, which was now based next to the library in Walker Street. The balance sheet reported a deficit that year due, it was said at the centre’s annual general meeting, to the sheer range of services being offered. However Dr White, the Medical Officer of Health, was in no doubt of its efficacy declaring ‘the child welfare movement was the most important factor in the reduction’.
The Child Welfare Centre was not the only facility offering treatment to infants in post-war Wellington. In 1918, Flora Dugdale and her husband Walter established a Home for Ailing Babies at a house in Wrockwardine Road in the west of the town. At the first annual general meeting of its management committee, in July 1919, those assembled heard of the work of national significance being carried out on the cutting edge of a new branch of paediatric medicine. Indeed, Mrs Hart, the Inspector of Midwives, was happy to concur on the ‘profound importance of work among babies’ taking place at the facility. Just five years later, it had fulfilled the wishes of its founder by becoming the County Home for Ailing Babies, taking cases from all across the region and treating over 50 infants. Flora and Walter Dugdale were seasoned local philanthropists and their good deeds also extended to the residents of the local children’s home at Brooklyn House — who they annually entertained at their Meeson Hall home near Cherrington. 1919 was significant for them, too, as it was in that year that the Wellington Union Poor Law Guardians purchased the property next to the Cock Hotel crossroads on Watling Street outright, which was operating near capacity. In numerous ways, the townsfolk of Wellington were rising to the challenges of the era to ensure the generation that followed the Great War would have its chance to thrive.