THE historian Sir Geoffrey Elton, uncle of the writer and comedian Ben Elton, once wrote that most history “remains unwritten”. He was a great supporter of the idea that it is mainly about people and stories. He might have loved to delve into the records of the bishops of Winchester at a time when they had the power to appoint all sorts of professionals, including midwives.

In 1694 Sally Mallys received a testimonial to support her application to practise midwifery. It stated that she had “served her time with Mrs Mary Wilkinson of St Dunstan, Stepney, Middlesex”. Similar testimonials were also given, in 1708, to Mary Hockley of Easton “midwife, bloodletter and healer of wounds”, and in 1725 to Rachel Blunden, married to Argent Blunden, a surgeon from Bishopstoke.

The Hampshire Record Office contains many such testimonials. They were required by the diocesan office, which had the power to issue licences to midwives. It was a practice that went on until the late eighteenth century, when midwifery was increasingly regarded as part of medicine. By the early 1800s, for example, Jane Austen’s doctor John Lyford of Basingstoke was described as “surgeon and midwife”.

The advent of the man-midwife was controversial and in more recent times has sometimes been presented as an attempt by men to exert power over women. However, social historians have found that the trend towards men as midwives was first started by upper-class women, who wanted to avoid the “midwife and gossips” who often gathered around a lying-in – they wanted less Call the Midwife and more “call the doctor”!

The church had long taken midwifery seriously for various reasons. Whenever the archdeacon or other church officer, for example, made a visitation to the parish the midwife would be asked to show her licence. It was believed that an unbaptised child was damned and therefore, in the event of a difficult birth, the midwife had to be able to perform the necessary rite. After the Reformation the oath taken by midwives forbade them from baptising a child of Catholic parentage. The midwife also had to swear that she would be honest in cases of bastardy and would not “switch” children.

And she had to have the necessary “cunning”, to serve rich and poor equally, not to engage in sorcery, to keep the “secrets” of the practice from men, and not to mutilate the foetus with instruments. Midwives often supported women in the practice of churching, when they were readmitted to their parish church several weeks after giving birth. For some it was an occasion for festivities, for others avoided it “smacked of Popery”.

The church also licensed several of other professions, including schoolmasters and “lecturers” –as assistant preachers were called – surgeons and physicians, and parish clerks and sextons. Schoolmaster had to adhere to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, drawn up in 1571 for “avoiding diversities of opinion”, to ensure that children were instructed in the “true faith”.

Long after it had lost the power to issue licences to midwives, the Church continued to show an interest in maternity, if mainly for unmarried women. In 1913 the Diocesan Maternity Home opened in North Walls on the site of the former Winchester Refuge for Penitent Women. It was for women who “wanted to keep their babies” and replaced St Andrews Home, Hayling Island.

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