From left: Helen George as Trixie Franklin, Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee and Bryony Hannah as Cynthia Miller
Thursday, 13 February 2014

TO THE MIDWIFE, WITH LOVE

Call The Midwife is now a British television staple. But Jennifer Worth’s original books attracted a flood of letters that revive a lost age…

Jennifer Worth attending a wedding in 1959Jennifer Worth attending a wedding in 1959Every Sunday, millions tune into BBC television drama Call The Midwife, a series based on Jennifer Worth’s bestselling stories about her own experiences as a nurse and midwife in the East End of London. Worth’s books, including Call The Midwife and Shadows Of The Workhouse, captured the imagination of a global audience, many of whom began corresponding with her. Their heartfelt letters are fi lled with vivid memories of a bygone age.

Here are a few selected from a marvellous new book, out this month. 

9 June 2009
Dear Mrs Worth,
I am 52 years old and find myself writing to an author for the first time in my life. I just had to say thank you… Browsing through the bookshelves of a local shop for something to read on holiday, my eyes were drawn to Shadows Of The Workhouse…
I am a 6ft tall, 14 stone biker trained in martial arts, but I am not ashamed to admit you made me weep with sadness more than once. As soon as I returned to the UK, I purchased Call The Midwife, which I read with equal pleasure…
Even though the conditions were tough, I can’t help thinking that society has lost something intangible that runs through every page of your story…
With much gratitude and thanks,
Paul Jennings 

2 July 2009
Dear Mrs Worth,
…It’s interesting to read about the 1950s. One of my memories is going with a friend to visit his grandmother. We must have been 10 or 11. She lived in a little house with a back yard, and when we entered she was sitting in an old rocking chair by the side of the fire. She had a little beard on the end of her chin, and was smoking a pipe; as if that wasn’t strange enough, she kept two pigs in the back yard! The back yard was approximately 6ft x 12ft.
I was brought up in a house with a back yard and they were all similar (minus the pigs). At the end of the yard was an outside ‘petty’ (toilet) and at the other end, the kitchen. Placed on top of the toilet roof and kitchen roof were some old planks of wood under which was the black pot for boiling up the ‘pig swill’, vegetable waste, peelings etc. We had never heard about Health and Safety in those days…
All the best,
P Jackson

Caroline Slack first wrote to Jennifer Worth in 2008, suspecting that one of the most beloved characters in Call The Midwife – Sister Julienne – might have been her aunt. She received this reply.

Dear Mrs Slack,
I was overjoyed to get your letter and to know that you are a relative of Sister Jocelyn, who is Sister Julienne [played by Jenny Agutter in the television series] in my books, and who was probably the most influential person in my life. She was a saint.
I would love to meet you and to hear more about Auntie Jocey. I attended her weekly during her last illness, and went to the funeral service… Sister Jocelyn was a serious artist, and a big pile of her pictures went to the family… I took two pictures, which I treasure, and they are framed and hang in my bedroom to this day.
Yours sincerely,
Jennifer Worth

When they met, Caroline remembers how ‘We were struck by Jennifer’s dynamism and energy… She arrived in her cycling shorts with her bike and at the end of the afternoon she set off home on an arduous nine-mile bicycle ride, putting us all to shame!’

Caroline Slack’s cousin, Corinne Orde, also wrote to Jennifer Worth. 

Sister Jocelyn (Sister Julienne is based on her in the book), with Jennifer's daughter Suzannah; Jennifer, her husband Philip, and SuzannahSister Jocelyn (Sister Julienne is based on her in the book), with Jennifer's daughter Suzannah; Jennifer, her husband Philip, and Suzannah

6 February 2009
Dear Mrs Worth,
…My cousin Caroline Slack sent me the first book, saying that it featured our Auntie Jocey. She didn’t tell me which particular Sister in the book she was, but there were various pointers that made Sister Julienne the most likely candidate, and when I reached page 133 of the paperback edition I found the defi nitive clue which clinched the matter: ‘Sister Julienne’s eyes twinkled’…
These books have opened my eyes to the true nature of Auntie Jocey’s work… She kept that side of her life mostly hidden from her family (partly out of discretion but also, I suppose, because she thought we wouldn’t be interested); and her calm, goodhumoured, ever-optimistic demeanour betrayed nothing of what she must have experienced as some truly appalling and heartbreaking episodes in a working life that was gruelling by any standards…
With best wishes,
Corinne Orde

Jennifer Worth also corresponded with Sister Jocelyn herself. This humorous anecdote was included in one of Jocelyn’s letters to her.

Letters to the midwife
St Aidan’s Day
Dear Jenny,
…In retreat in June we heard a rather nice story about an overseas Bishop who was so worried about his diocese he could not sleep… Finally he got up and sat in his chair turning things over and over, then he looked up. God was standing there and God said, ‘Get out of that chair and get into bed. I’ll sit in the chair and do the worrying, after all it’s my world, not yours.’
So he went back to bed and slept soundly and God sat in the chair! I think there is a lot of truth in that story.
Much love to you and all,
Jocelyn 

15 June 2009
Dear Jennifer Worth,
…This area you write about is of great interest to me as I was born in 1944 in Hackney, opposite Victoria Park, and then lived in Bethnal Green…
The reason for this letter is the picture of the girl on the front of Call The Midwife… the little girl on the left is either me or my twin sister Ruth… We have many happy memories of growing up in the East End of London,
Regards,
Ann Croft 

Letters to the midwife
25 November 2003
Dear Ms Worth,
It is over 50 years since I wrote my one and only ‘ fan letter’ (to Roy Rogers) and I now feel compelled to do it again to you. The reason is your enthralling Call The Midwife…
Both my late husband and I were born in Poplar, and as he died last year my mind has more frequently revisited our courting days. And when I opened your book I was immediately back in my childhood. I could even smell the smoke of the occasional train at the bottom of our street…
When I started my own family here in Dagenham in 1964 my GP believed in first births in hospital (but not the local ones) and subsequent ones at home. So he sent me to Bancroft Road, Mile End for my first and, as was normal, booked the Salvation Army nurses and midwives for the next two at home. What lovely ladies they were… their antenatal clinics were more like a social club of friends…
Yours faithfully,
Mrs Norah Dear 

23 June 2008
Dear Jennifer Worth,
I also was a midwife in the 1950s… My training was in Newcastle upon Tyne mainly in the Scotswood area. It was quite rough, but like you, the nurse was respected, even by drunks.
Yours sincerely,
Yvonne Fenwick

Extracted from Letters To The Midwife: Correspondence With Jennifer Worth, the author of Call The Midwife, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £14.99 in hardback and £7.49 in ebook.


MEMORIES OF MIDWIFERY TRAINING IN POPLAR, E14 IN 1955-56 

…We cycled everywhere, bumping over cobbles with midwifery bag in front and the ‘gas or air machine’ (nitrous oxide analgesia) on the back. We were not afraid in the (then) docklands at night. Uniform was respected…
Newspaper was used to protect furniture. I remember a novice who was overseeing one delivery browsing through the magazine Reveille – I teased her about it…
Jo Willoughby, SRN, SCM QIDNS and HV Tutor


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