Common Threads: Characters that framed the villages
Women whose calming presence, words of encouragement and even the simple offer of tea and toast will be remembered long after the pain has been forgotten by the exhausted new mothers they helped to make.
To tie in with her Common Threads project, which involves working with the community to uncover interesting stories of women from bygone times in Elsecar and Wentworth, textile artist Gemma Nemer has been introduced to the tale of two former midwives, both of whom helped shape their respective villages one baby at a time.
Throughout the majority of the mid-20th Century, Nurse Edgar and Nurse Walker shared not only the first name Norah, but also a lifelong commitment to antenatal care – albeit a very different approach to the one that modern mothers are accustomed to.
Originally from the North East, Wentworth’s midwife, Nurse Edgar (nee Jones) first trained as a nurse at Carlisle Union Hospital in 1912 aged 21. At the time of the First World War, the workhouse infirmary became a military hospital with young student nurses like Norah Jones drafted in to help the war wounded.
After qualifying as a midwife in 1920 aged 29, Norah married Alfred Edgar and the couple moved to Barrow in Wentworth in 1924 where she became the district nurse for Wentworth, Harley and Brampton, a post she held for almost 30 years.
In the neighbouring village, Nurse Walker was born and raised in Elsecar to miner Tom Walker and his wife Ada. The family lived at 8 Skiers Hall and were the first residents of the former stables which had been turned into cottages.
As one of eight children and with four younger siblings to help care for, it was perhaps no surprise that a young Norah Walker left school aged 13 to become a nanny for a doctor and his family in York.
She then went on to work at St Monica’s House in Bradford, a single mothers’ refuge, where she stayed for nine months before deciding to train as a midwife at Sheffield’s Jessop Hospital for Women in 1929 aged 30.
On qualifying, Nurse Walker was appointed as midwife for the Elsecar and Hoyland area where she remained for 35 years.
Like many pre-NHS nurses of their time, the majority of maternity calls were carried out at expectant mothers’ homes and both Edgar and Walker would do their community visits on foot or by bicycle, in all weathers day or night when duty called and the promise of a new tiny human was on the way.
Some years later they both acquired a car each which would have made their trips a little easier – but both would still abandon their four wheels for two feet if snow or bad weather struck.
Unlike today’s delivery suites which are fully stocked with tools, pain relief and obstetricians on-hand for any complications that may arise, Nurses Edgar and Walker would have had limited equipment that could be carried in a bag or in their bike baskets.
In the list of kit essentials found from Nurse Walker’s belongings, it dictates three pounds of cotton wool, six blankets and 13 napkins to be taken to all births, along with a hot water bottle to ease labour pains. There would have been no epidurals back then, just strong-will and determination to get the baby out as nature intended – I guess an early idea of hypnobirthing which has become popular in recent years.
The only pain relief offered would have been gas and air which the husband would have had to sign for before administration according to the Midwives Acts 1902-1936, a copy of which each registered midwife must keep on her person for each visit.
Since 1948 and the birth of the NHS, hospitalisation for women in labour has rapidly increased, with 95 percent of all births now taking place in a medical setting. Before this, there would have been minimal intervention and midwives were forced to deliver babies in all sorts of homely environments, many of which may have been squalid or cramped.
In Nurses Edgar and Walker’s heyday, homes didn’t have mod-cons such as hot water or electricity and many still had outdoor toilets or shared middens.
The streets of Elsecar and Wentworth were lit with paraffin or gas lamps with electricity not arriving in the villages until the 1950s. Barnsley Council even had two gas lamps installed to help Nurse Walker see her way, one at Skiers Hall and one at the junction of Skiers Hall Lane and Armroyd Lane.
With both nurses starting their careers on the cusp of the Great Depression, finances would have been sparse for many expectant parents and at a time long before free healthcare for all. A midwife’s callout fee may have been around 20 shillings which few could afford, with some families scraping together what money they all had to pay the final bill.
But this didn’t stop their practice; over her 35-year service, Nurse Walker delivered somewhere around 5,000 babies, all of which would have been weighed in a cloth hammock and recorded in her hand-written notes. The smallest baby recorded was 2lb 12oz and miraculously survived.
Of course, this was at a time before ultrasound scans, regular growth check ups and genetic condition screening which pregnant women are routinely offered today.
A midwife pre-NHS may have turned up to a woman in labour who didn’t know she was having twins or needed to be treated for syphilis. They had to be prepared for every situation with just a basic kit.
As a district nurse, Nurse Edgar also split her time between Wentworth’s newest residents and its geriatric, caring for the infirm elderly as well as those who required palliative care to allow them to remain at home.
She lived next door to sisters Diana Gleadhill and Elizabeth Chapman from the 1940s with the pair recalling how their mother, who had five children, wouldn’t have managed without her, particularly after their father died in 1963.
Their mother and Nurse Edgar became firm friends over the years and would knock on the wall to each other if a pot of tea was on the go or they needed help.
As young girls, Diana and Elizabeth also remember Nurse Edgar as the school’s no-nonsense nurse who would often bring Victory V lozenges and cod liver oil for the children who spat them out once she’d gone out of sight.
Complementing Gemma’s textile-based project, she tells us how lovely it was to find out Nurse Edgar was a hobby embroiderer and regularly sewed items to sell at the church’s annual garden party to raise funds. She taught a young Diana how to stitch aged nine, starting with a crinoline lady on a piece of old sheeting. Some of Nurse Edgar’s work has been included in the project which will be displayed around the villages once completed.
Both Nurse Edgar and Walker worked until they were 65, retiring in 1955 and 1965 respectively.
Nurse Walker received a spin dryer and a lamp inscribed: ‘Presented to Nurse Norah Walker by the Doctors of Hoyland District, in grateful acknowledgement of 35 years of devoted service. 30th September 1965.’ However, a replacement couldn’t be found for her and so she returned to work for a short while longer.
She passed away in 1989 aged 90 at Woodlands Lodge, Hoyland and is buried with her parents in Elsecar.
Nurse Edgar spent her later years travelling and went to Oberammergau in Germany for the Passion Play. She eventually moved back to Carlisle to live with her sister but, during a visit back to Wentworth in 1975, had a severe stroke and passed away in Barnsley Hospital.
After attending one of the pop-in sessions at Wentworth’s Mechanics Institute, Nurse Edgar’s former neighbour Elizabeth thought the village’s popular nurse ought to be recognised in some way for her service to the community.
Similarly, Elsecar-based historian, Val Noble, has been working with Gemma on the Common Threads project and knew Nurse Walker’s outstanding feat of delivering thousands upon thousands of babies in the area needed to be told to the wider public.