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Friday, 4 November 2011

“We Have Trained 30 to 40 Women of Varying Nationalities Since 1912...Our Belief is, it is Character Not Colour that Counts.” Or: The Lost Midwifery Hospital of Annie McCall:

It’s not uncommon today to see unmarried couples with children. Labour leader Ed Miliband and his wife Justine were only married this year, despite already having children. Less and less people today, in fact, are getting married than even thirty years ago, let alone a hundred and thirty years ago.
Last year, the Office for National Statistics released this graph showing the decline in marriages over the last three decades:

But in the nineteenth century, having children without being married was virtually unthinkable. If families were to discover that an unmarried female family member was pregnant, she could find herself cast into the streets, where the fork in the road led either to the workhouse or suicide.

But it wasn’t only unmarried pregnant women who faced danger. Even the morally virtuous woman who fell pregnant by her husband faced peril during childbirth, in an age of many technological and medical advancements, the standards of hygiene and healthcare we are used to today were still years away.

Women giving birth – which would be done at home – could expect the assistance of a midwife to guide them through the process, but if her family was restricted by their finances, the help would come from friends or family, either sisters, mothers or even grandmothers.
The Victorian era, therefore, was a difficult time to give birth. Aftercare only really existed if you were higher than working class, as a working class woman was expected to be back at her duties in the home – along with her new motherly duties – within a few days of having the baby.

The absence of a doctor during the birth meant that if woman did suffer some condition or trauma during the birth, it often went un-noticed, leaving the new mother to try and recover, completely unaware that she may have suffered permanent damage to her body. Often, this damage, or any condition it caused, made future childbirth quite dangerous to both mother and baby, but with contraception all but non existent, and virtually completely non-existent to the working classes, it was not unusual for families to have between five and ten children. If the mother was lucky, that is.

The plight of women of nineteenth century London during childbirth was recognized by one Dr Annie McCall.
Annie was born in Manchester in 1859 and even as a child she knew she wanted to go into medicine, and was encouraged and supported by her mother, who provided her with an excellent education.
Annie traveled across Europe, studying in Gottingen in Germany, Paris, Berne in Switzerland and Vienna, before arriving at the London School of Medicine for Women.

When she graduated from LSMW in 1885, she became one of the first women to qualify as a doctor, and set about providing the city with more qualified midwives by establishing a School of Midwifery at her home, 165, Clapham Road in Stockwell, London.

Four years later, in 1889 Annie, along with Marion Ritchie, founded the Clapham Maternity Hospital, at 41 – 43 Jeffry’s Road, Clapham, which provided excellent antenatal and postnatal clinics. This was also the first maternity hospital to be staffed entirely by women. Doctors, midwives, maternity nurses and also students were all female. This was important to patients in an era of modesty, when, if a male doctor was called to assist a woman in childbirth, he was not allowed to ‘look down there’.

An 'Intimate' Examination
The hospital took in all women who needed attention during childbirth, including poor women, and unmarried women. Suddenly for London’s ‘disgraced’ women, that fork in the road had become a trident.
They now had the option of receiving the best care in the city, from trained experts. Annie’s attention to detail was such that each patient received a manual;
What to do to have a Healthy Baby’
This manual contained all sorts of advice from the diet the pregnant woman should stick to prior to birth, to the kind of exercise she should be taking.

It wasn’t only the women of London that Annie and her team cared for. The hospital also trained women to go and work abroad. Speaking to the National Council of Women in 1933, Annie said;

“We have trained 30 to 40 women of varying nationalities since 1912, and are surprised to find we are the only hospital with practical experience on the subject. Our belief is, it is character not colour that counts.”

In terms of her practices in health and hygiene, it could be said that Annie was very much in the same mould as Florence Nightingale. She, too, was a pioneer of cleanliness within the hospital, and her high standards, not just in this, but in the care given to patients certainly worked.
In fifty years of maternity care, the hospital dealt with 52,993 women, only 85 of whom died. For the time, these success rates were excellent.

In 1915 the Hospital moved to a new building in Jeffreys Road, and was renamed the Annie McCall Maternity Hospital in 1936. In 1938 it was expanded when 39 Jeffreys Road was purchased, giving the hospital the capacity for fifty beds for in-patients.

In 1940, during the second world war, the hospital suffered severe bomb damage, which resulted in it being closed down. Annie retired in 1941 at the age of 82, but was still around to see her work continued in 1948, albeit on a smaller scale, when a house connected to the hospital provided three beds for patients, and the antenatal clinic services resumed. Due to a lack of space in the house, a district midwifery service was also utilized, in which midwives attended women in their own homes.
Annie in 1945
Annie’s hospital was taken over by the newly formed National Health Service in 1948, but Annie would miss all the rebuilding that would be carried out, as she died in 1949 aged 90, but her work would continue, as her hospital was rebuilt in the fifties, and by 1954 could boast 36 beds for patients – not quite the fifty it had at its disposal when the hospital was at its peak, but it was getting there.

After 81 years of excellent work and service to women, the Annie McCall Maternity Hospital closed in 1970. The old hospital was left empty by Lambeth Council for over twenty years, but now is the home of a local arts group, Stockwell Studios, who wish to stay in the building and see it preserved.

You can see if you can help, by visiting their website

Thanks to Veronika, of the website of London’s lost hospitals for pointing me in the direction of information regarding Annie McCall and her hospital. Click here to go to Veronika's site. 


  1. I thank you for this as I tirelessly research for women's her/story relating to the most basic of functioning as a woman - her reproductive health and welfare. (and man-made laws that control it.)
    Coping with being a woman and working-class during this time is something I have been recording on my blog.
    Reading 'Living in Sin' cohabiting as Husband and wife in 19th century England by Ginger Frost. Great resource and thankyou for yours.

  2. I found this article really good reading,I myself was born in The Annie Mc Call Hospital in 1950 I have been tirelessly searching for any information about the hospital and it's records of births and anything else that may be of interest.Annie Mc Call most have been a wonderful woman.
    Veronica Kear nee Sullivan

  3. Thanks Veronica, that's a lovely story, and - I think - the first time someone has got in touch because they were actually involved in real-life with something I've written about!

    I'd be interested to hear what you find whilst doing your research.

    Thanks so much for the comment.

  4. I was also born in this hospital in May 1959. 39 Jeffreys Rd, Clapham is on my birth certificate but it wasnt until I began looking into my family history that I realised what a wonderful pioneering hospital this was. My parents lived in Rowan Crescent, Mitchum at the time, not far away.
    Thank you for this information. Jane Nesbitt

    1. Thanks Jane! Again, it's great to hear from people who are personally linked and connected to these pieces of history

  5. I also found this very interesting. My Daughter was born in Annie's 5th October 1960.She wants to see the old building for herself. We only live a short way away . 174 Andrew Place. On the Wandsworth Road. . Moved to Yalding in 1964. Then to Parbold in Lancashire in 1969. She has 3 of her own now. Lovely to have memories John Abel . Thanx

  6. My father was also born here in 1907. Are there any records of baptisms carried out on the premises as I have never found his baptism anywhere else, but have found a record on Find my Past of one carried out 4 days after his birth.

    1. It is most unlikely that there were any christenings in the hospital itself, even if it had a small chapel. Baptisms usually took place at least a few days (and often weeks or months) after the birth, and generally at the parish church for the area where the family lived. If you have found a baptism record with the right parents' names in the right area four days after the birth, that sounds like it's very probably the one you're looking for. Ossie

  7. I have lived in USA for over 45 years and recently came across my birth certificate listing 39 Jeffrey's Road as my birth place. I googled the address and found this wonderful history about Dr. McCall and the maternity hospital. I was born in 1953. I am delighted to read this history and thank all those persons who have contributed information about the maternity hospital.

  8. I was also born at this maternity hospital in 1964. I recently had to get a copy of my birth certificate, and 39 Jeffries Road was listed as my birthplace. I began to look for information on the internet about it, and am so glad I did. Reading through the history of the hospital, I feel privileged to have been born there.