In 1907 a new type of health centre opened in London. The ‘Mothers and Babies Welcome’ (also known as the St Pancras School for Mothers) provided a range of services aimed at reducing infant mortality. This centre was not the first to provide expectant mothers with meals, weigh babies, provide basic medical advice or attempt to teach ‘mothercraft’ but it does appear to have been the first place in Britain where these services were brought together in one venue. In doing so it provided a model for infant welfare centres.
During the early 20th century the infant mortality rate, that is the number of babies who died before their first birthday, was disturbingly high. In St Pancras the 1904 Medical Officer of Health (MOH) report records that infant mortality rate was around 15% (or 151 per 1,000).
The MOH for St Pancras, Dr John F. J. Sykes, had made a special study of the problem and the 1905 MOH report devotes 25 pages to analysing the causes of infant mortality. His conclusion was that babies were dying at an increasingly young age apparently due to increased immaturity. His solution was to improve the health of the mother, encourage breast feeding and discourage early weaning. Unlike some other districts he did not set up a milk depot to supply poor babies with milk. Dr Sykes believed that the only way to humanize cow’s milk was ‘to pass it through the mother’. Read the 1905 St Pancras MOH report:
The Mothers and Babies Welcome was based in Charlton Street and operated as a charity under the chairmanship of Mrs Alys Russell (the first wife of the philosopher Bertrand Russell). She had formulated the idea after visiting a similar institution in Ghent, Belgium. From the beginning the St Pancras school had close links with the local municipal public health team. The MOH Dr Sykes was one of the charity’s honorary secretaries and two of the female sanitary officers in Dr Sykes’ team, Miss Mary Bibby and Miss Blanche Gardiner, were members of the general committee.
Blanche Gardiner also co-authored a book about the pioneering centre, called A School for Mothers, along with the Lady Superintendant of the centre, Mrs Barnes and two of the honorary secretaries, Dora and Evelyn Bunting.
As the term ‘school for mothers’ suggests, there was a strong educational element to the centre. There were formal lessons on food, cookery, sewing and housekeeping and the men were invited to evening classes on the duties of fatherhood. In addition, when the babies were weighed the staff and volunteers took the opportunity for informal instruction in the form of advice on the feeding and clothing of infants.
Building on the success of the original version a second St Pancras school for mothers opened in July 1911 at 4 Rhyl Street, Kentish Town. These were followed by a number of similar centres in other parts of London, for example the Tottenham School for Mothers (1913?), North Islington Infant Welfare Centre and School for Mothers (1913) and Croydon’s Infant and Children Centre (1914).
Author: Sue Davies was External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.