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From mother to mother: the National Childbirth Trust archive

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28/09/2015

By | From the Collections

The newly-catalogued National Childbirth Trust (NCT) archive, containing over 270 boxes of rich archive material, brings to life the history of childbirth and maternity care from the post-war period to the present day. The archive explores how women responded to their experiences of childbirth through organisation and advocacy, highlighting the development of women’s activism, the growth of the consumer voice, and the battle for choice and control in maternity care.

“We were motivated by a simple missionary spirit! We had no funds, no starting grant, no lottery money or sponsorship by big companies or governments, just a desire to share knowledge and skills with pregnant women everywhere” – Gwen Rankin, founder member

In 1956, a woman gave birth and lost her baby. As she was discharged from the hospital, a sister flippantly commented “that’s the last we’ll hear of you”. Bereaved and angered at how she’d been treated, this woman – Prunella Briance – decided to take matters into her own hands. In her words, she “wanted to do something positive to prevent such tragedies happening to other mothers”.

So she put an advert in The Times newspaper – a call to arms to form a Natural Childbirth Association, run by mothers, for mothers.

Newspaper advertisement

L0079482: The Natural Childbirth Association of GB advertisement in the Times, 4 May 1956. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/A/1/1/1.

Letters began to flood through the door from women sharing unhappy stories of childbirth. Some wrote of being left alone in stirrups to labour for hours by themselves; others of how they had gas and air forced on them against their will; of fathers not allowed on maternity wards; and of babies taken away from their mothers as soon as they were born.

Galvanised by this shared outrage, the women set about founding an organisation to promote natural childbirth based on the teachings of Grantly Dick-Read. Their aims were to teach women how to prepare themselves for birth through antenatal classes and education, so that they were able to approach labour free from fear and ignorance.

antenatal class 1950s

Erna Wright (founder member and author), teaching NCT antenatal class. The National Childbirth Trust. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The archive available at the Wellcome Library charts the story of this organisation – the Natural Childbirth Association (later National Childbirth Trust, NCT) – from its grassroots beginnings in the 1950s to the present day. Through letters, birth reports, and heated meeting papers, the archive lays bare the challenges facing the organisation as they tried to rail against the ‘doctor knows best’ attitude of the 1950s.

It wasn’t an easy battle and the early papers in the archive show just how fraught the organisation’s relationship with the medical profession often was. These early documents show the group struggled to work out the best way to press for change in the provision of maternity care – with debates raging over whether to fight the medical profession head on, or try to win them over through tact and cooperation.

Flyer

Flyer

There was a fair bit of suspicion facing the organisation in its formative years, so it didn’t take long before the organisation was called to appear before the Ethical Committee of the British Medical Association (BMA). The BMA had received alarmed approaches from doctors concerned that the NCT was “challenging existing hospital rules and teaching midwifery”.

The NCT argued that they were offering something different – by having mothers teaching mothers, they hoped to develop a network of peer support and information unlike that found in the health service; their antenatal classes were offered in support of, and not instead of, medical care. Once the Committee were convinced that the women were not trying to overthrow the medical establishment, they offered the NCT a nod of approval to continue their work – but, interestingly – instructed them to do so quietly.

hexham air bolster

Havering Branch, 1968: photograph of woman practising using hexham air bolster. The National Childbirth Trust. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/B/1/2/1/3/5.

“Quietly” could be an apt way to describe how the NCT tried to go about their work in these early years. Certainly the language in documents from the 1950s and 1960s in the archive seems to suggest the organisation’s attempts to appease the medical profession – in the words of one member, to work “towards advocacy rather than head-on collision”.

Early documents talk about using “dignity”, “charm”’ and “tenacity” to work alongside doctors, to persuade and influence. In order “to establish cordial and harmonious relations”, it was up to the NCT member to use her feminine charm and middle class connections to speak to doctors on their level.

To avoid treading on any toes, the NCT also asked doctors for permission for women to attend its classes. A few of these permission slips survive in the archive. And in another self-conscious attempt to placate the medical profession, the organisation changed its name from the Natural Childbirth Association to the National Childbirth Trust, dropping the word ‘natural’ to appear more respectable to doctors.

NCT postcard

NCT 40th Anniversary postcard: “A Normal Birth?” Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/H/3/2.

However as time went on, and in the context of the rising consumer and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the organisation was able to grow in strength. A growing dissatisfaction with the ‘do-as-you’re-told-and-don’t-make-a-fuss’ attitude of the 1950s gave way to a developing lexicon around notions of choice, control and individual rights. In this context, it became easier for the NCT to fight its battles more openly and politically.

Through the 1970s and 1980s – a time of the rise of the machines – the NCT became more vocal, raising concerns over the rising rate of inductions, caesarean rates, and use of episiotomies. In 1974, word reached NCT that women due to give birth over Christmas were being told they would have their births induced to avoid the festive period. In anger, then-President Philippa Micklethwait wrote to the papers, voicing her indignation that there was ‘no room at the inn’. NCT was not alone in its outrage, and a larger public backlash against inductions developed, alongside a wider feminist, anti-doctor critique.

Magazine

Magazine

Throughout its history, NCT has aimed to bridge the gap between lay person and medical establishment. Its successes, failures and compromises are all charted in this rich archive collection, which demonstrates how attitudes of doctors towards expectant mothers have changed, as well as how expectations of parents have shifted.

The archive not only tells the institutional history of the National Childbirth Trust, but also contains letters and labour reports from mothers, reflecting the experiences of parents over the years.

NCT pamphlets

Information sheets and publications from the NCT archive. Wellcome Library reference: SA/NCT/J/3.

The archive can be searched on the Library catalogue using the reference SA/NCT.

Elena Carter

Elena Carter

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations Archivist, based at the Wellcome Library. Working on a project to catalogue, make accessible and promote the rich and vast archive of TIHR, documenting 70 years of the Institute’s contribution to the evolution of applied social science. I like biscuits with my tea, swimming outdoors, and post-war architecture. I also like elephants. @elenacarter17

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4 comments on From mother to mother: the National Childbirth Trust archive
  • Jean Luscher

    16/10/2015

    I joined NCT in1959, and having been interviewed for this archive I am very pleased to see to see a summary of the results and surprised to see how much material there is.

  • Mary Newburn

    09/11/2015

    I am so pleased to see this summary. It is a good start. I hope others will comment from their own experience.

    Can those with a long memory verify whether it is correct that the name change from NATURAL Childbirth Association to NATIONAL Childbirth Trust was promptly primarily by a desire not to offend doctors?

    My understanding, having had over 50 years of connection with the charity, including first my mother’s stories told to me as a young girl, and 15 years later attending antenatal classes and then training as an antenatal teacher with NCT, has been that the name change (leaving aside the status change of become a ‘trust’ rather than an ‘association’) was stimulated by a desire to be inclusive and welcome all women and their partners. Not to be seen to judge a labour without drugs as somehow morally better than one with drugs or other interventions. The desire – I thought – was to communicate the value of being woman-centred and supportive to all, though the term ‘woman-centred’ had not been developed then. I first consciously heard that phrase in the early 1990s when Changing Childbirth was published. By using the term, the report gave voice, very clearly and succinctly, to activities and a perspective that had not been expressed so clearly as a ‘key message’, before. The phrase was understandable by women and families, midwives, doctors, NCT practitioners, journalists, advocates, the voluntary sector, etc. NCT’s evidence to the Health Select Committee Enquiry in 1991 demonstrates quite well what the charity was ‘all about’, at that time, a period in the unfolding history that I know well (and much better to the changes in the 1970s when I was a child).

    NCT has had stronger and weaker phases of helping women to have the psychological and physical skills, and social and emotional support (e.g. from a partner, mother, doula, midwife, maternity support worker), to cope with labour without (any or early) recourse to drugs to help them feel they can cope. There has long been a tension between how best to practice support for all and a non-judgemental approach with, on the other hand, providing really good preparation for a straightforward, drug-free, physiological birth for those who aspire to that approach.

    There is still a huge amount of work to be done on lobbying for improved maternity services, both at a population level and a personal level, and in preparing women and men (and other supporters) for labour and birth, the birth of their baby, and the early days and weeks after birth when feeding challenges, a new baby’s behaviour and needs, broken nights, physical discomfort or pain, emotional ups and downs and anxieties can be overwhelming.

  • Mary Newburn

    09/11/2015

    I also meant to say that any short overview of NCT’s development without specific mention of the influence of Sheila Kitzinger seems to be missing an absolutely key point.

    It is important to know that the childbirth movement has been broad with lots of grass-roots work going on week after week by women whose names are neither known nor celebrated, but there have also been some exceptional thought leaders.

    Sheila Kitzinger was one of them, and has had a huge influence on NCT, I would argue. I would identify three key influences: first: a feminist approach.: valuing women, giving women’s experiences and needs a clear, positive voice within a critical perspective and addressing structural inequalities). Secondly: seeing birth, motherhood, parenting and maternity services in cultural perspective, inspired and informed by her academic background in Anthropology. Thirdly: promoting the use of high quality evidence, AND producing some of the evidence, or shaping research questions, to give greater control and influence to those who often have little power.

    There are many other people and projects that we should celebrate, such as the NCT antenatal teachers who became influential midwives and authors, such as Caroline Flint and Nicky Leap. The initiatives to make breastfeeding enjoyable and well supported, to influence the planning and monitoring of maternity services, and to address the isolation and sheer discrimination faced by so many disabled parents (Parent Ability was one great NCT achievement, that should be clearly acknowledged and described in the archive.)

    I hope others will respond, adding in their memories, and paying tribute to their foremothers and forefathers.

  • Julie Stein Hodgins

    09/11/2015

    I am still happy to part of this organisation after only 23yrs….not even half of the life of the NCT. Finny how we still hear…breastfeed ‘discreetly’ amongst many! Still trying to appease…

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