Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth

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Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth

Buy Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Karen Inskip-Hayward
Reviewed by Karen Inskip-Hayward
Summary: A fascinating look at midwives and nursing in the 1950s.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 344 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297844655

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I am interested in social history and, as a mother, the job of midwives fascinates me. Combining these two subjects, Farewell to the East End is a riveting read. The author Jennifer Worth was a midwife and nurse, working with the nuns at Nonnatus House in the East End of London and this volume (her third book on this topic) covers the 1950s.

This was a time before the contraceptive pill, when the Sisters delivered around a hundred babies a month. It was a period of readjustment after World War II, when houses were still destroyed from the bombs and many families were living in poverty and squalid conditions. The nuns were there to help the poor, seeing the women through their labours and delivering the babies, but there was plenty more to them too.

Jennifer Worth describes the nuns and her fellow midwives with warmth, affection, wit and humour. They all come to life under her skill, so we come to learn about them and care about them. I especially enjoyed reading about the eccentric Sister Monica Joan, who often did strange things even into her nineties, giving her colleagues plenty to worry about. I also really enjoyed reading about Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne (known as Chummy) who had to deliver the baby belonging to a morbidly obese woman on board ship. Worth has a wonderful knack of explaining things in just the right amount of detail, so you can easily picture the situations she is describing, but do not have to plough through paragraphs of surplus descriptive prose.

The book is arranged into chapters, which tell the stories of some of the nuns, midwives and those they helped. Some of these are sad and moving; others are funny and charming; all of them are interesting and worth reading. They contain a lot of information about London in the 1950s too and I felt I learned a lot, but in the most interesting way. The chapters about tuberculosis and backstreet abortions were especially enlightening.

It certainly made me realise how easy we have it today, compared to the women, mothers and families from only fifty or sixty years ago. The births described in Farewell to the East End are worlds away from what is expected today, when we usually have our babies in well-equipped hospitals with a variety of pain relief available, specialist doctors and high-tech incubators and monitoring equipment. I certainly would not like to imagine myself giving birth on the kitchen floor with one midwife and a swig of whisky!

The book is often quite graphic (though not gratuitously so) and is only for teenage or adult readers. I found several parts very sad and moving, so if you prefer not to read this kind of thing, this book would not be for you. But if you are interested in learning more about our recent past, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book.

At the end of the book, Worth explains how times changed and Nonnatus House closed in 1978, as the nuns were not necessary in that community. Farewell to the East End shows just how vital they had been in the 1950s and what a wonderful job they did, at a time when the National Health Service was in its infancy.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you'll also enjoy Shadows of the Workhouse also by Jennifer Worth.

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Buy Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Farewell To The East End by Jennifer Worth at Amazon.com.


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Gracie Bungey said:

I have just finished Farewell to the East End and have now read all three books. What a journey its been, cant remember reading 3 such riveting books in succession for a long time. Feel quite bereft now. Wishing Jennifer great success with the books, hopefully she will write another on the next stage of her life - here's hoping Regards Gracie