With the advent of the NHS, and better social care, and many labour-saving devices for housework, the role of a monthly nurse has become quite lost in obscurity. However, back in the days where women had a lying in period – of at least ten days if not longer – after having a baby, a monthly nurse was an extremely desirable person to employ. She was paid to assist a woman and her family in the post-partum period. Household jobs still needed to be done, and men would generally not do them – so they’d either get a female relative to help out, or pay a monthly nurse for a period of time if they could afford it. This woman would also assist with some of the body effluent after a birth, and look after the new mother. Sometimes they would also assist with laying out the dead. Often they’d live with the family.
Invariably, the monthly nurse was a slightly older woman, who had had all her children and raised them to a reasonable degree of independence – so therefore could leave their own family and jobs to a young adult daughter while she went out and earned money for the family. This was the case for Elizabeth, a monthly nurse from New Swindon – as it was called in the later 19th century.
Elizabeth really had grown up alongside the town of Swindon. She’d been born into a rural community to the west of the modern town, to a single mother in the late 1840s. On her christening record she’s given as the base-born daughter of Martha, who appears on the 1851 census as an agricultural labourer living with her sister Mary and various children – some of which are hers. Elizabeth had a sister called Maria, and a much younger brother called Thomas. She was brought up with Mary’s daughter Harriett, who was very close in age. All the children were illegitimate.
The arrangement where unwed siblings would bring up their illegitimate children together does not seem to be uncommon in rural communities in the Victorian era. Much of the moralising tone attributed to Victorian society really stems from an educated class who sought to differentiate from and rise above the illiterate working classes and were able to write that stigma down, and it is possible that the stigma for children out of wedlock was slightly less sharp in the rural and agricultural communities.
By the time she was 14, Elizabeth had left home and moved into Swindon – which was growing rapidly on the back of the Great Western Railway. The original settlement, now known as Old Town, was on the hill while the newer development was separate and on the flatter land next to the railway works. In the 1860s Elizabeth got a job as a servant at the Ship Inn on Westcott Street, part of this new town, while her siblings remained with their mother.
In 1866, around the age of 20, she married Edward – a grinder for the GWR – and settled in the purpose-built railway village, to the south of the train tracks. They had ten children: four boys initially (although the second of these died aged less than a year), then two girls, another three boys, and finally another girl. The cottages were two storey and quite cramped, so Elizabeth’s growing family would have been all on top of each other. The young men of those streets at the time also had a bit of a reputation for wild behaviour.
Eventually they moved a few streets away from the railway village to a slightly bigger house. It’s likely that Edward’s job probably didn’t bring in a great deal of money for such a large family, so Elizabeth supplemented the family finances by taking in washing and called herself a laundress. Her eldest son had also started at the railway works himself by the age of 13, which helped support the family.
Edward died in the autumn of 1887, leaving Elizabeth a widow at the age of 40. She would have relied on her laundry earnings and that of her children to support the family. Particularly as her youngest daughter was barely a year old.
By the 1891 census several of Elizabeth’s sons were employed at the railway works. However, both of her elder daughters had not found employment in Swindon – whether that was for a lack of opportunity for young women in the area at the time (there were cloth works employing women at the time, but the steam laundry was not set up until that year), or Elizabeth encouraging them to spread their wings and go elsewhere.
Lizzy, the older, ended up in the workhouse in London for three weeks at the beginning of the 1890s, with a tiny illegitimate baby of her own. Elizabeth took Lizzy’s daughter Dorothy in, and raised her with the others, while Lizzy went off to become a cook in a private girls’ school. After that, she emigrated to Wisconsin, USA, to become a nurse. Dorothy remained in Swindon with her grandmother and grew up there.
In the late 1890s one of her daughters became ill, and the family participated in an advert for “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” in the newspapers, claiming that she was near death but the pills saved her. While outlandish, in an era where the general understanding of medical science was poor and advertising was unregulated, this probably helped Elizabeth’s standing in the community.
Most of Elizabeth’s boys married, and kept stable jobs at the railway works, and lived very close to their mother – either in the same street or a neighbouring one. One son appears to have been in regular trouble with the police over disorderly behaviour. Her daughter Martha also married, but moved back home with her husband to keep house with her mother. They never had any children. Her son George’s toddler twin daughters died of a terrible burning accident in 1896, after playing with matches, and Elizabeth was involved in caring for them, showing that she had a trusted degree of medical skill.
By this time most of Elizabeth’s children had grown up enough to either take care of themselves day-to-day or be looked after by Martha – which meant Elizabeth was freed from her home to be able to take on the more lucrative work of a monthly nurse. The fact that she was able to make a living from this profession – which relied on local families having enough income to take a monthly nurse in, rather than calling in a female relative.
Elizabeth’s choice of profession may also have been influenced by a deep love of children. She appeared to collect them. Alternatively, she may have been religiously atoning for her own illegitimate start in life – or perhaps a bit of both. In 1908 her youngest daughter Amy followed the path of her sister Lizzy, and went over to the USA to work as a nurse. This did not work out so well for her though, and she came back and presented Elizabeth with another illegitimate grandchild – Walter – in 1910.
Again, Elizabeth seems to have taken care of the child and let her daughter go off elsewhere while she brought up the child. Amy went to be a parlour-maid on the Isle of Wight, and married there a couple of years later. However, she returned to Swindon in the middle of 1916, and died young. Elder daughter Lizzy died in Chicago in 1913.
So, by 1911 Elizabeth had acquired two grandchildren to bring up, and had adopted another, Ruby – who was born illegitimately in her house to an Agnes, who then disappears – so it’s probable that Elizabeth had volunteered to bring up Ruby too and let Agnes go off to a different life.
Her monthly nurse work will have undoubtedly brought her into contact with many women struggling after having a baby, whether married or not, and it is possible that her two grandchildren and adopted daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the children she took in. We are lucky enough to know about these three from census records, but there may well have been others. Adoption and fostering processes were not formalised at this time, and relied upon good will – which Elizabeth clearly had in abundance.
She died in 1924, having outlived many of her children.