In late 17th century London, and the larger towns, 1 in 40 births resulted in the mother's death. (Today the UK wide figure is 8.6 per 100,000.) The diaries of the Reverend Oliver Heywood (1630-1702) give us a personal insight into the bald statistics of church records: "On Saturday night Isaac Sargent's daughter...dyed of childbearing after intollerable pains."
Women would go into labour encouraged to prepare themselves for pain and possible death which, at this time, was inextricably linked with the religious belief that they were carrying out God's first commandment of producing children, while suffering for "the sins of Eve".
It was this attitude which caused the clergy in 1847 to challenge Dr James Young Simpson's "dubious" practice of giving chloroform as a general anesthesia during childbirth, by suggesting such drugs to be the work of Satan.
When Queen Victoria famously chose to receive chloroform while giving birth to Prince Leopold in 1853, she declared the effects to be "soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure", and thereby paved the way for acceptance of the practice in society.
Nevertheless it would be many years before better training and improved standards of hygiene would see any significant reduction in infant and maternal mortality.
When I found my "long lost" Great-great grandmother Emma Wenlock on the death indexes, I assumed she'd died in childbirth, as in the same district, in the same quarter was listed a Wenlock 'male' (unnamed), aged 0 years.
|Death certificate of Emma Wenlock, aged 45, February 1886|
On receipt of her death certificate, however, miscarriage was written under cause of death and the words, phlegmonous erysipelas of leg and thigh; gangrene of foot and peritonitis.
Phlegmonous erysipelas is an infection of the skin causing reddening and blistering, and research suggests that, although the skin can become infected by a cut, scratch or insect bite, the condition was often associated with childbirth. So did Emma develop the infection as a result of a miscarriage or was the miscarriage caused by the infection? Yet another secret to unravel.