The Real Poplar Nurse Behind Call The Midwife

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 28 months ago
The Real Poplar Nurse Behind Call The Midwife
Helen George as Trixie, Emerald Fennell as Patsy and Charlotte Ritchie as Barbara. Photo: BBC

"Midwifery is the very stuff of drama," wrote Jennifer Worth in her 2002 book Call The Midwife: A Memoir Of Birth, Joy And Hard Times. Little did Worth know at time of writing that her own midwifery would be made into a Sunday night drama watched by millions.

Call The Midwife, the BBC One drama set in Poplar, was based on the real life memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a midwife and staff nurse who worked in a Poplar where "the death of children was taken for granted and poverty was frankly regarded as a moral defect".

Call The Midwife returns to screens tonight. Here's the story of the real woman whose books inspired the show.

Life in Poplar

Born 25 September 1935 in Clacton on Sea, Jennifer Worth was raised in Amersham before moving to Poplar aged 22 to train as a nurse. It's reported that she chose Poplar because she wanted a challenge.

She was hired as a staff nurse at the London Hospital, Whitechapel in the 1950s, and worked with the Sisters of St John The Divine, an Anglican order of nuns, who viewers of the show know better as the nuns of Nonnatus House. This work was predominantly midwifery.

She later became a Ward Sister at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Bloomsbury, and finally at Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead. Worth retired from nursing in 1973 to focus on music.

Life as a musician

By 1974 she was teaching piano and singing at the London College of Music, performing throughout Britain and Europe.

Writing her memoirs

During her time as a musician, and once she had retired from the trade, Worth began to pen her memoirs of her time as a midwife in the East End. By the time she retired from medicine, the East End that she had known was long gone: in post-war Poplar, slums were being cleared, houses bombed in the war were rebuilt, and the East End as a whole was undergoing a rapid transformation from the squalid and overcrowded place it had once been. She wrote to try to record a way of life that had once been.

One of the most important changes that Worth witnessed was the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961.

"In the late 1950s we had 80 to 100 deliveries a month on our books. In 1963, the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change," writes Worth in Call The Midwife.

The first part of her memoirs, Call The Midwife, was published in 2002, and reissued in 2007 when it became a best seller, along with the second and third parts of the trilogy, Shadows Of The Workhouse and Farewell To The East End.

The books tell of a life with water from standpipes, no telephones in homes and babies delivered by candlelight.

"There was no law, no lighting, bedbugs and fleas", she recalls. "It was a hidden place, not written about at all."

Yet throughout her books, as is reflected in the television adaptation, a strong sense of community shines through. Her fourth book, In The Midst Of Life, focuses on the later part of her medical career, caring for terminally ill patients.

Activism

In her later life, Worth became better known for her opinions on abortion, specifically in relation to Mike Leigh's 2004 film Vera Drake, about a 1950s woman who helped other women to illegally induce miscarriages.

Writing in The Guardian, Worth criticised the film for its unrealistic depiction of illegal abortion.

"I was a district midwife in London in the 1950s and I certainly never saw a survivor of that method," she wrote, going on to describe "the horrors of backstreet abortions" as "beyond imagining and defy[ing] description". Elsewhere, Worth had written of hearing the "stifled screams" of women undergoing backstreet abortions in 1950s Poplar, at a time when there was no contraceptive pill and abortion was illegal.

Jennifer Worth died on 31 May 2011, just seven months before her work was first broadcast on television.  

Call The Midwife returns to BBC One on Sunday 17 January at 8pm. The series picks up in 1961.

Last Updated 19 January 2016

Joan Hammond

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again!!!
Jennifer Worth undertook her nursing at the Royal Berkshire Hospital - not the London Hospital. When Jennifer arrived in Poplar, she was already a qualified midwife, and it was during her time in Poplar she was seconded to the London Hospital, situated in Whitechapel which is about 2 miles away. Please note that Poplar and Whitechapel are 2 very different parts of East London. If you read the original book, you would be aware of this.