Lucy Parkes-The Quinton Midwife
By Bryan Parkes
Aunt Lucy was born in the spring of 1893 at an end terraced house at the bottom of High Street, Quinton. It shared a garden wall with the Nailer’s Cottage. Lucy was the second child of John and Jane Parks who had a grand total of 11 children. Mother Jane’s work load was almost over-whelming and as the eldest girl, Lucy was involved in the domestic and child minding activities at a relatively early age.
When she left Christchurch school at the age of 12, she was persuaded not to go out to work, but to stay at home and help her mother. Her father rewarded her with a new bicycle. During her teenage years the last three siblings were born. It was during this period that Lucy developed an affinity and love of babies.
Lucy first went out to work aged 21, at the BTH factory in Blackheath at the start of the First World War. After the war she worked for several years at her Uncle Harry Parkes retail and printing business in Halesowen. However, neither of the occupations really appealed to her and rather belatedly, in her early thirties, she attended Selly Oak Hospital for 3 years to become a qualified mid-wife. In the late nineteen twenties she took over midwifery in Quinton and its surroundings.
I was the one of the first babies my recently qualified aunt helped into the world. Apparently, for the next few days I cried almost continually. A mantra aunty had learnt during training was that “anyone capable of having a baby was capable of feeding it”. The objective was to encourage breast feeding – but in my case it was ineffective. My frustrated father acquired some specialised dried milk – problem solved.
For about 5 years, Lucy operated out of her parent’s home in High Street. In the late twenties, early thirties, work was rather spasmodic and to earn sufficient she had to be prepared to cover an area a mile or two outside the Quinton precincts. This meant cycling as far afield as Halesowen, Oldbury, Northfield and Edgbaston. With the hilly terrain area and Quinton’s notorious weather conditions, midwifery work could be extremely exhausting.
In the mid-twenties, father John acquired a large plot of land immediately next to Pax Hall. On retirement in 1933, he decided to have a new house built on the plot. Lucy and her parents moved into the new house – 394 Ridgacre Lane – in 1935. This beautifully positioned house had large rooms, a garage and a modern telephone. Two bicycles were kept in the garage, one always being available in case there was a puncture. One downstairs room – called the “red room” because of the carpet colour – was virtually out of bounds. It was kept in immaculate condition for Lucy to interview would be clients. There was always a smile on her face when she had booked another “case”. This ideal house became the hub of Quinton midwifery for about a quarter of a century. For most of this period, I lived there too, following the death of my father when I was 5 years old.
Following the Quinton housing development and associated population increase in the nineteen thirties, the number of births increased significantly. For obvious reason, there was a set-back during the Second World War followed by a significant increase in the later nineteen forties. Unfortunately, the winter of 1946 was one of the coldest for several years and the snow falls early in 1947 were probably the most severe since the 1880’s. March 1947 had such deep drifts that buses were marooned for several days – for example, the 208 Midland Red bus in Carter’s Lane near the Baptist chapel. Many times, previously, I had seen aunt Lucy return home exhausted but during this period she was so distressed having been forced to walk to her patients through deep snow, that she had to be helped indoors and virtually carried upstairs and put to bed.
A golfing friend gave me a lift home one day and when I asked him to stop outside 394 Ridgacre Lane, he looked at me very strangely because he knew of the association with the house. I explained that I lived there with Nurse Parkes who was my aunt. Subsequently on the rare occasion when I played with him and sank a long putt, he would turn to our playing companions and say “this lad has the touch of a mid-wife!” I was later introduced to his wife to whom Aunt Lucy had helped to deliver two children. She said Aunt Lucy was a very competent mid-wife but was something of a disciplinarian. I was not surprised because aunty did not like to show her emotions and was probably more inclined to be more like a sergeant major than a brow soother. Nevertheless, she had her patients’ interests very much at heart. She was always buying new bed clothes to replace those she had given to her patients. Also, it was not unknown for her to give some financial help if patients were in dire need. Her close family could usually discern her feelings from detailed observation of her facial expressions. They could read the difference in her demeanour on her return, between having delivered a still born child or a healthy pair of twins.
Soon after the war she was incorporated within the National Health Service. This means her work was confined within the precincts of Quinton. She no longer cycled longer distances but the increasing population level maintained a high work load and frequent tiredness. The culminated effect of driving herself so hard began to show in her later fifties and concerned relatives strongly advised her to ditch her bicycle, learn to drive and buy a car. Approaching 60 years old, she accepted this advice and bought herself a brand-new Morris Minor. She chose an unusual dark green coloured car to match the hat and coat of her nurse’s uniform. That vehicle completely changed her working life. She could now respond to urgent calls more quickly, carry more medical equipment, stay dry and most importantly reduce her levels of tiredness. She loved that vehicle and it was a virtual certainty that no other car in Quinton was washed, cleaned and polished with such frequency. Her green Morris Minor became recognised by many within Quinton as a vehicle associated with midwifery. A local drawing the curtains in the morning and seeing a mist covered green Morris Minor in their road would jump to an obvious conclusion.
Retirement from the National Health Service was obligatory at the age of 65, much to Lucy’s consternation. She felt her life had fallen apart, being separated from natural calling. After a few months retirement, she decided to work part time at the midwifery department of Selly Oak hospital. This lasted for about 3 years before she finally completed her working life.
A change of job led to my house move to Cheshire but I returned to Quinton quite often to visit relatives and friends. It was mid-afternoon on one occasion when I visited Aunt Lucy and was surprised to find she was still in bed. It soon transpired that she was not just unwell but also in pain. Despite her protests, I made an urgent request for her doctor to come and examine her. Before long she was in an ambulance being transferred to the Queen Elizabeth hospital. In a visit to the hospital a day or two later, I managed to have a word with her specialist consultant. He was quite forthright, describing Lucy’s condition as being terminal cancer, saying she would not leave hospital and predicting she had only a few weeks to live. Subsequent hospital visits were very distressing because while Lucy was saying she was longing to return home, her house was being prepared for destruction to make way for the new Expressway feeder road to the M5 motorway.
Aunt Lucy died peacefully in October 1964 aged 71. The Parkes family decided it would be appropriate for the funeral cortege to start its journey from the front of her sentenced house. The house had now been emptied, the lawns taken up and all the apple trees removed. Just before the cortege departed mourners were surprised to see several new road workers gather near the front wall of the house. They all doffed their hats and bowed their heads as the cortege began its journey. It was a very poignant and heart rendering moment.
After the funeral, there was much discussion between relatives and friends about Aunt Lucy’s unusual life story. No one could recall knowing any other individual who had been so deeply committed to their calling. Indeed, many believed that very few people, if any, had made a greater contribution to the well-being of Quinton society. Examining a few remaining midwifery records indicated that the average number of babies delivered each year was probably between 60 and 70. This indicated that over some 30 years, Lucy had helped to deliver about 2,000 Quinton babies. It was a curious thought, but I wondered how many of these individuals had become members of the Quinton Local History Society!
Ed’s comment-My thanks to Bryan for this lovely article about one of the areas true Quintonians. Bryan has been a regular subscriber to the Oracle, and I thank him for that. If anyone knows anyone or in fact was themselves delivered by Lucy Parkes, if you let me know I will pass the information on to Bryan
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