On being born

Birth is one of the experiences we all share, although the circumstances can vary widely. I, and – I believe – my brother were born in The Simpson Memorial Ward of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (although, surprisingly neither of us are mentioned in the Wikipedia article section on Notable Births !). Sir James Young Simpson, after whom the ward (or pavilion) was named, attended the birth of Christina Box, my Great Great Aunt, who was born in Edinburgh, a month early, when my Great Great Grandparents, William Braund Box and Rosina Box were visiting Robert Bryson.

Not very many years after I was born in hospital, the elder of my sisters was born at home, in my parents house in Balerno, and my youngest sister was born at home in their next house in Juniper Green. The change of birth location from maternity hospital to home birth could have been due to improvements in the information available to mothers, as Obstetric ultrasonography, now routine, was becoming available. These improvements in diagnostics, and medical practice in general, were part of the trend of improvements in survival rates of both infant and mother.

Historic high infant mortality rates are brought home when researching the family tree, as there are many instances of children dying in their very early years. Sometimes this makes it difficult to work out what is going on, as a subsequent child was sometimes given the same name.

The need to balance mortality rates led to large families, and as more of the children survived they generally had to go somewhere else, as I wrote about in Amazing Love, Demographics and Mass Migration.

One of the starkest cases of the impact of maternal mortality was Alexander Bryson, eldest son of Robert Bryson. Alexander’s first wife, Elizabeth Waterstone Gillespie died 10th April 1855, shortly after giving birth to William Alexander Bryson on 2nd March 1855. His second wife, Catherine McDonald Cuthbertson died around September 1859, within 7 months of giving birth to Donald Cuthbertson Bryson on 21st February 1859. Alexander married again, and his third wife, Jane Thompson, not only survived giving birth to Leonard Horner Bryson, but outlived Alexander and remarried.

I do not know the details of the circumstances of any of the other births, but I know something of my own, as my mother wrote to my fathers parents shortly afterwards, and I have a copy of the letter (she presumably wrote to her own parents too, but I do not have that letter).

2, Lovedale Grove


(not really there !)

Dearest M&D (or G &GF ?),

Of course Roger has phoned and told you that Willie has arrived at last and has turned out to be Jonathan. He really is sweet, despite being a little red and new looking. He has dark fluff on his head and his ears don’t stick out – Aunt Jennifer, at least not yet. They don’t allow the Mums to play with the new baby for the first day, but I’ve been allowed to hold him 3 times. This is apparently a treat and not usually done ! Tomorrow he comes out with all the others. I don’t know when I’m allowed up but I’m already tired of bed. I did get out to ring the bell for another bedded Mum when all the Mums who were allowed up were out on the balcony in the glorious sun – lucky things. I had not been allowed to get out while they made the bed, but performed the far more difficult feat of crawling down and sitting on the end.

I have had instructions from various people to “get plenty of rest”. It’s hopeless though! We are continually pilled, or cocaoed or babies appear or bedpans and today we had afternoon visitors – ward specially tidied & all propped up – evening visitors the same. (you should see the titivating before father arrives – alas not so for me – I left my glass behind, so can’t even produce a straight parting! Roger brought it in tonight though, so he won’t know me tomorrow !)

In between all this I try to knit – so far about 1 row, read – page 10, I think and I have looked through Good Housekeeping for June.

I good deal of time this morning was spent on preparing for the weekly visit of Professor Kellar, the big white chief of the Friday clinic & therefor of ward 51. I actually had a “consultation” with him (I was really ‘specimen A’) and several of his staff doctors on Wednesday, when they decided to bring me on and ‘start’ the baby. As I was late for that appointment I hoped he wouldn’t recognise me as he rushed round. We were all smartened up. Just like a Doctor in the House scene, really, quite mad. Made beds remade, pillow cases that were spotless changed, all patients propped and dared to breathe. Thus we waited – and waited. Then we were told he was having coffee – and we still waited. The little nurse was getting quite worried because she had various things to do – including giving me a blanket bath (this ended by me washing myself, all but my back ! not my idea of having it done & no rolling the patient about as I learnt in Guides). Anyway, there was a bed vacated by an escaping Mum & this bed had to be remade. The nurse put screens round – in case the Prof. “saw such an untidy scene” – and she’s a ‘proper card’ and had us all quite weak with a comic turn behind the screen. I don’t know what would have happened if the great man had arrived but he never did! Nor did a visitor from the regional board, for which we were smartened up.

I’m afraid this is a very bitty letter. It isn’t easy to write when something happens mid sentence (in the middle of this one sister arrives and asks me how I feel !) The writing is not up to standard either as I’m lying back – the elbows get rather worn otherwise..

I’m looking forward to showing you your grandson. I think he’s a darling, but I’m biased – so will you be !!

I’m leaving a space* for Roger to add a word. He is being a proud father, I can see him grinning in a p.f. way at the office when he tells everyone how wonderful his baby is !!!! And he’s right

* Jane didn’t and I’m about to start a wash-up for at least 1 1/2 days at 11.PM so will write tomorrow

Very much love to everyone


Jane, Jonathan and Roger.

p.s. Added on Sunday. I have been up officially today and also managed to get out onto the balcony in the sun, which has been lovely. Alas – sitting is uncomfortable, so I was quite glad to lic in bed again. I now have Jonathan to play with at every feed and he is becoming less fragile! He make gorgeous faces when he has hiccups (how do you spell it ?) and I have discovered that the short fluff on top is hair which is quite long over the ears & down the neck. A haircut is going to be necessary !!!

I was born in the time depicted by the TV series Call the Midwife, although, rather than Edinburgh, that is located in Poplar, in the East End of London. There used to be a connection between Wesley Memorial Church and Poplar and my wife, along with others from the church ran a summer playscheme there. I have only seen snippets of Call the Midwife, but the descriptions of the preparations around the visit of professor Kellar remind me of the depiction of Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House.

Professor Robert Kellar (1909-1980) held the chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Edinburgh from 1946 to 1974, and supervised a number of prominent people in the field, including Nancy Loudon. He worked under Francis James Browne earlier in his career.

My father was out, working on the moors the day I was born. All the other mothers had large vases of commercial roses, but my mother had a little jam jar of hand picked wild flowers from the Lammermuir hills – which were much admired !

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