An Armful of Babies and a Cup of Tea by Molly Corbally: The beginning of the British Welfare State made Human

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This “Memoirs of a 1950s Health Visitor” is not usually the sort of book I would read if I’m honest, but having been offered a copy to review I picked it up and soon found myself hooked on this gentle recollection of life. Written as a memory of a life rich in possibilities as the new NHS tried to change the life of people in a largely rural area, the characters are as rich as any fictional account of life at the time. The arrangement of the recollections are well balanced and frequently hopeful; this is not an account of misery and suffering, but a largely positive collection of real life situations. Though largely about parents and children, this book also reminds us of how Health Visitors were also concerned with older people for whom life had become challenging, and for whom an emerging Welfare State was a new concept.

Molly Corbally had served as a nurse in the Second World War, and was keen to start a new way of life after the sharing of quarters and the responding to orders were over. She became one of the New District Health Visitors, who after a fairly brief training was sent out into a community with all its mixture of classes, income, rural, town and village all had its needs and challenges. Setting up home with a friend, Eileen, a Nursing Officer, they discovered the virtues of their own home and importantly a garden. In a new uniform, Molly discovers that she not only has to find the courage to approach new mothers in their homes, but also deal with those who had been running the clinics and voluntary charities for many years in their own way. Thus doctors, midwives, and local officials had to be approached with tact and strategy, so that they did not feel that a relatively young and new woman was bulldozing into their established practices. Women at the most vulnerable time of their lives had to be persuaded and convinced to adopt skills which may have challenged the assumed wisdom of their families; the interests of babies and young children had to be paramount over pride and practice. This was in the time when children had to be vaccinated against such things as polio for the first time, and early symptoms of such diseases had to be acted on in time of epidemic. Some familiar issues are recalled as families fight against elderly parents going into care so that their inheritance is threatened, and Molly has to act to arrange basic meals and care for those on their own. Domestic neglect and abuse has to be assessed and sorted out, especially where post war housing shortages and lack of protection for tenants meant that even the pregnant and small children were threatened with homelessness. Sometimes common sense prevails, at other times the difficulties are too profound. There is a chapter which deals with the death of two adults in a very tender way, though mercifully virtually all the children are shown sufficient and well advised care.

This is a gentle yet powerful book which deals on a human scale with the beginnings of the welfare state, as people come to recognise that there is genuine help and advice available if it can be accepted. As a piece of writing there are some little problems as the narrative jumps from one family or patient quickly without much warning, and sometimes the following of a theme means that there is not much indication of a time setting as the entire book presumably stretches over more than one decade. It is honest, as Molly shares her apprehension at advising the wife of a new doctor who has some differing ideas and her frustration with those who question newer ideas. Sometimes her accounts of her home life though fascinating does not blend so well with her recollections of work. Also, she has obviously chosen those stories which are positive, rather than perhaps recalling the daily frustrations of a huge task. Overall this is a satisfying book, steady and rewarding, and a fascinating account of everyday life in a time of change.

So, a very different book review today, but as you may appreciate from reading this blog, I do enjoy a wide variety of reading matter! Having been approached by “Two Roads” to review this book, it turned out to be a really good read. I do welcome approaches to review books, and while I do have regular dates and some blog tours to come, I will tackle most things! The only stipulation is that I review “Real” books ie hard copies, rather than ebooks in any format. There is still room in the house (just!)

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2 thoughts on “An Armful of Babies and a Cup of Tea by Molly Corbally: The beginning of the British Welfare State made Human

  1. Thanks for your candid review, Julie. I like reading about the post-war period and the changes and challenges faced. I’m sure the voice is quite different but it brings to mind the Monica Dickens One Pair of Hands series. I’m going to put this on my To-Look-For list.

    1. The voice in this book is strong and honest, but it is not a narrative and as I hint in the review, sometimes it jumps around a bit. Possibly that adds to its authenticity; it is not a cleaned up view of a life which runs beautifully in order.

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