Grace Mills 1937


When I was younger, I interviewed my Auntie Grace in Hackney. She lived in a small group of streets in Clapton that became known as ‘The Island’. Through a quirk of design the streets near Hackney Downs pretty much formed a cul-de-sac. If you didn’t actually live in this tight-knit community, you simply didn’t go there.

Conducting the interview with me was a young medical student and she was interested in how the islanders dealt with illness, given that in the pre-World War Two days a visit from the doctor had to be paid for. Stories of mutual help emerged, neighbours mucking in to look after the kids, do the washing and help the person get back on their feet.

We moved on to the subject of childbirth. There were three or four women who would act as unofficial midwives. And it was at this point that my colleague asked – in so many words – what happened to those babies that simply didn’t make it? She was amazed when my aunt announced that ‘they were all bonny babies.’ I accepted the 100% successful home-births without question. But my team-mate was less gullible. Statistically, during that period there would have been undoubted fatalities. But my aunt persisted – they were all bonny babies.

There were some things that were simply out-of-bounds to outsiders (even though I was a relative) and dead babies fell into that category.


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