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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 3

Week 3 – Favourite photo.

As with Week 2’s “favourite find”, no single photo immediately sprung to mind with this week’s prompt. I could have chosen one (or all!) of Granddad’s WWI photos, or Helen and her Horrible Hats, but instead I decided to revisit one of the few old photos I have from Mum’s side of the family.

Meet my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Gregory.

No, not the flibbertigibbet sitting at the front – I have no idea who she is, unfortunately! Mary Ann is the older woman standing on the right with a serious expression and a highly impressive bosom. The photo immortalises the group’s qualification as midwives, with (I presume) their tutor seated in the middle. I’m intrigued by the dark veils, as although I’m by no means an expert on the subject, all of the photos I’ve found online of nurses from this era show white veils or caps. Perhaps it was specific to wherever they did their training? As for the rest of the uniform, the ladies are wearing similar – but not identical – dresses, cuffs and pinafores, which were standard wear for nurses at the time.

Mary Ann was born in Wolverhampton on 11 February 1876 and (like all my other great-grandparents) migrated to Manchester, where she married Thomas Griffin in Chorlton register office on 7 June 1898. She was a Protestant, but Thomas, an Irish immigrant, was a Catholic, and according to family legend was excommunicated for flinging down the stairs a priest who came to tell him that his marriage was invalid and that he was living in sin. Apocryphal? Probably. Do I want to prove it wrong? Definitely not.

As far as I can establish, Mary Ann had no form of paid employment before the first World War. (I add the caveat that female employment is notoriously under-reported on historic censuses.) She joined the Red Cross as a volunteer on 7 January 1915 and acted as a cook and “collector” (of funds?) until at least the end of the war, putting in over 3,000 hours of service according to official Red Cross records. An earlier photo (below) shows her in her Red Cross uniform.

Mary Ann has no specified occupation on the 1921 census, and I don’t know if she nursed between then and qualifying as a midwife on 25 February 1926, but once she qualified, she set up her own midwifery practice in her home in Old Trafford, where the large family house held her office, ante-natal and post-natal clinics, a labour room and beds for three women, although most of her patients gave birth in their own homes. It was the largest practice in the area, and she was helped by two of her daughters, as well as sometimes employing other women.

In her practice, Mary Ann regularly came across the grisly results of back street abortion attempts, which made her a firm advocate of legal abortion, although this would not come about in England until 1967, fifteen years after her death. She also campaigned actively for birth control within the large local Irish Catholic community.

Mary Ann’s mother was also a midwife, recorded on the UK Midwives Roll as “in practice” before July 1901, but her occupation is never mentioned on census records. According to Mary Ann, nursing ran in the family, with (inevitably!) an unidentified relative who supposedly nursed in the Crimean War.

With the passage of the 1936 Midwives Act, midwifery evolved into a nation-wide salaried and pensioned municipal service. Like many of her contemporaries, Mary Ann was reluctant to come under government control (as she saw it) and retired soon afterwards. Her daughter Rose, however followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps, and at the outbreak of the Second World War was a pupil midwife at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester.

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