‘My life at the Mothers’ Hospital under World War Two bombings’: Kathleen Bateman’s memories 75 years on
- Credit: Archant
Some 75 years have passed since the V2 bombings began the ‘mini Blitz’ in September 1944. Kim Willis interviews her great aunt Kathleen Bateman, who was a nurse at the Mothers’, about her memories from the time, and the bombs that prompted her evacuation from the maternity hospital
Walk part way up the Lower Clapton Road and on your left you'll notice a set of Victorian-fronted buildings connected by an archway with a sign to "Mothers Square".
Today it's a housing development. But go back 75 years and it was the location of The Mothers, a Salvation Army hospital where unmarried mothers gave birth to their babies throughout the Second World War while bombs dropped around them.
One of the nurses training there in 1944 was now-96-year-old Kathleen Bateman.
"When the bombings happened the porters would have to take us all down to the cellars - babies and all," said Kathleen who lives in Manchester. "The babies would be wrapped up in blankets and put on shelves. And if someone was in labour you couldn't go down; you just had to stay on the grounds and hope for the best."
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The Mothers' Hospital was built in Lower Clapton Road in 1912 as an expansion of the Ivy House mothers' shelter in Mare Street.
The foundation stone was laid by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, and when it opened in 1913 its purpose was to provide maternity care for women in the local community -particularly those unmarried and unsupported by their families.
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"It was a small-ish hospital," said Kathleen.
"You arrived on your first day and the home sister took you up to your room, put your uniform on the bed and sort of said 'get on with it'.
"I was doing what you might call gynaecology now, looking after the women before and after. Women would be in hospital for about 10 days around their pregnancy, and they would stay in bed for that time.
"We were one of the first maternity hospitals to get mothers up and about - partly to get them down to the air raid shelters, I imagine.
"We would do bedpan rounds, and go round with a swabbing trolley with Dettol in it, washing their backs so they didn't get bed sores. It was important work, as antibiotics weren't available at that time."
Kathleen moved to London from Manchester to complete six months' training in maternity nursing. Having nursed D-Day soldiers and those industrially wounded in Altrincham, she chose to continue her training at the Mothers' Hospital.
"It was so unusual back in those days for anyone to be sympathetic about unmarried mothers, but it just seemed to strike a chord with me," she said. "I thought: 'No one is looking after these mothers'. So I applied to go to London. I was a bit shocked at first, because part of the set-up was that mothers in the last stages of their pregnancy were actually scrubbing the concrete steps, earning their keep, if you like. Well, it must have done them some good, as we never lost a mother in all the time I was there."
Despite being directly hit during the Blitz in 1940 with two wards destroyed, the Mothers' never closed during the war. At acute periods of bombing, staff and mothers would often be evacuated to Willersley Castle in Derbyshire and Bragborough Hall in Northamptonshire, to have their babies in relative safety.
Two months into her own tenure, Kathleen was also evacuated. The first of the V1 "buzz bombs" had fallen on the railway bridge crossing Grove Road near Mile End in June 1944, followed by the V2s in September, bringing a very different threat to London's streets.
"We had had bombs the whole time I was there, but when the V2s came, the whole hospital would have gone. The craters were so huge. The first had fallen near Kew, but once it started they were falling all over the place, so we had to be evacuated. The thing about those V2 bombs was that you heard it coming. It went "chug-chug-chug-chug-chug" in the sky and you just found yourself just hoping it would keep chugging past you, because once it stopped, it dropped. And you were just holding your breath.
"It's surprising in old age. Some of these things come back more clearly than what you did last week. It was quite an intensive time.
"You didn't think about it because everybody was in the same position, but you were aware that you might not see somebody again. At the back of your mind you were aware. And so you made the best of it."
Records show that, in total, 123,909 live births were registered at the Mothers' during its 74 years of operation, and 3,119 nurses trained there. It didn't close until 1986, when all maternity services were moved to the new Homerton Hospital.