Memories of midwife Helen Lynch

Memories of midwife Helen Lynch

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Folk say my Nanna brought half of Leith into the World!

Stan Eadie talks to Mick Patrick about his grandmother, Helen Lynch, a midwife, and the time he spent at her flat when growing up around the time of the Second World War.

Stan Eadie, a regular volunteer at The Living Memory Association, was born in Leith in 1935. He grew up in a tight-knit family in Pitt Street, with both his uncle and his maternal grandmother Helen Lynch living in the same street. Stan's parents worked, so as a young schoolboy he spent a lot of time at the flat of the woman he knew always as 'Nanna'. He has very clear and fond memories of her and her unusual profession. Stan recalls that Helen trained as a midwife before WWI and that after her husband was killed in the war she carried on in the profession, working from home, but getting her supplies from the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in Abbeyhill.

Helen was 'only a wee soul', but he 'never heard her raise her voice'. She was well known in the community. In the LMA collection there is an old directory for 1938-39. And as Stan notes wryly “there was only five midwives listed in the directory covering Edinburgh and Leith. There was a whole list of masseusses, But only five midwives. [ … ] I've heard a lot of people say 'Your nanny brought half of Leith into the world!'” She had no phone, so someone always had to come to her flat if she was needed.

There was a big brass plaque on her door saying 'Nurse Helen Lynch, Registered Midwife', with her qualifications and a sliding panel beneath indicating whether she was 'in' or 'on call'. Calls could come day or night and Stan remembers how quite often they would come via a policeman. When she was in during the day the kettle was always on, ready for any caller. Stan remembers clearly her rushing off to answer calls with the tools of her trade. "It was a matter of 'Boy, boy, go and get my bag in the front room ... I've got to go. You'll manage, ken?'". Her portrait shows her dressed smartly in uniform, but typically she'd go wearing her apron 'with a stethoscope sticking out of her pocket' and everything else she might need in a Gladstone bag. Helen would ask Stan to help check the bag was properly stocked. He remembers her mask and gloves, an oilcloth, swabs, syringes, phials of medicines, needles and medical thread, towelling, a bottle of ether and a mysterious corked blue bottle that she was very clear about: 'Don't you open that bottle!'. Stan, however, was more interested in its funny shape and attractive colours when held up to the light. And of course, 'she alway's took a nappy wi' her!'

When Helen was on a call Stan was left alone in her flat, but he was happy because she had an organ, “one you pumped, and then you pulled the keys oot the stoppers, you could get drums, trumpet, all the different sounds on it […] I could sit playing there for hours, just making a noise, which was good fun actually. […] Well it was maistly hymns I played because you got the boys' brigade every Sunday and Sunday school after church.

In those days, before the National Health Service, Helen was paid by those she visited. However, it seems that her money sometimes came from the Police Fund, perhaps when she was needed by someone in a tenement who couldn't afford it. She was comfortably off, with a big double upper flat. Helen carried on working until soon after the war, when Stan's sister Marion and her Spitfire pilot fiance finally felt it was safe to get married. Stan recalls "It was near enough a retirement party and a wedding party, I think they combined the two.” In fact, her flat was big enough to accommodate the reception with a band of three accordians and a drummer. Stan smiles at the memory of her retirement, "Cos I remember her Gladstone bag; my uncle claimed it. He said 'That'll do for my bowls'!”

This article first appeared in the winter/spring issue of Thelma (the quarterly magazine of The Living Memory Association). For more information about the LMA call in to their unit on the first floor of Ocean Terminal shopping centre or visit www.livingmemory.org.uk