Call the Midwife – Pittville’s two maternity homes

During the 1940s and early 1950s, many Cheltenham residents were born in one of Pittville’s two maternity homes, Sunnyside in Pittville Circus Road and Pittville Maternity Home (later St Catherine’s) in Pittville Lawn.

Sunnyside, Pittville Circus Road, 1940 – 54

In 1938 Gloucestershire County Council acquired the house known as Sunnyside (right: now Byron Court) together with its neighbour Pengwern College (below: now Berkhampstead Nursery), intending to turn them into an old people’s home.

However the Second World War intervened and the buildings became a Ministry of Health Maternity Home under the Emergency Hospital Scheme. The home was up and running by 1940 and included beds for “expectant mothers evacuated from threatened areas”, mainly London. The local newspapers of the time make it clear that there was some disquiet about the preferential service being provided for evacuees and the shortage of beds for local mothers.

In 1946 the County Council asked for the return of Sunnyside so that it could be converted to an old people’s home, as originally planned; but with the creation of the National Health Service all the Cheltenham hospitals came under the administration of the South West Regional Board. There was a local shortage of maternity beds, and – in the face of local opposition – the Board retained Sunnyside as a maternity home for a further five years. A maternity hospital was eventually provided on the St Paul’s site in Swindon Road, and Sunnyside became an old people’s home in 1954.

Memories of Sunnyside during the Second World War:

Jeannette Howell joined the Civil Nursing Reserve in 1944, aged 18. After two weeks’ training she thought she would be sent to nurse wounded soldiers, but …

“I was sent to Sunnyside in Cheltenham, two big houses converted into a maternity hospital, not to nurse the wounded soldiers as I had envisaged! My two years there were the hardest work I have ever done – endless stairs, as wards were up and nurseries down, and we washed the nappies in the basement. Mums had two weeks in hospital then and didn’t get up until their eighth day. Discipline was strict and some sisters terrifying. Matron was a stern, upright Plymouth Brethren lady who did her share of nursing. We had patients evacuated from the London bombing, local ladies, and single girls with American boyfriends and babies. Before the birth Matron employed some as domestics, and I remember trays being balanced on ‘bumps’. They and we lived in nearby large houses, and on night duty nurses had to go round with a torch and check that the ‘girls’ were in, though I at 18 was younger than some of them. After the births many went to homes for unmarried mothers since there was no other financial support for them.

Night duty was hectic. One night we delivered eight babies with two midwives and two auxiliaries on duty. There were Caesarean operations and forceps deliveries. Premature babies survived despite basic incubators. The smallest I remember was two and a half pounds. Despite the almost slave labour there was great camaraderie amongst the night staff. When we had time we told stories of our lives and of our menfolk away fighting. I have a special memory too of a Christmas Eve with nurses in cloaks with candles going round the wards singing carols.”

Pittville Maternity Home, Pittville Lawn, 1944 – 9

Pittville Maternity Home was at 21 Pittville Lawn. For most of the Second World War the building was a nursing home (known as Pittville Nursing Home), caring mainly for elderly people; but for a period of about five years, from 1944 to 1949, it was a maternity home known as Pittville Maternity Home.

In 1949 the building was bought by the Church, and became a Mother and Baby home for unmarried mothers; at this point it began to be called St Catherine’s, as it replaced a previous home in Cheltenham with that name. Later it became a doctor’s surgery, also known as St Catherine’s; this surgery eventually moved to the St Paul’s medical centre, where the name lives on.

Hilary Simpson