The rise of the 'monthly nurse'

Every time I come to write a blog I try and think of something that has interested me, and might interest others.

Last weekend I was doing some research looking into a lady in Chatteris. In 1861, she was listed as a pauper, head of the household and sharing with her grown up son and daughter, an ag lab and a seamstress. Ten years later, she appears in 1871 as a ‘monthly nurse’ living with a local family, the Graingers. I was intrigued by the concept of the monthly nurse, as in as little as three generations, the term has pretty much fallen out of use. Those that I have spoken to have not had a clue about the duties of these women, perhaps surprising as only a century ago there were over 5000 monthly nurses in London alone. The figures suggest that many of us will find such a lady somewhere in our family tree.

Given I am something of a Norfolk and Suffolk focussed researcher, I decided to look into the history of the profession in this part of the world. What follows are some of my conclusions, thoughts and ideas.

Firstly, I must answer the question: What is a monthly nurse? As long ago as 1700BC the Egyptions recognised female midwives, who would have both tended a woman during her lying in, during the birth and provided care afterwards while the baby was young. However, by the early 1800s, those who could afford it paid a surgeon to be present at the birth. This left families with less after care, and many families could not afford a surgeon at all. Enter the monthly nurse, to provide support to the family. While the term originates in the idea that these nurses would help out for ‘about a month’ this is a little misleading and the actual employment could last as little as a few visits or as long as several months. Many working class women could not afford to ‘lie in’ as long as their more wealthy counterparts so some nurses would have visited several mothers on a part time basis at around the same time.

The 1851 census shows approximately 4175 monthly nurses across England and Wales. Norfolk and Suffolk had relatively few, 40 and 36 respectively, based on an occupation key word search (and therefore open to some errors). The average age for a woman in this profession was just over 40 in Norfolk and 53 in Suffolk. Requirements for the job were informal, and most women providing the service were experienced mothers themselves. They tended to be older women, often widows, who would likely have been present at numerous births of relatives and neighbours, and very likely given birth themselves several times.

In 1851 the youngest nurse across the two counties appears to be Elizabeth Plantin of Bramford near Ipswich, aged 27 on the census. The eldest in Norfolk was 72 year old Mary Ann Woolsey, living with a family in Great Yarmouth and their young family. She may have been living with them for some time, or perhaps a member of the household was expecting another child. The eldest in Suffolk was 77, May Glass, of Street Farm, Assington near Sudbury.

By 1861, the total number of women recorded on the census as a monthly nurses was half as large again as ten years earlier – around 6425. Numbers in Norfolk (74) and Suffolk (49) had also risen. This time, the youngest seems to have been Mary Barnard, of Heigham, Norwich, who was just 19. In this case Mary was the youngest sister of the wife in the household. Baby Elizabeth was a month old at the time of the census. Norfolk also shows the eldest monthly nurse I found during my research – an 88 year old woman living in Norwich workhouse, listed only as ‘M L’. There is probably no way of knowing whether she was still actively helping women. The average age of the women provided this time was 54 in Norfolk and 57 in Suffolk, slightly older than ten years earlier.

1871 saw another increase in total numbers – 7125 were recorded. Norfolk had 75 and Suffolk 82, not massively different from a decade before. Average ages were almost identical, 56 in Norfolk and 55 in Suffolk. Another ten years, and the total number rose to around 8225 with a significant increase in our Counties of interest (Norfolk, 108, Suffolk, 158) although average ages remained very similar. 1891 saw the first and only decrease, with 7525 recorded monthly nurses. Perhaps due to transciption anomalies, the numbers in Norfolk and Suffolk had almost switched (152 and 93 respectively).

Finally, I looked at numbers in 1901. A staggering 22,300 were recorded as monthly nurses on the schedule this time around, 463 in Norfolk and 371 in Suffolk, with the average age remaining around 50 in both cases. Only a year later, changes to the status of midwifery began the process of transforming the care of women and babies which eventually saw the occupation drop off the radar and the arrival of our modern care processes.

It seems clear that, given skills were generally passed from generation to generation, those with most experience were often considered the best people to have around during a birth and therefore elder women were most likely to act as monthly nurses. However, few of the women had the same level of knowledge and training as midwives of the time. While some worked in lying in hospitals for a limited time, many did this purely in order to open their own, often substandard, establishments and make a living. By 1891, Marian Humfrey MRBNA, reported in “The Nursing Record” that monthly nurses were ‘one of the most despised members of the nursing profession’ and that they had ‘no place whatever in the hospital nursing hierarchy’.

This is not to say that no monthly nurses had skills, and some described them as ‘motherly’ nurses to reflect their value – I am sure there are many women today who would have liked the help of another woman for a month rather than having a few hours in hospital and then heading home. For many widows, passing on their experience enabled them to keep a roof over their heads. They moved from one family to another receiving board and lodging.

Unfortunately some had no interest in being part of a caring profession, had little or no ability and used the title only as a way of earning money, often running dirty establishments. For anyone interested in reading Marian’s article “The Monthly Nurse; her origin, rise and progress” the report, published May 21st 1891, can be found here: The article is followed by a fantastic ‘special prize competition’ for a sewing machine with a walnut case!

As for the subject of my initial research in Chatteris, ten years later, a Tom Grainger, now a decade old, appears on the census with his parents. Sarah, who probably helped deliver him, had moved on. She was 76 when he was born. Who knows how many children she helped into the world - and how well she did it. Still, it is wonderful anecdote for a family research project to be able to surmise that your ancestor delivered babies, especially when you can identify who some of them were. 

"The Privilege of a Citizen"

I spotted on twitter today - with thanks to @ThatLauraKnox and @WomensLibrary - a link to a spoiled 1911 census page displayed on the BBC website (

It is not known just how many women refused to fill in the 1911 census schedules, but it is possible that thousands of women joined the ‘No Vote No Census’ boycott. Some simply refused to fill in the form or ensured their husbands or brothers listed only male members of the household; others deliberately slept out in the open on census night so as not to be recorded as resident at a dwelling. The Police were supposed to enumerate everyone who slept in the open, but with so many involved in the boycott, that was nigh on impossible.

The link above got me thinking about a census record I uncovered while researching my own family tree which I found particularly thought provoking. I post about it here for interest’s sake and also in case anybody can tell me more about the individuals concerned.

Ada Jane Bumstead was born in Bramford, a village in Suffolk, in 1880. She was the daughter of Charles Bumstead, a flour miller, and Jane Harvey Fulcher, his wife. Ada was my Great Grandmother Kitty Larter's second cousin, and we share a couple of common ancestors: John Harvey (1801, Stoke Ash?) and Sarah Blomfield (1796, Brundish) - my 4x Great Grandparents.

In 1911, Ada appears in Colne Engaine, Earl's Colne, Essex, working as a housemaid. There is nothing unusual about this - thousands and thousands of women up and down the country were in service at the time. What is a little unusual however is the form she appears on, and in particular, the additions made by the head of the household, one Miss Katherine Mina Courtauld.

Miss Courtauld was 54 in 1911 and working as a farmer. 30 years before, the 1881 census shows Katherine at home with her father at 'Cut Hedge Mansion'. Evidently, Katherine was a lady of some influence and it seems that influence was to grow - some 22 years later, the Kelly’s Directory of Essex for 1933 gives credit to her for both the erection of the Village Hall in 1921 (in memory of her father) and the restoration of the church tower in 1928 (at a cost of £800 – perhaps £24,000 in today’s money according to the National Archives’ currency coverter). On describing the village of Colne Engaine, the Directory also notes:

 "Miss Katherine Mina Courtauld and George F Brown esq. are the principal landowners".

Although the household schedule has been filled in - unlike so many others which were spoiled - Katherine has used red pen to write at the bottom of the form:

"As a householder and rate payer I deeply resent being denied the privilege of a citizen in the exercise of the Parliamentary franchise".

Further research finds her mentioned on the online catalogue for the Essex Record Office within the Minutes for the Halstead Literary and Mechanics' Institute January 1908 to January 1916 (see

Katherine’s half sister Dorothy is mentioned first. She is evidently also concerned with politics as the minute books include a refusal of a request from Miss Dorothy Courtauld to display notices regarding the National Service League [a pressure group proposing national service for men between 18 and 30] in January 1911.

Having looked up Dorothy’s 1911 census record I found her own schedule was not spoiled  - perhaps because it was filled in by her father? Or did Dorothy not support Katherine’s views? Dorothy, her father and another sister share eight servants at Cut Hedge.

Later in the minute books, there is an ‘eventual acceptance of a donation by Miss K. M. Courtauld of “The Common Cause”’ in the latter half of 1911. [The Common Cause was a magazine supporting the Policies of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Socieities first published in 1909]. Katherine was evidently not keeping her views to herself!

Dorothy and Katherine’s father, George Courtauld, justice of the peace, was president of the said Institute.

So much about Katherine, but Ada and Katherine were not alone in the house on census night.

Mary Gladstone, also 54 and unmarried, is listed as ‘joint occupier’ on the record and described as living on ‘private means’. The descriptive of ’joint occupier’ itself is a little unusual as the 1911 census instructions included the terms ‘visitor’ or ‘boarder’ only for non family members/staff. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to show that the household did not conform to such an old fashioned hierarchical order as the census would normally require. Looking back at previous census transcripts, Mary had been living with Katherine for at least thirty years.

A visitor, Alice Geraldine Cooke, also features on the return. Alice is 43 and describes herself as a ‘Women’s Suffrage Organiser’ connected to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society. I would like to know more about Alice, who was born near Birmingham.

I hope somebody reading this will be able to tell me whether Alice was more commonly known by her middle name. A Geraldine Cooke is noted as providing regular speeches around the West Midlands at around the same time supporting the suffragette movement, and the National Archives holds a circular sent by Geraldine Cooke, a secretary of the NUWSS, on behalf of the Parliamentary War Savings Committee in 1915 (ref M50/7/2/1-16).

Finally, the household is completed by two other domestic servants, Elizabeth Hale (cook) and Alice Wakeling (parlourmaid).

As with so many of my blogs, I can for now only wonder what Ada might have thought about the other members of the household. Did she agree with their views? Did she know much about their political interests? Did she perhaps even get involved? Was she, as an acquaintance suggested, completely overlooked by the other women?

To finish in the realms of the unknown, and almost certainly my own wishful thinking, I cannot help but wonder: In 1920, could her first born son’s name (‘Victor’) relate in any way to the suffrage campaign?