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Maternal healthcare in industrial districts, c.1900–39

July 22, 2010

By Janet Greenlees

During the early years of the 20th century, maternal mortality was rising in Britain, with Scotland having the highest rates in the UK. After World War I, the government was determined to tackle this and other health problems. The healthcare matrix included provision by churches and employers.

In Scotland, the Church of Scotland, or Kirk, provided various healthcare services. It was the first Protestant sect to open a hospital in Britain, in 1894: the Deaconess Hospital in Edinburgh. In the west of Scotland, from the early 20th century, the Kirk’s social mission increasingly targeted young women’s health and welfare. They introduced a layered strategy, which included training homes, preventative homes, rescue homes and mother and baby homes in poor neighbourhoods, to try to improve ‘morality’ and to provide basic healthcare for expectant mothers. In some communities, such as Paisley, the Kirk’s healthcare efforts ran alongside those of the local employers. Yet, despite the importance of these services to the communities that they served, the extent and nature of their healthcare provision has received little historical attention. This is a surprising void considering the centrality of the Kirk to many Scottish communities.

This project aims to examine the nature and extent of the Kirk’s and employers’ healthcare provision in industrial communities, with a particular focus on maternal health. The social and cultural impact of the Kirk and its assumptions about class and behaviour in relation to the healthcare provided remains to be seen. Likewise, women’s responses to both the Kirk’s and their employers’ healthcare is unclear. While the Kirk publicised that it had widespread community support for its services, was this really the case? And why did the women accept or use these services or those provided by their employers? My previous research, into employers’ healthcare provision in the USA, found that women often used it as a last resort rather than a first choice, despite the high quality of care offered in many cases. Will this prove the same in Britain? More broadly, an analytical and historical perspective of the role of different religions and employers in providing healthcare and their influence on both families and policy formation would enrich our understanding of women’s healthcare choices and decision making.

Dr Janet Greenlees is Lecturer in History at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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