The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 66 -79

18th C
Presumably Margaret was confined in the Gainsborough family home at Sudbury where she would be fortunate to have the support of not only her mother-in-law but presumably some of her many sisters-in-law as well.
The leading obstetrician in her day was William Hunter, one of the first men to become known as a "man-midwife."
These were men who were qualified medical practitioners, often products of well-known medical schools. They prided themselves on being less interventionist than the traditional female midwives and were more inclined to let nature take its course in the birth process.

The first book on midwifery was published in 1752, the year after Margaret's second daughter was born and that book, and the arrival of the male doctor in the previously female dominated area of childbirth caused rapid changes, at least among the gentry. Forceps were first used in the 17th C and were in common use by the time Margaret herself was born in 1728.

Once her labour pains began, Margaret would have been attended by the female members of the Gainsborough clan, accommodated in a small room with a large fire roaring in the fireplace. Georgians believed it was necessary to induce heavy sweating in the patient, with the result that the room became unbearably stuffy and the air foul as it was so crowded. The mother-to-be was urged to drink large quantities of strong liquor mixed with warm water to help her bear the pain.

As soon as the child was born a woman in affluent circumstances would be well wrapped up in bed with extra covers, the curtains drawn round the bed and pinned together, and every crevice in the windows and doors stopped up, even the keyhole in the door was blocked. The windows were shuttered and covered over with blankets - all to exclude fresh air. The new mother was not permitted to put out an arm or even her nose for fear of catching cold. She was fed from the spout of a teapot with quantities of warm liquors to keep up perspiration and sweat and confined like this for many days.

21st C

I gave birth to two children, both in the 1950s. Husbands were not permitted anywhere near the labour ward in those days and were barely tolerated in the waiting room where they paced up and down puffing away at cigarettes or their beloved smelly pipes to relieve anxiety as they awaited news of the birth.

For the first-time expectant mother it was a frightening experience and in my case a lonely one, left entirely by myself in a small room in a private hospital and told to get on with it. Nurses popped their heads in from time to time but no female friend or family member was permitted to keep me company and after the embarrassment of being subjected to an enema and the shaving of the pubic area - neither optional in Tasmania fifty odd years ago - I was left alone for something like twelve hours until the birth was imminent when my own doctor was summoned from his Sunday lunch at home to deliver the baby.

Attitudes have changed for the better in the intervening years and first-time mothers have so much more support now, much as they did in Margaret Gainsborough's day, although personally I believe it is wiser in the long run to choose a female birth companion during this rather messy ritual: a number of young fathers have confided to me that the experience threatened to put them off sex for life when they had had to commit to being present against their own instincts in order to please their partners. A tricky subject, I know, and one to be left entirely to the couple concerned, but there is wisdom in the ancient practice of keeping the birth process a female mystery as far as male partners are concerned.

18th C

Margaret's new born daughters were looked after in a surprisingly modern manner. In the 1750s children's nurses were advised to care for baby by allowing the infant plenty of fresh air (unlike the poor new mother, cocooned in her bed in a sealed room) and freedom from tight clothing to promote kicking which would strengthen the limbs. The newborn was washed in warm water initially, gradually cooling the bath until, it was said, the baby actively liked being washed in cold water at the age of one month. Mother's milk was considered to be the best possible food for the infant.

In Margaret's case she would most likely have breast-fed her own daughters. Wealthier mothers often chose to employ a wet-nurse but not all did so. In an emergency a mixture of one third cow's milk and two thirds boiled water was recommended to augment mother's milk.

In wealthy families wet-nurses either lived in or out. In the latter the newborn was immediately sent to board with the foster mother, usually in the country and often for a period of several months, even years in some cases. This system sometimes resulted in a lack of bonding between mother and child, as in the case of Susan Sibbald nee Mein. She was the daughter of a doctor in Cornwall whose wet-nurse was married to a smuggler and baby Susan was sent out to live with her for some months. As she grew older the girl suffered deeply because she realized her natural mother actively disliked her. Fortunately her father, Dr Thomas Mein RN, was affectionate and caring while her mother, a pretty blonde slight figure, languid in manner, displayed little interst in any of her large br00d of ten children, leaving their upbringing entirely in the hands of servants, presumably having expended all her energy in producing them.

18th C nursery maids were made aware of possible dangers in the manner of placing a baby to sleep and were always warned to be sure the infant was lying on its right side, on its back only when awake and never placed face-down in the bed. They were urged to be constantly alert but, of course, accidents did happen. One girl, employed by the Mein family, was sitting by an open window on a hot day, rocking the youngest infant, Agnes, on her lap when the child suddenly lurched forward and fell over the window ledge into the garden below. She died of head injuries.

Susan Sibbald left a detailed description of her life as a privileged child in the 18th C. The Mein family lived in a large house in Fowey in Cornwall. Some time later Susan attended school in Bath and knew the city well. The ten Mein children were strictly confined to the two top floors of their house, except in the evening, when the eight girls and two boys, clad in their best clothes and warned to keep quiet and look pretty (they were there to be seen and not heard) were ushered by their governess into the drawing room. There they curtsied or bowed to their parents before silently taking their seats on the row of ten upright chairs awaiting them. Silence enveloped the room. A few minutes later they saw their mother signal to the governess. The children stood, bowed again and with not a word being exchanged between parents and offspring, the little army was marched back upstairs to its own part of the house.

If this scene seems unbelieveable to you, as it did at first to me, let me tell you that when I related it to my 96 year old friend she admitted that she was brought up in the same manner, early in the 20th C, her governess taking her down to the drawing room each evening, dressed in her best gown, to meet her mother and father for a few minutes befoe being returned to the nursery upstais to eat her solitary supper while her parents dined formally in the dining room below.

Susan Sibbald remembered sniffing the gorgeous sscents of roast goose, duck and sometimes, an even greater treat, a turkey or a peacock wafting up the stairs from the kitchen, but these meats were for the parents' table and never appeared in the children's quarters. They all longed for the delicious food but all they received were the leftovers stewed up next day mixed with green peas or cucumbers.

All these children, boys and girls, were taught at home while they were small, and never permitted to go beyond that area of the garden marked out as their own for work and play. Their nursemaids and governess kept them in line by thratening them with horrifying stories of smugglers who would kidnap them if they so much as poked their noses out into the streets of Fowey.

Smuggling was rife in Margaret Gainsborough's day. Even the Oxford-educated Rev. Woodforde boldly recorded in his diaries his own dealings with smugglers, purchasing their rum and busily hiding it, even to the point of burying it in his garden. Fines if caught were astronomically high and the Act encouraged informers, so this young clergyman was not averse to taking grave risks in order to satisfy his thirst for contraband.

The Mein girls loved skipping-rope games and whipping away at their spinning tops with their long skirts tucked up to free their legs, and they played endlessly on their garden swing. They were left to their own devices to amuse themselves as long as they stayed in the garden or in their own quarters. The circumstances of the Gaisnborough girls when young were similar to those of this family.

The Mein children's parlour was called the red room because its walls were covered with red flocked paper and hung with old family portraits in ornate gold frames. The women in these paintings wore what Susan considered to be ludicrously elaborate hairstyles. Later, when she was at school at Belvedere House, Lansdown, Bath, owned and run by the Lee sisters, one Miss Lee told her that when she was attending church on a Sunday she saw a mouse peep out of one of the towering hair creations worn by a woman occupying the pew in front of her. The tail of the mouse appeared and disappeared as it wandered in and out of pads and curls of false hair, probably feeding on the liberal application of pomatum and powder that held the hairstyle in place.

The Gainsborough girls would have felt at home had they visited the Mein children's red room in that house in Fowey: the fireplace was decorated with ceramic tiles painted with portraits of Gainsborough's close friend, David Garrick, and his fellow actors and actresses. Garrick was a frequent visitor at the Gainsborough's home in Bath.

Dr Thomas Mein RN, head of this family of ten children, employed a governess and four female servants, a man servant and a gardener. The female servants remained with the Meins for many years, living in the house with them and rejoicing in the names of Grace and Honor, who helped with the children, and Prudence and Patience, who cooked and cleaned. Virtuous names like these were in common use at the time.

John Webber, the man servant, also stayed with the Mein family for many years but Susan described another servant, the gardener, as being a snarling old dog of a fellow who chased the children out of his part of the garden, shouting with fury. Their father, a doctor of some distinction employed by the Navy, rode a horse called Pompadour and with Sancho the turnspit dog (which spent most of his poor little life trundling the wheel turning the spit roasting meat over the hot coals in the kitchen) made up the household.

Dr Mein was rarely at home, often away attending to his naval duties. The children saw him usually on Sundays and on special occasions like birthdays. Unlike his undemonstrative wife he was a loving father, adored by his sons and daughters. On birthdays he always sent for them after dinner and gave them some form of delicious dessert and a small glass each of what he called "pigeon's milk" but was in fact, Susan later discovered, a liquid called Constantia.

Susan was particularly fond of a cook who kept a tame hedgehog which lived in a hole in the wall in the kitchen. She would tap a saucer of milk with a spoon to bring the little creature out to lap up its breakfast.

The Gainsborough girls were in similar circumstances to the Mein children in having a father who adored them and indulged them. The artist's children were lucky because their father worked at home and was constantly present as they grew up beneath the wide blue skies, the chilly winds and bracing air of the east coast.