Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Mary Lily Walker and Breast Feeding

One of the exciting aspects of our Mary Lily Walker Project is the fact that it is not only a historic project. Instead, her story gives us a historic context in which we can place the debates we still have today.

This week's announcement of an initiative to increase breastfeeding rates by providing incentives to
mothers is a perfect example.

Here's a summary piece our team wrote that shows the links between the past and the present:

Breast Feeding Incentives for working mothers :

The UK has been exploring what might be helpful for more than a century

One of the stories hitting the news this week (12 November 2013) relates to a newly- launched scheme in Sheffield, in which new mothers will be offered vouchers worth up £200, to encourage them to continue to breast feed their babies for 6 months. The concern arises from the fact that the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe. An emphasis on breastfeeding is always controversial, because women feel controlled and judged, especially if they have been unable to breastfeed or decided not to. This feeling can be seen within the response to this initiative.

One of Mary Lily Walker's 'Restaurants for
Nursing Mothers (date unknown)
Our team thought it was valuable to place this scheme in a historical context. This is not the first time that boosting breastfeeding rates has been attempted by providing incentives to mothers. An attempt was made in 1906 in Dundee, when Mary Lily Walker set up the first ever ‘Restaurant for Nursing Mothers’ in Britain. Mary Lily Walker was leading the work of the Dundee Social Union, which was concerned about the appalling poverty rates in Dundee, as well as the shocking infant mortality. Dundee had the highest rate of child death in the country.

Mary Lily Walker had travelled to Paris to study the Restaurant initiative at first hand. A pioneering scheme had been put in place there by Madame Henri Coullet. According to Eddie Small, author of the recent published biography on Mary Lily Walker, she financed the initiative with her own private funds, in the hope that it would be successful enough to be taken up by the local Council and rolled out more widely. However she did not want attention drawn to her generosity, so she described the funding as coming from ‘a public spirited citizen’, and thereby kept her identity anonymous.

Dundee women in a Jute Mill, (circa late C.19th)
At the time, it was not uncommon for pregnant mothers working in the jute mills to work up to one week before giving birth and then to be back at the mill within a month after birth. Infant mortality rates for Dundee make grim reading. From 1901 onward, infant mortality rates had been falling steadily in both England and Scotland. In Dundee, though, they continued to rise until 1920. By 1920, the rates for England had dropped to 90 death per 1,000 birth. In Scotland, the rate was 99 death. But in the city of Dundee, the rate was 129 deaths per 1000. In some areas of the city social conditions were described as worse than in Calcutta – Dundee’s rival for jute production.

The Restaurant operated by providing a 3-course dinner on the condition that women brought their babies to be weighed and that the mothers did not return to work. Women who could afford to pay something toward the cost of the meal were charged 2d. Those who could not afford this were given the meal for free. The monitoring of the women was done in order to gather evidence of the effectiveness of the initiative.

Dundonian children in a close, circa C.19th
With the evidence of babies’ weight, statistical comparisons of their health could be made. By 1908 Charles Templeton, Dundee Chief Medical Officer reported that “the increasing weight of the Dinner babies [that is, the babies whose mothers were attending the Restaurant] show how much they benefit by one good meal a day being issued to the mothers.” In that year the mortality rate of babies attending one of the Restaurants was 60

per 1,000, compared to 200 for the wider district and 170 for the town of Dundee. This equates to a 300% improvement. Babies of mothers attending the Restaurant were 3 times as likely to survive to the age of 1 year.

Like today’s Sheffield scheme involving the offer of vouchers, the introduction of the Restaurant scheme was met with controversy. In 1906, the idea of keeping women from returning to their work at the mills was seen as interfering with employment patterns. There was also suspicion about snooping professional classes interfering with the privacy of families. Yet Mary Lily Walker saw herself as trying to improve the terrible conditions under which families and babies were being forced to live.

Mary Lily Walker’s first restaurant opened on 22 May 1906 in Temple Lane, with Miss Jessie Allen in charge. The second opened in March 1907 in Union Street, Maxwelltown. The town would later adopt the scheme and provide another two Restaurants. Through the work of Mary Lily Walker and the Dundee Social Union, the schemes adopted by the town led to Dundee having the first comprehensive Infant Welfare Service in the country.

Anthony Cox 1913 Empire, Industry and Class: the imperial nexus of jute , 1840-1940, Routledge
Myra Baillie 1996 Mary Lily Walker of Dundee: Social Worker and Reformer Open Dessertation McMaster University
Eddie Small 2013 Mary Lily Walker: Forgotten Visionary of Dundee, Dundee University Press
Emma Wainwright 2002 Gender, Space & Power: discourse on Working Women in Dundee Jute Industry c1870-1930. Unpubl. PhD Thesis. University of St Andrews

By Pete Kinnear & Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk
Member of the Mary Lily Walker Project Team
13 November 2013-11-13

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