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
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.
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.
One of Mary Lily Walker's 'Restaurants for
Nursing Mothers (date unknown)
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.
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.
Dundee women in a Jute Mill, (circa late C.19th)
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.
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
Dundonian children in a close, circa C.19th
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.
Cox 1913 Empire, Industry and Class: the
imperial nexus of jute , 1840-1940, Routledge
Baillie 1996 Mary Lily Walker of Dundee:
Social Worker and Reformer Open Dessertation
Small 2013 Mary Lily Walker: Forgotten
Visionary of Dundee, Dundee University Press
Wainwright 2002 Gender, Space & Power:
discourse on Working Women in Dundee Jute Industry c1870-1930.
Unpubl. PhD Thesis. University of St Andrews
Pete Kinnear & Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk
of the Mary Lily Walker Project Team
|One of Mary Lily Walker's 'Restaurants for|
Nursing Mothers (date unknown)
|Dundee women in a Jute Mill, (circa late C.19th)|
|Dundonian children in a close, circa C.19th|