On 3 July 1931 the Rugby Advertiser recognised the work of Agnes Loomes JP ‘as an infant welfare pioneer’. It noted that as ‘honorary secretary and joint organiser’ Agnes had experienced ‘years of anxious labour and personal sacrifice’ which was ‘untiredly and ungrudgingly given’ to establish the Fletton Voluntary Infant Welfare Association.
Agnes Marshall Grey was the daughter of Rugby farmer James and his wife Isabella. In 1901 she moved to Fletton, Huntingdonshire, to take up the position of headmistress at the newly opened Fletton Board School.
Agnes found love in Fletton and in 1904 she married William Pettit in Bourton-on-Dunsmore. William, aged 44, had been lodging at 2 Spring Villas, Fletton and was a clerk to the guardians and superintendent in the registration district. Unfortunately, the union was not a long one. William died on 5 November 1909 and Agnes was left a widow at just 32. William provided well for her, but she returned to the job she loved.
In 1911 Agnes married Frank Loomes, the editor of the Peterborough Advertiser. They were blessed with two daughters, Mary Agnes Isabella born in 1912 and Elizabeth Mary in 1915. Through her work at the school, Agnes witnessed first hand the deprivation that existed in the village.
Highest mortality rates
In 1914 Agnes learnt a shocking statistic. At the turn of the 20th century, the renowned brickmaking district of Fletton had the dubious distinction of having one of the highest infantile death rates in the country, at 140 deaths per thousand births.
This observation may not have come as a surprise to the residents of Fletton. Reverend Buck and Dr Fenwick had observed in 1817 that residence in the district ‘renders…[children]…particularly liable’ to ‘attacks of bilious remittent fever’. And as recently as 1900 Reverend Dowman had been concerned about the unhealthy siting of the Fletton Board School.
In 1909 the high mortality rate in Fletton had been of such concern that at a meeting of the Huntingdonshire County Council it was thought ‘advisable to draw attention of the Police to this matter’.
Action taken and obstacles overcome
Agnes Loomes was determined to tackle the problem. Having two young children herself, she was aware that both childbirth and infancy were precarious businesses. As Miss Halford, the secretary of the Association of Infant Welfare and Maternity Centres, commented, ‘Every five minutes a baby died in England and Wales… that was a condition they hoped to remedy by infant welfare work.’
On 7 December 1915, at a meeting of like-minded women, it was resolved that a branch of the Association of Infant Welfare and School for Mothers should be opened in Fletton.
Infant mortality is closely connected to poor maternal health, poverty and the lack of training on the part of doctors and midwives attending the birth. Critical to the voluntary welfare system was education of the mother, good ante- and post-natal care, and regular checks of the baby and vaccinations.
Professor Louise McIlroy (1874–1968), of the Royal Free Hospital of Medicine for Women and the first woman to be awarded an MD, stated that this approach was not always popular, and received criticism from the community and government. But young mothers who visited the centres found them a ‘splendid boon’ as they learned ‘how to keep baby properly clothed and looked after nicely’.
Agnes may have been at the forefront in a national revolution to improve the welfare of mothers and babies, but as she modestly said herself, she was ‘merely a unit in a wonderful band and felt ashamed to be singled out’. Throughout the country newly enfranchised women were leading the campaign to establish voluntary infant welfare centres.
For example, in Norwich municipal health visiting started in 1907 and by 1919 the city boasted ten infant welfare centres. These not only offered ante-natal checks but gave baby advice, distributed pure milk and vitaminised milk for babies and monitored children up to five.
As the cause gained momentum the great and the good lent their names to the voluntary centres. In Arundel, West Sussex, the Duchess of Norfolk attended the opening of a voluntary centre and supported a clinic at Bognor Regis financially for three years. In Fletton the president of the clinic was Lady Margaret Proby. The Proby family were once lords of the manor. Even Princess Mary was photographed observing a baby being weighed when she opened the Islington Mothers’ and Babies Welfare Centre.
An important tool for preventing death in infants and children was vaccination. From 1853 to the present day, there have been national vaccination programs. The first came in 1853 when it was mandatory for all babies under three months of age to be vaccinated against smallpox. This was followed in the 1920s with vaccination against diphtheria and in 1948 against tetanus, while 1950 saw the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine and the polio vaccine followed in 1961.
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The deaths, and disability, that these vaccinations were able to prevent are truly staggering. Between 5% and 10% of all smallpox cases were fatal and in children this was 78%. Even if a child survived, they would be horribly scarred for life. In the 1920s the third leading cause of deaths among children was diphtheria. In the 1940s, before the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine, there were 100,000 cases of whooping cough annually and 2,000 deaths. By 1972 80% of children were vaccinated against whooping cough, which resulted in a fall of cases to 2,069 and only two deaths.
The authorities such as those in St Ives, Huntingdonshire had a rigorous system for chasing parents. Georgina Chapman was born in October 1907 in Cambridge. The vaccination officer recorded that due to her husband’s death, Louisa Chapman left the area for Houghton, Huntingdonshire without having Georgina vaccinated. The public vaccinator for St Ives Union chased Louisa and on 1 July issued a certificate delaying the vaccination for one month due to ‘eczema and debility’. It was duly reported that Georgina was vaccinated on 1 August 1908.
Mandatory vaccination has always been a controversial matter and not all parents agreed with vaccination. Those who refused to have their child vaccinated were pursued through the courts and fines were issued. A Mrs Logue of 14 Margaret Street, Londonderry declared herself a ‘conscientious objector’ and stated she ‘did not intend having the child vaccinated in the interests of its health’. The court imposed a fine of 20s plus 10s costs.
This was not a new or isolated incident. It was reported in the Penny Illustrated Paper, on 3 April 1886, that 22 persons had been ‘summoned at Leicester on Monday for non-compliance’. But this was nothing compared to the total figures. Eleven thousand parents had not complied with the Vaccination Act and ‘two thirds of the children born were unvaccinated’. The paper appealed for readers not to ‘yield to the misleading statements of the anti-vaccinationists’ who were blind to the good that vaccines could do, and which could save the nation from ‘a terrible scourge’.
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The Buttercup Day
To enable the voluntary clinics to run efficiently funds needed to be raised. In Fletton the clinics had initially been held in the front rooms of kind volunteers, but this was not an efficient way to continue. Permanent and purpose-built premises were required. Plans of the proposed clinic look very familiar to the modern eye including consulting rooms, waiting rooms, a large hall and even a ‘pram garage’.
When approached for a grant, in 1926, the Huntingdonshire District Council refused saying ‘they felt they were not justified in spending public money on a voluntary venture’. Instead, to raise funds the committee in Fletton instigated the idea of a Baby Week culminating in a Buttercup Day. In his poem ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’, Robert Browning described the buttercup as ‘the children’s flower’. This local initiative was adopted by the National Council and soon Buttercup Days were held the length and breadth of the country. During one Baby Week, in Fletton alone, 7,000 personal appeals were made, 3,400 letters were written and a quarter of a million buttercups were sold. Fletton was not the only community to struggle financially without government support. In 1910, the St Ives Union Workhouse was so concerned about the appointment of midwives that in cases of poverty they were quite willing to pay the midwives’ fee.
Thanks to tireless fundraising and campaigning, led by Agnes’s husband Frank Loomes, on 16 October 1926, the Fletton Welfare Clinic was opened to great ceremony by the Earl of Sandwich, Lord Lieutenant of Huntingdonshire, using the ceremonial Buttercup Key.
Only ten years later Frank died aged 74. In later years Agnes moved to Norwich and she died on 6 February 1973 at the great age of 96. Agnes was laid to rest in Earlham cemetery.
Mortality rates reduced
The Infant Welfare Movement was described as the ‘greatest life-saving institution in the world’ and its aim was to ‘rescue every child, as an asset to the nation’. The decrease in the mortality rates, and increase in the numbers of welfare clinics, stand as testament to this achievement.
The annual national reports of the Medical Officers of Health in the 1930s revealed that at the end of the 19th century infant and maternal death rates were between 170 and 180 per 1,000. In 1923, in England alone, over 3,000 mothers died in confinement. This was not only the loss of a woman at the best period in her life, but also the loss of a wife and mother. But by 1937 the rate had reduced to 59 per 1,000. This reduction had surely been brought about by the increase in welfare clinics. These now numbered 1,672 nationally, attended by a total of 298,000 mothers, which represented almost 50% of notified births.
In Fletton the infant mortality rate had fallen from 140 per 1,000 in 1915 to 54 per 1,000 in 1935. Similar reductions were experienced elsewhere. For example, in Aylesbury in 1917, when the Infant Welfare Centre opened, the infant mortality rate was 98 per 1,000 and within three years had fallen to 63 per 1,000.
The last word should be given to Agnes. With children still dying needlessly throughout the world due to lack of infant and maternity care, her words continue to resonate. She said, ‘there is a great deal to be learned, even we who are in it are learning every day’.
• Huntingdon Archives for vaccination officers’ report books, workhouse registers and public health committee minute books.
• Peterborough Archives for records of Fletton Infant Welfare Association.
• Gill Blanchard, Smallpox and Vaccination Records (Past Search Publications, 2013)
• P. Thane, ‘Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth Century England’, Women’s History Review, 20.1, pp. 11-29.
• Clare Debenham, ‘Grassroots feminists: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-38’, University of Manchester. Unpublished PHD, 2011.