'The doctor said, "I don't want to know anything! Why don't you have some gin and a hot bath. Try falling down the stairs a few times."'
Invariably, the women who participated in this study were surprised by their pregnancies and dismayed at what this meant for them. The fathers could largely avoid any of the responsibility or stigma associated with unmarried parenthood, yet the women were physically marked by their premarital infidelities and plunged into a painful situation where they had to consider what would happen to them, their babies, and the relationships with those close to them. Many of their parents responded with anger, hurt, shame, or disappointment. Women lost friends and boyfriends, jobs and schooling opportunities, all because they were unlucky enough to fall pregnant. It is therefore unsurprising that along with a healthy dose of denial many considered ‘alternatives’ to escape pregnancy. Perhaps more surprising is how many people offered up these helpful suggestions, including their doctors.
The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot. One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, ‘have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.’ Falling down the stairs was also mentioned by others. One woman knew that quinine could bring about a miscarriage and unable to buy it in its pure form consumed ample amounts of it that was sold as a flu remedy. She failed to miscarry, instead becoming dreadfully ill thus forcing her to tell her parents she was pregnant. The one thing she was trying to avoid by taking the quinine in the first place.
Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe. A woman from Kate Fisher’s research in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 recounts ‘My one friend used to take gin with, um something, and they used to put it in the oven and when it used to go down they used to drink it. It was like a sedative to make you go to the toilet and – to get rid of it that way. Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.’
One desperate young woman in my study tried gin and a hot bath, douching, repeatedly jumping off the high dive, and finally took herself to a back alley abortionist she had heard of. Arriving at his shabby door she discovered he was out, but she was invited to come in and wait for him. After sitting in the grungy residence for about an hour she decided it wasn’t a good idea, made her apologies and left. England has a mixed history with access to abortion, where it was legal for the most part to induce a miscarriage up until ‘quickening’ (i.e. when movement is felt at 16-20 weeks, once believed to be the point when the soul was entering the foetus). However the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act made all abortions illegal, and while those guidelines varied over the next century, it wasn’t until 1967 that abortions were again made legal in England. This change is largely due to the number of maternal deaths occurring from illegal and self induced abortions in the interwar and post-war periods. As a result legal abortion was not an option for the majority of the women in this study, instead they relied upon wives tales and rumours to help them escape the mantle of shame cloaking them as soon as their pregnancies were discovered.
Did you do anything to miscarry?
'We did all the old wives tales: drinking gin, having hot baths, going swimming and jumping off the top diving board hundreds of times.We even went to a backstreet abortionist...'
'What were the alternatives?
'Abortions then were illegal. But obviously there were different ways that people suggested, but I was just too fearful.'