Tributes to Suffolk midwife who tried to save maternity unit in 1980s
PUBLISHED: 22:09 23 March 2019 | UPDATED: 22:26 23 March 2019
Margaret Thick was a Woodbridge district nurse and also worked at Ipswich Hospital. Her funeral is on April 1
It’s straight out of Call the Midwife. Margaret Thick is delivering her first child after starting work in Suffolk. The county in 1953 has its fair share of poverty, and she finds herself on the top floor of a double-decker bus. It’s home to travellers, sleeping on blankets. “You don’t forget that!” says niece Sylvia Hook.
Auntie Margaret was a major influence on Sylvia and her family – virtually a one-woman recruiting officer.
“When we used to go to Woodbridge” – where Margaret lived – “we’d put on little nurses’ uniforms and they were the real thing – not bought over the counter. We’d practise nursing and ‘bathing babies’.
“Actually, I used to help her. They had a little hut in the garden at Portland Crescent” – where her aunt and another district nurse/midwife lived – “so they could see patients there. I used to help when I was little – making dressing bags and sterilising things. She’d look at my hands: ‘They’re nursing hands!’
“My sister nursed as well, and my mother. So we were all at it.”
Margaret touched so many lives – literally.
“It’s generation after generation that she delivered,” says Sylvia. “You could walk down the street in Woodbridge with her, and everyone would say hello. She’d go ‘I delivered him… I delivered her… I delivered their baby… and their baby... and the next generation…’ You couldn’t walk more than a few yards without midwifery history coming into it.”
More than 30 years later, Margaret found herself at the forefront of a “big is beautiful” battle in east Suffolk. The health authority wanted to close a community maternity home near Woodbridge (where she was matron) and concentrate medical staff and technology at Ipswich Hospital.
The plan provoked an outcry. Many mothers told how they’d much preferred giving birth, and getting to know their child, in a homely atmosphere close to where they lived. A bigger and less-personal maternity block further away was not what they wished for.
Margaret was one of the home’s champions. She argued its case in measured tones, speaking from a position of knowledge.
“It had a good reputation, and not everybody wanted to be in a more clinical, technical hospital environment,” says friend Pam Smith, a former midwife.
“At the Phyllis, people might be there seven to 10 days after their first baby, and Margaret would have to go round and say ‘Well, I think it’s time you went home now…’ They wanted to stay.”
The League of Friends raised a 10,000-name petition and the fight was even taken to the High Court. But all efforts failed. The Phyllis Memorial Maternity Home in Yarmouth Road, Melton, shut in 1987.
“I think she went all-out to keep it open because she thought that was a perfect setting for mums and babies,” says Sylvia. “You had a small staff, local women, and that’s how it should be. You were going to have the same midwife, and knew who the midwife was – that’s a big issue nowadays.
“I did find a letter from one of the consultants. His hands were tied, really. He was very apologetic. That was a bit sad, for her to have to read that.”
Margaret retired not long after. There’s a school of thought she might have carried on working if the Phyllis had stayed open.
“She loved the job (nursing and midwifery). It was her life,” says Sylvia.
“I think when she was training, and very young, there were a couple of offers from young gentlemen – more than a couple, I think – but she was very, very focused on her career. That’s what she wanted to do.
“It was service. That was what it was all about – serving other people; serving the community.”
‘A lot of love underneath’
Signwriter’s daughter Margaret was born in Chertsey, Surrey, in 1928. She had an older brother: Lawrence. It’s thought the family moved to Ipswich in about 1932 and lived in King Edward Road, off Felixstowe Road.
Sylvia (one of Lawrence’s daughters) says her aunt went to school in Nacton Road (today’s Murrayfield Primary, one imagines) and played cricket and tennis on the “rec” between King Edward Road and Murray Road.
“She used to run across the road at lunchtime – Dad (Thomas) was coming home at lunch, as dads did then, and she’d give him a big hug.”
Not that demonstrations of affection were commonplace, it seemed. Sylvia says it appeared to be a “very reserved, typically English childhood – I suppose lower middle class reserve. But there was a lot of love underneath”.
Aunt and niece talked often, later on. “She said that what children really need is your time. Margaret remembered her mum (Helen). No matter how busy she was at home, at lunchtime she used to stop everything. They used to play bat and ball in the garden.”
Sylvia believes her aunt knew from the age of eight that she wanted to be a nurse. “She made the decision. It was always, I think, children-related. She got on very well with children – same as my father, in fact. I think there was a part of both of them that never really grew up.
“At the age of 14 she was wanting to do her nurse training, but was told ‘No… bit young’ and so she did her nursery nurse training in Ipswich. That was in about 1942.
“Just before that, I think she’d been evacuated, and then came back. I think she blamed the evacuation and the war for her poor education record. I think for a lot of children of that era it interrupted their education. She was slightly resentful of that and slightly embarrassed. She thought ‘Can’t spell; can’t do this; can’t do that’.
“She did tell me an anecdote: she never ever learned her spellings except for once. The teacher bought her a dictionary after that. That maybe encouraged her. She seemed perfectly able to me!”
Margaret began nursing training at Ipswich’s Anglesea Road wing in 1946 and qualified in 1949. And not long after decided to give up nursing.
“I was quite surprised about that.” Perhaps the reality of such hard work did not persuade a still-young lady to make a long-term commitment.
“She went off to a nanny position in the Isle of Wight and Surrey for a year or so, and then she did decide to come back into nursing.”
In 1951 Margaret embarked upon midwifery training at West Middlesex Hospital and Dartford. “It really was Call the Midwife. Real poverty. And you could just leave your bike and come back to it. That was why she was totally engrossed in the series – because it was her history as well. It was very true to the time.”
There’s some suggestion Margaret once bought a bike on the never-never, but didn’t want to tell her father – borrowing money wasn’t the done thing – and didn’t.
Margaret spent some time at the Royal Berkshire Hospital at Aylesbury, where she made friends with Margaret McDonaugh – “Mac” – and then both went on to begin Queen’s Nurse training in Limehouse. (It helped suitable candidates develop their professional nursing skills.)
After that, Margaret applied to become a district nurse. She looked to her adopted Suffolk. There were openings in Lowestoft and Woodbridge, and she found herself heading for the latter – passing her driving test the day before she started...
Back to Suffolk
Margaret arrived in her district in 1953. She did need transport – the area covered Woodbridge, Bromeswell, Martlesham and Melton. “I think her salary was £60 a month and she was on call for 24 hours at a time,” says Sylvia.
She and Mac, also working there, were based at the house in Portland Crescent, off Warren Hill Road. It backed onto the cemetery. “I remember listening to the owls at night,” says her niece.
Nurses weren’t allowed to accept money from patients, but many grateful folk would insist.
“There was a big black piggy-bank – I’m looking at it now; it’s sitting on my hearth – and they put any money in there. Then, at Christmas, they would have a huge party for all the children of the really impoverished families in the area.
“There would be presents and a neighbour would dress up as Father Christmas. He’d walk down from the top of the crescent and we’d all have to sit on the floor, cross-legged, hands folded. It was wonderful.”
In 1954 Margaret nursed her father. She went to work at the Phyllis Memorial Maternity Home in 1966. In 1969 she joined Rigby ward in Ipswich, and also worked on Orwell ward. Then, in 1970, the new maternity tower block opened at the Heath Road site.
Margaret was a midwifery sister there for 10 years. Then she went back to the Phyllis in 1980 as matron.
‘Lost over a stone in weight’
Pam Smith came to work at Ipswich Hospital in 1972. After her mother died, Pam was invited to go on a holiday in Yorkshire that Margaret and fellow nurse Marion Miles had organised. “That’s when I really got to know Margaret quite well.
“She always likened her time in London to how things are on Call the Midwife. She cycled everywhere. She carried in her bag drugs for women in labour, and she used to leave her bike outside, unlocked.”
When Margaret returned to hospital-based work it seemed to have been very intense. “I don’t know if it was in the first month, but very quickly she lost over a stone in weight. Compared with the district, which I presume was not so pressured, she found it quite difficult, but did settle down.”
Becoming a Christian
It was in about 1974 that Margaret became a Christian – something friends say was a turning point. There had been a farewell party for friend Marion, off to Nigeria for a couple of years as a missionary and midwife. Margaret felt lonely, that there was a fundamental gap in her life, and spoke to folk from the church. She joined Beaumont Baptist – and became a cornerstone of the congregation.
Friendly by nature, she was invariably the person who would spot any newcomers and make them feel welcome.
Christine Clements says: “Margaret was the church secretary when we (she and husband Richard) went along to Beaumont about 24 years ago.” They became friends. And, later, Christine also served as church secretary.
Pam and Christine smile as they remember how Margaret was incensed when new houses were built at the top of Deben Road, Woodbridge, where she lived. One can only imagine her feelings when Marion moved into one!
When Margaret saw inside, she began to think it was actually rather nice. She was at the point where she might like a move herself. By chance, the semi next-door came up for sale. She bought it, and they installed a connecting door so they didn’t have to traipse out of the front door and go all the way round.
Margaret and Marion were known for their joint hospitality. If you went to Margaret’s for lunch, for example, she would chat to guests while Marion prepared the food. Then guests would go through to Marion’s house to eat.
Afterwards, pots and pans, plates and cutlery, would be taken to Margaret’s kitchen to be washed up.
Margaret: Young at heart
“She was an all-round person,” says Pam. “She was, as a Christian, a very spiritual person, but she was also interested in – dare I say – more worldly things.
“She was an accomplished artist; she did beautiful cross-stitch embroidery – very fine, with just two threads of silk. She used to like birdwatching and walking. She was game for everything… horse-riding, until she nearly fell off and killed herself!” (It had bolted.)
Sylvia also remembers her aunt being a brilliant watercolourist and embroiderer who won many awards, silver cups and certificates from local shows for flower-arranging and suchlike.
Christine says Margaret was young at heart, and continued riding her bicycle until quite late in life. Christine drew a cartoon of Margaret riding it – a Tearfund bag flapping from the saddle.
Margaret and Marion had long supported the charity – going to churches and meetings to sell products over about 30 years, and raising lots of money for those who really needed it.
Christine shows me a photograph of a robin that Margaret drew. She’d often adorn birthday cards with little pictures of snowdrops or a rose.
When Margaret decided she wanted to raise money for New Horizons, a weekly club for the over-55s in Woodbridge, she painted a robin, had cards printed as Christmas cards, and sold them.
Last year, though quite ill, she did something similar for Highlands, the Woodbridge care home where she spent her last months. Margaret used a white rose illustration she’d done earlier.
“She always kept a notebook: a plain school-type exercise book. Who sent Christmas cards, presents she was thinking of getting people,” says Christine. “It was more than a diary. More like a life story. She was so organised.
“She had a playful sense of humour. She enjoyed a good laugh and saw the funny side of things.
“She loved gardening. She had really green fingers. Her garden was a natural one. She let nature take its course, really. Things grew where they’d self-seed.
“At the side of her house were lilies of the valley. She’d pick some, wrap them in tin foil, and take to people as posies. She’d also buy a single rose from the florist near Woodbridge station to give to people if she went round for dinner. I’ve taken to doing that now. It’s lovely – one rose.”
Margaret was not only a friend to nieces Sylvia and Angela but “wonderful with the generations of children in our family”. She had four great-nieces, a great-nephew and five great-great-nephews. “She had a good rapport with children,” says Sylvia.
“I was divorced in 2000 and things were very difficult. She was always there for me. I could go down there and there would be a haven of peace and a listening ear.”
Out in the wider world, lots of people knew her. Margaret was adept at making friends and bringing people together. Christine: “What do they say? ‘The way to have good friends is to be a good friend.’”
She’d had a loyal staff at the Phyllis, too. There were regular get-togethers – not just midwives but cleaners and other staff. Everyone was part of the team; there was no them-and-us demarcation.
Christine remembers how Margaret always had visitors’ books at home. One was even arranged when she was in Highlands. (Someone said it didn’t look great if all the entries were in black, so folk started using different-coloured ink. It looked much more cheerful.) Margaret would often read the messages later.
Christine bought her a new book, but Margaret died before it was used. The cover originally carried the slogan “Sparkle like Markle”. Christine adapted it to say “Sparkle like Margaret”. “She liked the joke of that.”
Pam: “Wherever Margaret went – even 30 years after she retired – there were people who remembered her.”
Christine: “Margaret spent the last year of her life in care. She’d delivered the babies of women now working there as carers, or they themselves were delivered by Matron Thick.”
Margaret even found that she’d delivered her hairdresser’s mother – who had been called Maggie, after the midwife. “Several people called their little girls Margaret because she delivered them,” says Pam.
“She was a lovely person. Very softly spoken and caring. You felt she was really pleased to see you and was genuinely interested in what you’d been doing, and about your family.”
Sylvia says: “She was a great listener. In some ways she was a woman of the world and in some ways she was… what’s the word?... ingénue. (Innocent and wholesome.) A little bit ‘not in the mainstream’. She didn’t know about pop music or anything like that – never interested in it – but people, that was different.
“She was a great bringer-together. So gentle. And genteel. A real English lady. Quintessential.”
A service of thanksgiving is being held at Woodbridge Quay Church at 2.30pm on April 1.
Christine says: “Margaret had many, many close friends, any one of whom could have given you plenty of happy memories of knowing her.
“The way Margaret lived her life was characterised by her love and faith in her lord and saviour Jesus Christ. She had an exuberance for life and for people. She was generous in every way. She had a genuine compassion for others – perhaps especially for the vulnerable; for children coping with pain and suffering across the world.
“She has asked for any donations in lieu of funeral flowers to go to Mercy Ships, a charity that funds hospital ships to provide free lifesaving surgeries for people where medical care is nearly non-existent.”