Books & Literature

Book Review: Crown Street Women’s Hospital: A History 1893-1983, by Judith Godden

A history of the Crown Street Women’s Hospital which, from its earliest days, treated the very poorest patients from the slums of inner city Sydney.

While the book does provide comprehensive coverage of the history of Crown Street Women’s Hospital, I have to disagree with Judith Godden’s description on her website that ‘[i]t is a book to be enjoyed by both general readers and specialised scholars’. As a history buff I expected to enjoy the book but was disappointed by the uninspired writing style of Godden.

From its earliest days, the hospital treated the very poorest patients from the slums of inner city Sydney. Single mothers, both white and Indigenous, and those suffering from the after-effects of a backstreet abortion were not turned away. In some cases, homeless women were accommodated for long periods while awaiting the birth of their child. District midwives, attached to and trained by the hospital, delivered many babies at home in very basic conditions but this also meant fewer maternal and child deaths as infection in hospitals was a major problem.

The book is divided into broadly chronological sections, each focussing on a particular aspect of the hospital’s history such as the war years, building and fundraising, and the midwives who formed the backbone of the establishment. For my taste, there is too much emphasis on statistics and too little on the social history. This may be due to lack of detailed archival material on the people as, overall, the book is well referenced and it is refreshing to see citations from unpublished PhD and Masters’ theses sharing very up-to-date scholarship on the subject matter under discussion.

As is to be expected over its 90-year history, Crown Street Women’s Hospital was well known for both good and ill. Eliminating eclampsia and sharply reducing maternal deaths brought international fame. Sadly, so did being the centre of birth defects caused by thalidomide. Forced adoption of what used to be called ‘illegitimate children’ is another black mark for the hospital. Although Godden asserts that Matron Edna Shaw (1937-1952), perhaps the best known Matron at Crown Street, did not agree that such mothers should not be allowed to touch or even see their baby, later investigations have shown that such practises were common in many hospitals right up to the 1970s. Perhaps this is what the author means when she notes there are many tales about Matron Shaw which portray her in a positive light but goes on to says: ‘Yet we need to tread warily when considering her public image…Other perspectives need considering’ (page 133).

The declining inner city population was matched by a growing population, particularly of young people, in the western suburbs of Sydney. By 1982 the area, with a third of the city’s population, had only 2 or 3 hospital beds per 1000 compared to 10 to 11 per 1000 in the inner city area. Obviously, something had to go and Crown Street Women’s Hospital was slated for closure. Despite rallies and demonstrations the hospital closed its doors on 31 March 1983.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10: 6

Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: January 2017
RRP: $45.00

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