In 1918, after the First World War, a group of Surbiton women from St Andrews, St Marks and later Christ Church joined together to help those in need in Surbiton and Tolworth, particularly young mothers and children. The volunteers provided help in the form of milk, medicines, hospital and convalescent treatment. This was before the creation of the National Health Service (NHS), and many health services were provided by volunteers or on a voluntary basis to those who couldn’t afford to pay for care. This group of women called themselves the Ladies Voluntary Committee of Surbiton Infant Welfare Centre, and the sessions they held became fondly known as the baby clinics.
For the first 10 years there was no fixed place to hold their sessions, and they frequently had to use Council offices. With the help of Council members and Doctor Ferguson (who was husband of one the volunteers) the South Place Clinic was built. It opened 22nd March 1928, from which point the baby clinics were held there. They took on a part time nurse for ‘needy’ cases, and by 1930 they had added dental care to the services provided by the Welfare Centre.
The volunteers weighed the babies and provided a food table which sold clothes, milk, food and orange juice for mothers and children who needed extra support. The produce was sold at a cheaper price than that in the shops. Later on volunteers were involved in the distribution of Welfare Foods. The Welfare Food Scheme aimed to provide nutritional safeguards to pregnant women and children under 5 in families who received Income Support or Family Credit, in exchange for milk tokens for liquid or dried baby milk.
A number of the volunteers formed a work party and knitted garments, nighties, sheets and blankets which were then sold very cheaply to the mothers. Any profits made were donated to local good causes, and they also did a lot of other fundraising, for example for the Born Too Soon group at Kingston Hospital (which is still doing its good work today). They often gave out publications that gave advice to mothers, such as the book ‘the Health of Mother and Child’. They also put on entertainment such as the annual baby show and the Mothers’ Annual Treat, where tea and sports was put on.
By 1931 there was an average attendance of 134 mothers per week at the clinic, with 573 babies on the register with a total attendance of 7,000 that year (a 1,524 increase on the previous year). The volunteers noted that awareness of the importance of the clinics was increasing, but as a result more donations were needed in order to carry on with their work.
Because the Welfare Centre was set up before the creation of the NHS it was entirely dependent on voluntary contributions. The committee had to appeal for donations and was always on the look out to enrol new members and subscribers. Mothers even donated in appreciation of the help they had received at the clinic and this money was used to buy a clock for the clinic.
The volunteers themselves initially financed a lot, for example for refreshments and the entertainment they put on. In the 1920s a rocking horse was donated by the volunteers for children to enjoy at the baby clinic. It was used by children at the baby clinic until 2005 when the volunteers were asked to remove it as it was considered unsafe. After its decommission, the rocking horse found a new home with the great-great grandchildren of Mrs Agnes Sanger, one of the Chairwomen of the Surbiton Infant Welfare Centre, and whose granddaughter Mella Trotter also later became Chairwoman.
After the Second World War the NHS was created and the medical side of the baby clinic was taken over by the Local Authority. It was found that the volunteers were still needed and they continued to weigh babies and provide the food table. By 1976 the service of the baby clinics was considered quite unique; volunteers had become hard to get hold of and many other clinics had had to close. But the Surbiton Infant Welfare Centre remained, and the baby clinic moved in to a new home at the new Oakhill Health Centre in 1985.
Sadly by 1994 volunteers could no longer weigh the babies, instead this was carried out between mothers and the Health Visitors, but the volunteers continued to help at the baby clinics and this was greatly appreciated by the mothers and the Health Visitors. From 9th December 1996 the Oakhill Baby Clinic could no longer sell Welfare Foods; instead they had to be purchased from NHS Supplies. In light of this the decision was made to no longer sell baby milk, but it was instead issued on coupons and the Family Credit Book.
In the late 1990s many doctors had their own baby clinics at their own surgeries with Health Visitors attached. By this point the baby clinic was seeing about 26 to 46 babies at each session. Social events were also still a long standing tradition, with a lunch party held for all volunteers, health visitors and clinic staff. And the Health Visitors gave a tea party for the volunteers just before Christmas 1998 as a ‘thank-you’, as the volunteers always turned for duty without fail.
By 2000 the use of volunteers at the baby clinics had been greatly reduced; they now attended the Thursday clinic on a three week basis. The food coupons were given out on the Thursdays, and the volunteers noted that the session could be ‘quite hectic’. Volunteer helpers continued to hold social meetings and Health Visitors put on a Christmas buffet lunch each year, which the volunteers appreciated. They still did a three weekly rota on Thursdays only, with the volunteers doing the clerical work and the issue of the powdered milk in return for coupons. As it was a busy clinic the volunteers help was welcomed.
By November 2005 Oakhill Clinic was one of the few remaining clinics within Kingston NHS Primary Care Trust that still used the services of volunteers at the weekly baby clinics, and the Health Visitors at Oakhill decided that they should be using the same working practices that many of the other clinics within the Trust followed. Therefore Surbiton Hospital notified the Surbiton Infant Welfare Centre volunteers that unfortunately their support at the baby clinics would no longer be needed. Although the volunteers were greatly saddened by this, many of them still meet up and they are proud of the help and support they have given for the mothers and babies of Surbiton.
The Baby Clinic plaques, which the volunteers had raised the money for in the 1970s and 1980s and were originally situated outside Oakhill Health Centre, can still be seen on the new benches outside Surbiton Health Centre.
You can listen to Mella Trotter (here) and Pat Evans (here) talk about being a volunteer for the baby clinics and how much they enjoyed it.
All sources were loaned to the Oakhill Community Heritage Project for research purposes from Mrs Mella Trotter, Surbiton. They consist of the letters, minutes and reports that the Surbiton Infant Welfare Centre has kept since 1918.