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The real Poplar stories behind BBC’s Call the Midwife

To celebrate ten years of BBC’s Call the Midwife we share the real-life stories of the Poplar residents who inspired the storylines of the award-winning show.

In the show, a convent of religious sisters, along with a handful of young midwives live in a convent house called Nonnatus House in Poplar, East London, and work within the community providing district healthcare and delivering babies. 

Written by Heidi Thomas, the concept of the show is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who herself worked as a young midwife in the 1950s to 60s East End. 

BBC's Call the Midwife poster of Jennifer Worth, actress Vanessa Redgrave, cycles in Poplar
BBC’s Call the Midwife began in 2012 with actress Jessica Raine portraying Jennifer ‘Jenny’ Worth Image: BBC

The real Sisters were the Religious Sisters of Saint John the Divine and were based at the St Frideswides Mission House on Lodore Street, which still exists.

The Sisters of Saint John the Divine were established in 1848 in Fitzroy Square near Euston and were trained as nurses and midwives in Germany. They have worked in Maternity homes and hospitals across London since then.

The Sisters were invited to Poplar in the 1880s by the Church of All Saints Poplar to work in the East End community; the Sisters accepted and began the work we see in the BBC show. 

Saint Frideswides house on Lodore Street is still there today Image: Ruby Flanagan

In the period of the 1950s and 60s, the Sisters and midwives became an iconic part of the East End, with many from the community back describing them as an integral part of life in Poplar. 

‘It was exactly like what they show you on the telly, they rode around on the bikes, the midwives in their uniforms and the nuns, and the nuns look exactly the same too’ says Jean Whitelock, now 79 years old, who had two of her five children with the Sisters in 1964 and 65. 

‘The young nurse was sitting at the end of my bed knitting, whilst I was having my daughter, she kept turning occasionally to check on me, but it was a long 28-hour labour. She kept telling me not to push and the nun arrived to help and I just couldn’t take the pain anymore and I pushed and they screamed no at me and then she arrived,’ Jean says. 

A nurse weighs a woman as women sit around her with children on on their knees at the anti-natel clinic in Poplar
Just like the show, there was a maternity clinic once a week run by the Sisters and the midwives Image: Community of St John the Devine

‘My husband was sitting on the stairs outside the flat with my mum and my sons were in bed, and the nurse went outside and asked him if he wanted to see his daughter. All my neighbours were coming back from bingo and they all cheered and clapped.’

Valerie Vanderson, now 73, had her son Darren in 1970 with Sister Monica and her labour particularly with Darren was quite traumatic for her. 

‘She was just passing by, we had such a lovely relationship, she popped in for a cuppa and she told me I didn’t look right so examined me and told me I was well on my way’ says Valerie. That happened on Thursday lunchtime and Valerie’s son was born on Saturday morning. 

‘She never left my side, not once.’ Valerie’s son was born not breathing ‘Sister Monica picked him up and smacked him and nothing. She picked him up at arm’s length and dropped him onto the bed and still nothing and I just started to panic, she then got a syringe and jabbed him in the back and that was it he finally started to cry.’ Valeria says that she would’ve never have coped without the support from Sister Monica.

Jean and Valerie praised the Sisters and the midwives for the work they did, not just for them but for the community as well. Jenny Brookes’, born in Poplar in 1969, mother worked as a cleaner at the mission house for 12 years between the 50s-60s. 

Four young midwives sat on bikes in Poplar
Four young midwives sat on their bikes – just like the show! Image: Community of St John the Devine

The Sisters helped raise her in the first decade of her life ‘I was taken down Chrisp Street Market by Sister Monica in my pram, and all the nuns came to watch me when I was Angel Gabriele in the Nativity at school, and they were by my mum and dads side when they had to turn off my brother’s life support. They came to the funeral and they never left them. Now if that doesn’t tell you about our community and how much they were a part of our community then I don’t know what will.’ 

Without exception, the women we interviewed all praised Call the Midwife for its accuracy of the birth scenes as well as the other work the Sisters and midwives undertook in the community. Sharing countless stories, it was clear how loved and appreciated the nuns were in the East End. 

They also shared their love for the show ‘Of course we watch it every week’ says Valerie, ‘You’ve got to love Trixie haven’t you?’ laughs Jean. 

The only criticism of the show was the representation of Poplar in the early series, the women said that the show made the residents of Poplar look dirty, Jean says ‘We were proud and there was never a person in Poplar who didn’t take pride in themselves or their homes. We worked hard and our homes and ourselves were always as clean as we could be.’

Four nuns in white habits sat on the mission house roof in the sun
Four Sisters enjoying the sun on the roof of St Frideswides Mission House in Poplar Image: Community of St John Devine

The 2021 series of Call the Midwife saw Poplar enter 1966 with the World Cup in full swing. With the news that the BBC has commissioned series 11, 12 and 13, Call the Midwife will be heading into the 1970s very soon.

‘The ’70s gave us lots of change in Poplar’ says Valerie, ‘I think they will focus on the removal of the slums, and the standard of housing increasing, I think it was the 70s that was the start of the so-called modern era of Poplar’.  

Call the Midwife has been beloved by audiences across Britain for the last decade, representing the real lives of real people living in Poplar at the time. What makes this show stand out from many is that many of the community in Poplar cherish their memories of the Sisters and midwives, and can see their own lives and community represented in the show. This is what makes it especially loved in the East End.

Thankfully, the Sisters and Midwives worked around the East End until about 1988, so we can expect there to be a few more series still to come. 

If you liked this, you may like Sister Christine Frost minibus campaign.


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26 thoughts on “The real Poplar stories behind BBC’s Call the Midwife

  • In 1974 i gave birth to my son at the mile end hospital. I had a truly horrendous time with the birth of my 1st child at the age of 18. When i found myself pregnant with my 2nd child in 1976 i vowed i would have the baby at home. This was very discouraged but i told fibs to the nuns and was accepted to have a home delivery. My midwife was scottish and had gone home for the new year. I went into labour on the 10th of january. I called the midwives and very eldrely nun answered to say alk the nuns and midwives were out on call and i ended uo calming her down. A nun and a japanese trainee turned up and i delivered a healthy little girl! U cant remember the name of the nun but she was about 50ish? All i can say is that they were amazing throughout my pregnancy and i will remember them fondly forever. Then they were based by the blackwall tunnel.

    • I love the show Call the Midwife. I’m a retired nurse and thugs drastically changed since then?

  • I am very proud to have known one of the Poplar midwives, albeit in retirement. She went on to help found a maternity hospital in Nyasaland (Malawi), the maternity department of a new hospital in Norfolk, maternity services for South London, and write a report on maternity services needs in the expanding EU. She never forgot her beginnings, and for her everything she did was in service of Almighty God.

  • Hi I was the Scottish Midwife. I’m also in the photo taken in 70’s. The other 3were student midwives.

    • I was born in the hospital in 1976, my mum has since passed away. I am trying to find images of child births from March of that year. If anyone has any knowledge of any imagery please could you email me at dennycraig1976@gmail.com. my mum was white and my dad was black. From what I have been told, this was a big issue back then. I know there was a story in the local paper at the time in relation to diversification of relationships between different cultures. Its hard to believe looking at the area now..

    • You all were obviously amazing at what you did. I Just finished the 12 seasons of Call the Midwife and just fell in love with all the characters. Every story was beautiful and the midwives and nuns just basically gave their lives to helping not only the mothers but anyone who needed help. I know that is how you all really worked, just as the story tells.

  • The sisters delivered my daughter in 1974 one was sister Monica and a Scottish one they were amazing .

    • I think the Scottish nun may have been my aunt – Sister Dorien.

  • I was born at home in Poplar in Macrow St near Grundy and cotton st. Would I have been delivered by midwife’s from the mission

    • Sorry forgot to mention 1950 when I was born in Poplar

  • I was born in Poplar, delivered by nuns in 1952. Mum and I were kept in for 10 days. Mum had an infection was given penicillin and had an allergic reaction. She said the nuns were strict but kind and were respected.

  • I truly admire and love the show,the opening music fills me with warmth and anticipation as to its contents this week.I love the era,all the programs bring me such joy i can cry before they even start
    My only disappointment is that passed colleagues are hardly mentioned such as chatting about where they moved onto ,especially “Chummy “,Peter, and Freddie they were so significant and not mentioned at all now.In the earlier programs there were more nuns,and that was a really important part showing and singing in chapel,know there are fewer nuns and the midwives turn over is so often.I know it was all progessing with health visitors etc but where are Nurse Mount and her partner?But surely they could stay longer,they are so real i hate thinking they have gone “off” to do another show.we need them more.And Valerie Dyer where did she go?It was so much more intense back in the first shows!But I wouldn’t be without it,and hope it never finishes.
    After all other mediocre (in my opinion) “soaps” are long long long running,and not a 1% on “Call the midwife”, so could we have a few back for xmas,s get togethers if nothing else.And maybe more nuns? I love Sister Mildred….I love them all.Thank you its got to run at least as long as other ,”soaps” that are boring loud and rough!!! in comparison.xx

  • Fantastic show which is telling real life from the past , to me that is most important, thank god for them all

  • Was the Scottish Midwife called Karen

    • Karen Kadoe
      15 September 2022 at 8:35 pm
      Hi I was the Scottish Midwife. I’m also in the photo taken in 70’s. The other 3were student midwives.

      • What religion were the nuns?

  • I was born in 1955 in the United States and sometimes wish it had been in Poplar. My husband and I were not able to conceive and are blessed with a wonderful adopted daughter. However, I often wish that I had been able to actually deliver a child. I am an ardent fan of Call the Midwife and often find that watching each delivery allows me to vicariously experience the birth.

  • I absolutely LOVE this show. Wondering if anyone is currently writing scripts for episodes that would precede Season 1? So many decades prior to Jenny’s experience!

  • “Call the Midwife” Is my Favorite show. I was born with a midwife. it’s so amazing to me how women of that time had an amazing system with each other and the unity and trust they had with there midwife.. Adelita Bonia was my Mom’s Midwife in 1964. SAN ANTONIO TX
    Thank you for share your stories from the East End of London.. if ever i should visit London I would like to visit the convent in East End Popular.

  • I stumbled upon this amazing gem of a show…. It plays with my emotions every morning when I watch it…. I wish it would keep going…I’m on season 8 and episode 8.
    Please make more for me to watch…
    I miss seeing Jenny and chummy, oh my and sister Julianne…..Reggie… All the beautiful babys…. Trixie I thought was Marilyn Monroe..lol. The turner family… Makes my heart full…. Please do more shows… I love it… I’ll watch it from the beginning after I’m done. I guarantee you that.

  • My grandfather was born in Devon he had 10 siblings. I have been to Derbyshire two times. I love England and everything about it My great grandfather and my grandfather were gardeners as were my mother grandmother and many others in my family. I was able to visit my grandfathers church and his families grave sites when I was there. I watch Call the Midwife everyday, and I feed so much a part of it I am 73 years old my husband is 81, he is not well but I know he would (visitor move)there with me if we could. He watches call the Midwife’s everyday too.

  • I like watching call the midwife.

  • Iam from Canada. I have read all the books and watxhed the entire series on dvd which i borrowed from the library. The care and devotion I do thnk was real and by the comments I have read yes it was so. From watching the series I saw a community who cared and helped eachother. Others may have seen a slum with people who somehow eacked out a living I saw people who cared and looked after eachother. Help was always there. I to remember the neighbourhood I grew up in and we all looked after and cared for one another.. I wish we could go back to those times again. I am just over 80 now and I do suppose I have become a walking history book.
    Thank you for such a lovely series and for letting me put in my wee comments.

  • Love this show. In the US we are at least a year behind but that’s okay. I started rewatching from
    season 1 episode 1. I am curious though what religion were the Nuns. I assumed they were Catholic but rewatching the series and looking all of this up on the internet I’m not so sure they were/are Catholic. Anyone know?

    • They are Anglican. Which is from the Church of England. Very similar to Catholic but they do not believe in the pope. King Henry VIII created it when he wanted to divorce Queen Catherine but the Pope would not allow it.

    • The nuns are church of England not catholic


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