The ideal result of midwifery: Curzona Allport as a baby, 1860 (ALMFA, SLT)

After British settlement in 1803, most babies were delivered at home by midwives or, more expensively, by doctors. There was no registration of midwives; many were competent, able to boast they never lost a mother, but others were not, and in 1856 a coroner stated that some women attended births 'who were utterly unfit to do so'.

From the 1880s some charitable 'lying-in' hospitals provided for indigent and unmarried mothers, and women's committees established large maternity hospitals, the Queen Victoria Hospital in Launceston (1897), and Hobart' s Queen Alexandra Hospital (1908). Both provided midwifery training. Still, most babies were born at home, and concern grew that midwives should be trained. Under the Midwifery Nurses Act (1901), the first in Australia, midwives living within three miles of a doctor had to register and prove their qualifications, which could be gained through training, experience or passing a 'simple' examination. By 1902, 267 midwives had registered. Many trained nurses began small maternity hospitals; from 1900 to about 1940 many towns contained one or more. From 1918 these had to be registered, and as successive Acts required more training for midwives the number fell, but midwifery did become more professional. If no trained midwife were available, untrained help was better than nothing; in remote areas experienced women helped neighbours; at the Anchor mine the manager's wife regularly delivered babies, and even in 1930, 120 unregistered midwives still practised.

Gradually, more births took place in hospitals under a doctor, especially as possible treatment became more complex and successful. By the 1950s most births occurred in larger public and private hospitals, with mothers staying there for up to a fortnight. Smaller hospitals could not keep up with rising standards and gradually closed, and the two major hospitals were included in the state system. From the 1970s alternative birthing practices such as extended midwife care became more popular. The possibility of lawsuits and rising insurance costs were concerns from the 1990s, while hospital stays shrank to two days for normal births.

Further reading: D Sabic, 'Turning full circle', Honours thesis, UT, 1986; A Alexander, 'The public role of women in Tasmania, 18031914', PhD thesis, UT, 1989.

Alison Alexander