Every community throughout the country has unsung female heroes who should be celebrated. I am sure that you have a female ‘hero’ in your family tree. Whether she helped in the war effort, brought her children up as a widow, worked as a teacher or governess, every woman has a story to tell.
I want to share the story of Mrs Agnes Marshall Loomes JP who, alongside many other women, worked tirelessly to improve the health of mothers and babies in Fletton at the dawn of the twentieth century.
At this time Fletton had the dubious position of having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. But Fletton also had a pioneer in Agnes. She was determined to tackle the issue of infant and mother welfare and it was through her initiative that Great Britain’s first voluntary District Infant Welfare and Mothercraft Centre was established.
A committee was formed in November 1915 which consisted of like- minded and influential figures in the district, such as Gertrude Colman, wife of Herbert Colman, owner of the mill by the River Nene Cadge and Colmans.
By 1916 Baby Welfare Consultations were being held from various houses in Fletton. But this was not a satisfactory arrangement. Over the next 15 years efforts were made to provide a dedicated District Infant Welfare and Mothercraft Centre.
The countries first model voluntary District Infant Welfare and Mothercraft centre opened on London Road, Fletton in October 1926. A pamphlet exists, in the Peterborough Archives, which shows an artist’s impression of the welfare centre and its internal lay out. It looks very familiar to modern clinics with consultation rooms, nurses’ room and waiting rooms. There is even an outdoor space for the prams.
The newspaper cutting titled ‘Fletton Welafre babies and their Mothers at Shortacres’, dated 10th July 1925, records a reunion of some of the mothers who had taken advantage of the Fletton Welfare Clinic. The clinic nurse, Nurse Hoy, sat centrally by ‘universal choice’. It also appeals for the remaining £400 so that Welfare Premises in Fletton can be completed. The newspaper cutting titled ‘Laying of the Stone of the District Welfare at Fletton’ dated May 7th 1926, shows the stone being laid at the District Welfare Clinic. Local dignatories were in attendance including Dr. Paterson, Ald Whitsed, Rev Powell, Mr. Wilson (architect), Mr. Loomes, Mr. Hawkins (builder), Dr. Allan and Mr. Hayward.
A medical report in the 1950s stated that the population of the Fletton district was 8,205 and ‘the general health of the district remains good’. The live birth rate, in Fletton, was 15.5 per 1,000 and still births were 40.3 per 1,000 births. For comparison in 2017 the live birth rate was 11.4 per 1,000 and 4.6 still births per 1,000 births.
It was reported in the Rugby Advertiser on Friday 3rd July 1931 that 125 subscribers had contributed ‘a purse of one hundred pounds’ in recognition of Mrs Agnes Marshall Loomes JP tireless work for Child Welfare. Lady Sandwich, who could not attend the presentation sent a letter in which she wrote ‘Mrs. Loomes has been generosity itself in enthusiasm, work, and in countless ways towards Chid Welfare and Mothercraft’. At the presentation it was reported that Agnes ‘as honorary secretary and joint organiser’ had experienced ‘years of anxious labour and personal sacrifice’ which was ‘untiredly and ungrudgingly given’. In reply Agnes said that she was ‘merely a unit in a wonderful band and felt ashamed to be singled out’.
Agnes Loomes (Pettit) nee Gray was born on 28th February 1877 to James and Isabella in Cumbernauld, Scotland. James was a farmer of 130 acres at West Forest Farm. In 1881 the family were still living on the farm but by 1891 they had moved to another farm at Bourton-on-Dunsmore, Rugby. Agnes aged 14 is stubbornly absent from the 1891 census records. It may well be that she was away at school or visiting relatives. James died in 1896 leaving the farm in the hands of his wife.
In 1901 24 year old Agnes was boarding at 5 Orchard Street, Fletton in the household of Charles Cooke and his wife Francis. Charles was the school caretaker and Agnes was recorded as an elementary school teacher. Fletton is a long way from Rugby. Whether she had relatives in the area or whether she gained the employment from an advertisement is unknown. Agnes found love in Fletton. In 1904 Agnes married William Pettit in Bourton-on-Dunsmore. William aged 44 had been lodging at 2. Spring Villas, Fletton and was a clerk to guardians and superintendent in the registration district. Unfortunately, the union was not along one and Agnes was left a widow, just five years later, at the age of 32. William died on 5th November 1909 aged 53. He had provided well for Agnes is his will leaving her £2,953. William was buried in Paston but the service was conducted by the St. Margaret’s vicar Reverend Dowman.
With no children Agnes returned to her pre-marriage occupation. On the 1911 census she was living at 46 Fletton Ave and was recorded as an assistant elementary school teacher. Also boarding, but at 31 Broadway, Peterborough was Whittlesea born 47 year old Frank Loomes, the editor of the Peterborough Advertiser. Agnes married Frank in 1911.
Agnes and Frank had two children; Mary was born on the 8th August 1912 and Elizabeth on the 20th February 1915. Having two young children did not hinder Agnes in her conviction to help other young mothers. Or perhaps it actually highlighted to her what a precarious business both childbirth and infanthood were, especially to mothers who were not as fortunate as she was in terms of financial support and knowledge.
Unfortunately, by the 1939 National Register Agnes had once again been widowed. Frank had died aged 74 in 1936. Both daughters had followed their mother’s example and on the 1939 National Register they were recorded as elementary school teachers. Mary was also an ARP warden. Living next door to Agnes was Frank’s brother Daniel and family. Daniel was a retired mechanical engineer previously employed by the Peterborough Corporation Drainage Works.
Both Agnes’s daughters married. Mary married Arthur J Bernard in 1941 and Elizabeth married George F Good in 1943. Agnes herself died on 6th February 1973 at the grand age of 96.