Irish History Live


Admission Ticket to the Belfast Lying-In Hospital. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the Deputy Keeper of the Records, PRONI

 The field of obstetrics underwent significant changes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the establishment of maternity wards and later specialised maternity hospitals. The Belfast Lying-In Hospital (BLIH) is one such institution, founded in 1794. However, it was decades prior to this that the first maternity hospital in the British and Irish Isles was established by Bartholomew Mosse in Dublin on 15 March 1745.[1] The need for such provision was growing throughout Europe. France, in particular, became known for its doctors specialising in midwifery and obstetrics, a field which had long been dominated by women, and also for ‘the great Paris hospital’, the Hôtel-Dieu, which had a maternity ward.[2] It was this hospital, with its pioneering ward dedicated to labouring women that inspired Mosse’s foundation of a specialised lying-in hospital. It was argued in 1913, that there was a pressing need for the development of obstetrics as it ‘was in a more deplorable condition than any other branch of medicine’ as few surgeons specialised in the field due to society and the medical profession viewing it as ‘derogatory to the calling of the physician’.[3] Moreover, the conditions in which many Irish women were forced to give birth were often dire and this was a primary concern of Mosse, who claimed that ‘their lodgings were generally in cold garrets open to every wind, or in damp cellars subject to flood from extensive rains; destitute of attendance, medicines, and often proper food’.[4] This charitable motivation was also an important impetus behind the foundation of the BLIH

Prior to the fruition of Mosse’s plans, a surgeon in England, John Douglas, had in 1736 recommended a similar endeavour to establish lying-in hospitals throughout all the major English cities. The vast scope of this idea was probably a major contributing factor to its failure, though maternity wards were beginning to be established including two wards in St. James’ Infirmary in London (1739).[5] It was the magnitude and innovation of Mosse’s vision that is so notable, Ian Campbell Ross states that the notion of a separate maternity hospital was ‘remarkable’.[6] It was a considerable undertaking and Mosse faced numerous obstacles that ‘would have been insurmountable’ to others including a lack of funds and support from his profession.[7] Alan Browne, a later Master of the Rotunda, argued that ‘It nearly cost him his reputation, and it probably caused his early death’.[8] Though many of these difficulties may have been overcome following Mosse’s pioneering work, it is important to recognise that a group of Belfast women establishing a charitable maternity hospital (the idea for which only fifty years previously had been scorned) was a significant achievement.

It is very likely that the establishment of the BLIH was influenced by Mosse’s precursory maternity hospital, later to become known as the Rotunda. Like the Rotunda, the BLIH initially occupied a rented house before later occupying a purpose-built hospital. The Rotunda was also a charitable organisation that relied on subscriptions, donations and fundraising to survive. The idea swiftly spread throughout Britain with the foundation of England’s first maternity hospital, the British Lying-in Hospital (1749), which was soon followed by the City of London Hospital (1750), the General Lying-in Hospital (1752) and the Westminster Hospital (1765) and maternity wards established in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (1756).[9]

[1] A. Browne, The story of the Rotunda Hospital (Dublin, 1979), p. 5.

[2] I. Campbell Ross (ed.) Public Virtue, Public Love: The early years of the Dublin Lying-in Hospital The Rotunda (Dublin, 1986), p. 11.

[3] T.P.C. Kirkpatrick and H. Jellett (eds), The book of the Rotunda Hospital: An illustrated history of the Dublin Lying-in Hospital, 1745-present (London, 1913), p. 2.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] Campbell Ross (ed.), Public Virtue, Public Love, p. 13.

[6] Ibid., p. 14.

[7] Kirkpatrick and Jellett (eds), The book of the Rotunda Hospital, pp 5-6.

[8] Browne, The story of the Rotunda Hospital, p. 5.

[9] Ibid., p. 17.


For more by this author see The Belfast Lying-in Hospital (1794-1903) by Lisa Lavery and Philanthropy by Lisa Lavery


Lisa Lavery is a graduate of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include gender and women’s history, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her MA dissertation focused on childbirth and pregnancy in Ireland and was entitled, ‘From the time of conception to the delivery of the patient’: pregnancy, childbearing, labour and lying-in in Ireland 1730-1850'. She intends to complete a PhD on a related topic.

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