Lydia Pinckham, the last of London’s Smallclothes Matrons died peacefully in her sleep this past week at the age of 97. Until the 1970’s, every reputable British hospital had at least one Smallclothes Matron on staff. The profession dates back to the late 17th century, when mothers would call after their daughters “Make sure your wear clean linen, you slattern! If you get run over by the Brighton post, I’ll not have you bringing shame on this family.”
As styles of dress and transportation changed, good mothers continued to instill in their daughters the fear of being hospitalized while wearing tatty undergarments.
The following are excerpts from a BBC interview conducted in 1980 when the late Mrs. Pinckham retired after over forty years as Smallclothes Woman at Mayfair’s Great St. Beryl Street Hospital for Women.
BBC Interviewer: Why did a Smallclothes Woman only humiliate women? Why not men?
Mrs: Pinckham: Well, a man who is concerned with society’s opinion of his undies is really not a man at all. Mind you, I could tell you plenty of stories of lorry drivers wearing the kind of dainty things that would suit a Parisian fancy lady, but that’s a bit off topic.
BBC: What was your training like?
LP: Well, it was as hard as Chinese geometry! The history of the profession took at least a year to learn. And some girls weren’t up to the acting skills required to stage a dramatic reveal of the dingy undergarments in hospital. You had to have quite a sense of timing and drama to evoke the proper shame and remorse in the patient. It would have given Sarah bloody Bernhardt something to chew on.
BBC: The history?
LP: Oh, yes. The most heart-wrenching story we learned was about Xenia, Grand Duchess of Kiev. She was horribly maimed by an anarchist’s bomb at a St. Petersburg ballet recital in 1905. Grand Duchess Xenia refused all medical help, as she knew her maid had failed to repair a tiny tear in the point de Venise on her petticoat. She chose death rather than expose her family to public censure.
BBC: An amazing story.
LP: Yes. She was later canonized by The Russian Orthodox church in exile for her delicate sense of honor and her amazing technique with a lead-weighted knout on peasants’ backs.
BBC: When was the heyday of the Smallclothes Matron?
LP: Well, the profession really hit its stride by the early 1900’s. In those days, women had the proper, ladylike abhorrence of having their stained, torn knickers held up to public ridicule.
Only the best hospitals could employ a properly trained Smallclothes Matron. It took the pressure off the nursing sisters. Although, even the most harried sister had time to tip us off when the patient was about to become conscious again.
They didn’t half look a fright when we held their begrimed unmentionables up with our rubber gloves on and loudly declared “I believe these are yours, Madam.” It was especially effective if friends or relatives were present in the room.
BBC: Wasn’t that awfully cruel?
LP: Well, it taught them that mother is always right, didn’t it? I know that it really helped some of the women. It’s hard to be depressed about missing limbs and disfigurement when you know the whole hospital is laughing at your dirty drawers.
BBC: When did you notice your profession was in decline?
LP: Mrs. Simpson started it, didn’t she?
BBC: The Duchess of Windsor?
LP: No, Mrs. Daisy Simpson of Bognor, just after the War. She must have been admitted to St. Beryl’s as an act of charity. Not our type of patient at all.
Fairly took the wind out of all of us with her complete cheeky disregard for our opinion of her filthy, tattered underthings. It was the end of an era. After Mrs. Simpson, it seemed very hard to get a rise out of anyone at any hospital. They world had changed, they just stopped caring.
BBC: And nowadays?
LP: Well, you’d be happy to see them wear knickers at all today. Mark my words! It won’t be too many years before women start to sell sex tapes of themselves mating with donkeys just to get a mention in Hello! magazine, whatever that might be.