Woodham Mortimer Hall

Woodham Mortimer Hall is a privately owned 17th century gabled house, once home to the Chamberlen family.

William Chamberlen, a Huguenot surgeon who had fled France, had two sons, both named Peter, the eldest considered to be the inventor of obstetrical forceps. Prior to this, difficult labours would have involved breech births or even the death of the unborn child as the doctor attempted to deliver it with the use of levers or hooks. Despite this, some doctors looked on the use of forceps with suspicion and were vocal in their opposition. Because of this, and the fact that they could command a high fee by offering a safer forceps delivery, the Chamberlen family kept their design a secret for over a century. When forceps were considered necessary, relatives would be removed from the birthing room and the pregnant woman blindfolded to ensure no one knew a thing.

Woodham Mortimer Hall from the churchyard
Woodham Mortimer Hall from the churchyard

The younger son, Peter, himself had a son named Peter (but known as Dr Peter) and it was Dr Peter who resided at Woodham Mortimer Hall. He too practised with a set of forceps, profiting from the family secret. The house was sold by the Chamberlen family in 1715 and almost a century later, Dr Peter’s forceps were found hidden under the floorboards in the attic. By then, the use of forceps in childbirth was commonplace. The historic forceps are now in the possession of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London. A blue plaque on the wall outside the house records Woodham Mortimer Hall as being the home of Dr Peter Chamberlen and his son Dr Hugh Chamberlen: “pioneer obstetricians”.

View of the house from the Maldon Road
View of the house from the Maldon Road

Read the full story of the Chamberlens and their family secret here: http://fn.bmj.com/content/81/3/F232.full

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