People’s History of the NHS

The National Health Service, it is often said, is the closest thing the British have to a religion. Yet this is an institution whose very future is now regularly in question. Through this website, and with your help, we aim to build a People’s History of the NHS to better understand what the NHS has meant to people living in and visiting Britain from its opening in 1948 up to its forthcoming 70th anniversary in 2018. Such a history is important in relation to current challenges faced by the NHS. Those contributing to this history will have strong feelings on this. However we also need to remain open minded about what we will discover through a People’s History of the NHS. We appreciate the power of certain assumptions about the meaning of the NHS, but we also know that the history of meaning, belief, and experience has yet to be fully researched. Without this history those assumptions rest on fragile ground. Uncovering the People’s History of the NHS may confirm some of our assumptions, but it may also unearth surprises. Whatever the case, we hope a People’s History of the NHS will place us in a better position to think about and respond to current challenges.

How will this People’s History of the NHS work? With the generous support of the WellcomeTrust, we have put together a team of historians at the University of Warwick to coordinate and facilitate the People’s History website. They will also draw upon its findings in writing about the cultural history of the NHS. But crucially, the People’s History, which will centre on this website and meetings with the public across the country in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the NHS in 2018, aims to reach out to anyone and everyone, whether this is just to read about its findings, which will be regularly posted on the website, or to contribute views, memories, and historical materials. The website will be the home for a truly collaborative history, a place for debate, and a venue for fresh thinking about what the NHS has meant.

The People’s History website will evolve and grow in response to your contributions. It will centre on three main projects:

  1. A People’s Encylopaedia of the NHS will examine the history of meaning through an expanding series of encyclopaedia entries. Some of the headings will no doubt be obvious, but others will offer new perspectives. The entries, we hope, will touch on issues often missing from the standard histories of politics and policy, triggering memory, raising new historical questions, and crucially acting as a catalyst for a new history of experience, meaning and belief. We aim to encourage reflection, but also at times to surprise, amuse, and provoke. We welcome suggestions for entries.
  2. Given its place in the British national psyche, it is rather extraordinary that there is no museum of the NHS. Our People’s History website will therefore also host a Virtual NHS Museum. Arranged in a series of themed galleries, which will be regularly opened over the course of the project, the Virtual Museum will provide us with another way of provoking fresh reflection on the history of the NHS. Again, its success will depend on your ideas and your responses. We will also be looking to the public to help us unearth a material and visual culture of the NHS that is fast in danger of being lost and which we will preserve for posterity in this virtual museum.
  3. Finally, we will regularly use the People’s History website to reach out to the public for views, information and memories on particular issues. The website will provide details of events around the country that will bring people and communities together to discuss their histories of the NHS. For those wanting to become more closely involved, we also invite you to sign up to become part of the extended research team. This will provide access to our members’ page where you will be able to submit your MyNHS stories. Members will also be asked to respond to calls for information and memories on particular issues.