People's History of the NHS

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Edinburgh Roadshow, 8 January 2018

by Jack Saunders

The People’s History of the NHS project joined forces with Edinburgh Central Library and the Lothian Health Archives for our first roadshow in Scotland.  The project brought some of our own objects – historic pamphlets, badges, glasses, stickers, surveys – to jog some memories, and sent out a call for members of the public to bring their own potential contributions to our virtual Museum of the NHS. Despite the unpromising timing (a workday afternoon in January), we had plenty of people through the door and lots of really engaging discussion about the history of the NHS. More evidence of the resonance this history for the wider public across the UK’s four nations.

Particularly noticeable was the high proportion of visitors who had some background working in the National Health Service.  A number of former nurses came and shared memories of the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, whose turreted Nightingale Wards remain a distinctive presence in the city centre. The Lothian Health Archives brought with them original 1879 plans for what was Britain’s largest voluntary hospital, as well as reproductions of plans for the various expansions and adaptations that took place throughout the 20th Century. The eagerness of visitors to share experiences of this institution were a firm reminder of the central role that hospitals have in how we remember and imagine our cities. In nationalising older hospitals, the NHS always took on a civic identity as much as a national one.

Other attendees brought historical materials. These included an NHS procurement professional who brought documentation relating to the buying of wigs in the 1980s.

NHS Wig Catalogue, 1980s

Prior to that decade, the Scottish NHS had bought its wigs on an ad-hoc basis. These documents were evidence of how supplying this huge organisation had only been done systematically relatively late in its history, with personal contacts and historic relationships the dominant theme before then. As new methods of organisation came into being, NHS professionals often had to learn new skills fast, as new career tracks were invented by a constantly changing NHS. With the advance of outsourcing and the internal market differences between Scotland and England emerged, with the NHS north of the border retaining more direct control over these sorts of issues.

Other memories we heard were of a more personal nature. Several women came to tell us about their experiences of strict discipline in Edinburgh’s nursing homes back in the 1970s.

Edinburgh Royal Infirmary badge

Nurses in training lived under authoritarian conditions in the early years of the NHS, with curfews, bans on smoking, male company and room inspection common. Although many hospitals loosened this kind of discipline in the 1960s, not all of them did. Our interviewees told us tales of sneaking boyfriends into the nursing homes past the watchful eyes of their matron. Although the all-powerful matron is often remembering nostalgically in Britain, at the time they could be a controlling presence for young women trying to exert their own autonomy.

Roadshow crowds

The Edinburgh Roadshow brought to life just how central place, in terms of the nurses’ home, hospital, the city and the nation, can be in memories of the NHS.

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