People's History of the NHS

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First Memories of the NHS

by Roberta Bivins

To launch our new People’s History of the NHS website, we asked you to send us your first memories of the NHS. Since the first of February, you have been responding. Thanks to your memories, and your comments on our objects, galleries and the stories that other members have told us, we now know more about childhood vaccinations, the drama of acute care from a child’s perspective, life as an NHS-using mum, and experiencing the death of a loved one in an NHS hospital. You’ve told us about dodging the stigma of NHS specs, loving cottage hospitals, and complaining (or NOT complaining) in the NHS. And you’ve shared your pictures as well as your recollections: we love Giuseppe Giancola’s cheeky grin in the photo above – pretty impressive, given that he was enduring the long slow process of skin transplantation in the 1950s – and gorgeous, ‘born in the NHS’ baby Stanley.

Already, you are showing us areas we need to understand better and to explore in greater detail, like the school medical service, where two of you received vaccinations against tuberculosis. Your memories of BCG vaccination tell us a lot about how medicine has changed (we certainly wouldn’t vaccinate a class full of children with one rapidly blunting needle any more!), and of ways in which it has remained the same: schools are still a place where children become ‘visible’ to medicine and public health, and where the NHS and other state agencies can intervene, hoping to improve their lives. And there is so much more we need to learn about how it felt and feels to encounter ideas of health and medicine in that setting: what about those ‘healthy plates’, and ‘five a day’ messages? Do you remember these? Have they changed since you were a kid? How about the return of programmes related to preventing TB, at least in some areas of Britain? Did ‘Nitty Nora’ visit your school? What else do you remember about the health service in schools or as a child?

We’ve also been hearing from people who work or worked in the NHS, and about care – compassionate, complacent, or grudging – in NHS hospitals, GP surgeries, and other sites. Your stories have highlighted the fact that good NHS care is not always medical (how about that GP who called campus on behalf of a panic-stricken student missing a crucial final exam?) and that bad care in the NHS ranges from the merely impersonal to the actively dangerous. And you have also told us that the NHS is important to you in very striking ways – in one case, that the universal availability of medical care free at the point of delivery actually empowers you to be who you want to be.

So: tell us more! We look forward to more of your ‘first memories’, and to reading your comments below and your responses to the objects and galleries in our Museum and the entries in our People’s Encyclopaedia of the NHS. Did you (or your granny) have an NHS hearing aid? Do you remember those posters about healthy teeth? How is the hospital food in your bit of the NHS? Do you (and should people) fundraise for the NHS? Should doctors have a ‘union’? Did you take part in the doctors’ and nurses’ strikes in the 1970s and 80s, or where you a patient affected by them? Or did you, like me, first encounter the NHS as an adult, perhaps recently arrived in the the UK? Most of all: what does the NHS mean to you?

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22 thoughts on “First Memories of the NHS

    1. Hi!

      Absolutely – we are keen to take this history right up to the present day. I’m researching the history of activism in the NHS at the moment, currently looking at the campaigning of second-wave feminists, and I also enjoyed this interesting and surprising work by Andrew Seaton about campaigning from critics of the NHS in the 1950s – https://blog.oup.com/2015/06/national-health-service-critics-fmm/

      Keep Our NHS Public groups are a really important part of our history, so please do contribute your memories and opinions in the members area – https://peopleshistorynhs.org/membersnews/ Natalie Jones and I, from the public engagement team, are also keen to visit some of the KONP groups later in the year, and to meet with activists, so please do email us at NHSEngage@warwick.ac.uk if you’d be interested in a visit also!

      We look forward to hearing from you!

  1. I was born in Glasgow in 1946 and in 1951, I started primary school. I remember, my little bottle of daily milk and my teacher, telling us that if we did not drink it, we would have “bandy legs” like the little old men and women who had not had milk as children. These old poor souls were in abundance in my city and it was such a sad sight. As you can imagine, the milk was most sought after by us kids !!! Even today , I still drink a half to a pint of milk a day minimum and I LOVE MILK !!! I cringe when I hear people say that they dont like it !!! My kids are now in their forties and I ensured that when they were growing, they too drank the white magic stuff -the milk !!! We all have good working legs !!!! I will be 70 years old this September, and I can still wear my 4 inch stilletoes !!! I also loved school dinners and the puddings were yummy! The ending of the school milk was an appalling disaster for kids – (amost like the dissolution of the monasteries !!) and I am sure that some of todays kids regretfully, have dreadful teeth. We must ensure that kids get their milk again and understand why they must have their milk (their bones, their teeth)and not depend on ghastly sugary sweets. I am also saddened by the numbers of kids who are overweight. Off course, in the 50’s we walked everywhere -cars were only for the affluent/rich!!! God bless the NHS and those who work in it! xxxx

    1. I love these memories – thank you so much for sharing them with us! So interesting how the message about milk stuck with you, and then shaped and improved the lives of your children also. You may also be interested in our gallery about the history of posters about dental health, have you seen it yet? https://peopleshistorynhs.org/galleries/teeth-matter/

      Please do think about sharing your wonderful memories on the ‘share your stories’ page here also – https://peopleshistorynhs.org/sharestory/

      We hope to hear more from you!

  2. My sister must have been an early recipient of NHS care. She had polio in the 1948 epidemic and spent a year in an iron lung.

    She had lots of monitoring and treatment via a local school clinic until a leg-lengthening operation in Broad Green Hospital Liverpool at the age of 11, in 1955. Part of her treatment to strengthen her legs and back was a weekly swimming session, again under the auspices of the clinic at Haydock.

    1. That’s fascinating – thanks for sharing! I saw an iron lung at the Science Museum last year and thought it was such an imposing and scary-looking machine . . .how did you feel as a child seeing your sister in one?

      Swimming lessons are very interesting also – and a reminder of how far the NHS’s services extend beyond the hospital!

  3. My first memory is of our GP. He wore a waistcoat and we had jumpers. He had cuff-links and we rolled up our sleeves. He had a car, we leaned our bikes up against his fence. He was a toff, but he lived where we lived. When I was very ill my Dad wrapped me in a blanket and carried me to the house that was his surgery. it was 10pm. He took us to hospital in his car. The first time we had ever been in anything other than a bus. He saved my life. Doctor Brown was a good man and a family doctor. When he died of cancer we went to his funeral and wept…

    1. The sense that doctors were ‘toffs’ and different from many members of the communities which they served is something I have come across often in early accounts of the NHS. Do you think people still see doctors in this way?

  4. I was born in January 1945 in Selly Oak Hospital Birmingham (which is now defunct and has been moved up to the New Queen Elizabeth Hospital) and was an underweight child (I was only 5lbs when born). My mums cousin Bernard was in the Medical Corps during the 2nd world war and was one of the first into Belsen, he caught TB so I had to go to Great Charles Street in Birmingham to have a chest Xray. Luckily I did not have TB but I was sent to a clinic in Northfield, Birmingham to have Sunlight treatment, as far as I was concerned it didn’t make any difference to my weight. I was always a slight child and didn’t reach average weight until puberty. I became a Student Nurse in January 1963 at the (old) QE and at the age of 71 I am still working as a part time Staff Nurse in a local hospital clinic

    1. Really interesting! One of the reasons urban kids in particular were often sent for sunlight treatment was due to concerns that they might be at risk (or be showing early signs) of rickets, so I am intrigued that for you the treatment was related to your slight weight. We’d love to hear more about this — and indeed your life as a nurse through some turbulent times for medicine and the NHS.

  5. In 1967 I went into the now long-gone St James Hospital, Balham, to have my tonsils out. I was five years old. In those days you stayed in for a long time after relatively minor surgery and I was there for a week. There was not a whole lot to do other than listen to hospital radio or read a book. Having not long started school, I was still learning to read when I went in. By the time I came out I was fluent, and never looked back. I can’t help wondering whether, without that intensive period of teaching myself to read, I would have made it to grammar school a few years later. I really don’t remember much else about the experience.

    1. Great memory – thanks for sharing! I think that the ways in which people and especially children keep themselves entertained in hospitals are really interesting and an important part of this history. I will have to have a look in to hospital radio I think!

  6. I remember my mother taking me to a school dental clinic. It was in Birmingham, and I think in Stechford or somewhere near there. This would have been around 1960, I think – it’s rather vague.
    The waiting room seemed enormous, and the chairs were the kind with a metal frame and seat and back made of brownish canvas, and there were posters on the walls.

    1. I think it’s fascinating how much waiting rooms and their decor can impact on our early memories of health treatment – it certainly goes to show how important they can be in forming our experiences of the NHS, and is something I would like to think more about, so thanks for sharing your memory with us!

  7. In the 1970,s as nurses in Salisbury we did not strike but marched through the city led by our matron Miss Jenner on our day off. I remember a train driver tooting his horn in support but what was more interesting was the public,s disapproval we got a lot of your a disgrace to your profession but I don,t think they realised how poorly paid we were in those days
    I do have photo,s but don,t have the facilities to share them. Salisbury Journal would have copies. We thought the Consultants strike went on for to long,no elective surgery was performed and we were so bored.
    You asked about hospital food,when I started in 1968 it was of a high standard and until the 80,s the ward sister or nurse in charge would dish out the meals and gave the portion that they felt the patient needed The staff were well fed until the middle of the 70,s when management decided there would be no staff meals from lunch to breakfast eventually they gave in and we had a full fry every evening or else we had to go out for a takeaway. The quality of hospital declined for some years and we encouraged relatives to bring in tasty morsals for their relatives.Hospital food has improved since everything is being sourced locally. Most of my stories are funny but I don,t know whether you want the human element of this
    ting his horn but what was most interesting was the public,s support. We got a lot of you are a disgrace to your profession but I don,t think they realised how badly paid we were

    1. This is such a fascinating and rich memory, thank you for sharing with us! I’m researching public attitudes to the NHS and was particularly interested to hear about this public disapproval you mention – when of course with contemporary strikes we see such high public support! Really fascinating.

      I wondered if you may have any more memories to share at all, or if you would be interested in writing a longer account for us of your working life? It sounds very fascinating! If you’d like to do this via email or on the phone, do feel free to email me at J.Crane.1@warwick.ac.uk. Alternatively, we have a space on this website where you can type free text or upload images, peopleshistorynhs.org/sharestory.

      I do hope to hear from you!

      All the best,

      Jenny

  8. When I was 12 years old I had reaumatic fever. After 6 weeks in Kettering General hospital I was taken to convalesce in a ‘hospital’ in Marlborough Wiltshire ,I was there for 6 months the regime was quite strict,once up out of bed it was excercise every day regarding of the weather…the food was basic but nourishing. My parents lived at the time in Corby Northamptonshire and could only afford a taxi once a month! To see me. At first I was traumatised but with a group of other children we became friends and supported each other. I suppose one could say it was character building!but boy was I glad to be home on the 14th December and never took life for granted again.

  9. I was one of the first 50 people in this country to have a paten ductus or heart murmur repair in December 1961 at Llandough Hospital in South Wales . . My parents had a good hour drive to get to & from the hospital for visiting time, unlike these days when parents often stay with their children. I didn’t know why I was there & didn’t understand what they were doing to me. I have a long scar down my back following the line of my shoulder blade from this pioneering surgery. I had a knitted toy which always went everywhere with me, they allowed it to be on the trolley with me whilst I waited to go through into the theatre. I can remember seeing all the instruments in a cabinet. I was an out patient for 7 years and was told not to play tennis as it could be too strenuous for me. I missed school until the following autumn and was carried everywhere. . . Despite having this life changing experience I like being in hospitals, there’s a feeling of being safe and cared for . . The NHS saved my life ! May we always treasure it and and all the people who work so tirelessly to care for us all!

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