People's History of the NHS

  • 07
  • MAR

Visit to Leamington Spa History Society

by Jenny Crane

On Tuesday 1st March, Natalie Jones and Jenny Crane from our Engagement Team went to meet with the members of the Leamington Spa History Society.  The Society are a wonderful and vibrant group with an exciting programme of events running throughout the year, who meet most Tuesdays from 10am until 12pm at the South Lodge of Jephson Gardens, for tea, coffee, biscuits and a good catch-up.  This is a drop-in session free for all, so if anyone else would like to join in do pop along – the meetings are held in a delightful venue full of historical photographs of Jephson Gardens.

The aim of the visit was to talk about our project and raise awareness of our website, and for this we had prepared a bit of a speech in advance, but what we hadn’t been prepared for was the wonderful outpouring of memories and recollections from members of the group.  In fact, we didn’t need to refer to our talk at all, as people were immediately enthusiastic and queued up to tell us about their earliest memories of the NHS, including vaccinations, polio, and memories of being told that they had better be ‘really sick’ if they were paying to get the doctor out (underscoring the significance of healthcare becoming free at the point of use for all in 1948).  Many told us sad and distressing stories, of having felt forgotten about as they lay in collective wards, or having eaten poor quality hospital food, been unable to get parking at local settings, or finding cleanliness under par – an aspect of hospital care that a few felt had deteriorated over time.  This made us wonder, what facets of the NHS do you think have got worse over time, and why?  Many people talked to us about the reforms of the 1980s, and criticised the introduction of the internal market, over-reliance on managers, and confusion resulting from complex administration procedures, whilst others defended these as necessary changes.

Other people told us positive stories – of successful liver transplants, experiences of childbirth, the progress made by public health campaigning, particularly around smoking, and of kindly doctors who they had returned to again and again, as well as perceived improvements in the ‘personal touch’ of medicine, and the extension of parental visiting hours.  We’d also like to hear about what facets of the NHS which you feel have got better over time, and when and why?  In this meeting, we talked particularly about the technological developments of modern medicine, have you experienced or benefited from x-rays, new drugs, or new procedures such as organ transplants?

For most people, their stories about positive and negative experiences of the NHS were deeply intertwined, and inflected by their broader life experiences and events, and the support which they were receiving from family and friends.  We talked about why we all had memories of the NHS, and its place in our daily lives.  Everyone had been a patient at one point or another, whether in a hospital, GP surgery, dentist, or pharmacy, whilst some had been staff in the NHS, or had known staff, and one gentleman who we spoke to had been a patient representative on advisory councils for a GP surgery and a local hospital (with mixed feelings about these experiences).  This speaks to the variety of ways in which the NHS appears in our lives, which our project is keen to learn more about.  The idea of patient representation in the NHS is very interesting to us also, and please do get in touch if you would like to tell us about whether you feel that your voice has been heard by, and reflected in, the NHS, whether through surveys, consultative exercises, or letter-writing.

Given that we also want to write a cultural history of the NHS, we were particularly fascinated to hear people speak about objects which they had relating to this institution.  One lady told us about a purse which she had made while a child patient in a hospital ward, and a diary she was made to keep during her long-term treatment. We felt that this was a forerunner of the ‘Healing Arts’ programmes common in hospitals today, which we ourselves are contributing to at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire.  Another woman told us about a portrait her family had of a great aunt who had been a nurse, displaying her traditional uniform of a cape and a hat.  This nurse had been very influential in the old hospital of Leamington Spa, and the hospital had erected a blue plaque in her honour when she had died.  Sadly, both the portrait and the plaque had been lost over time.  This only goes to emphasise how important it is that we capture these important objects while we can, and save images of them to show future generations.  If you have any objects related to the NHS, however seemingly strange or random, please do consider sending us photographs which we can put in our galleries and share with others.

All in all, we felt that the event was a great success, and it only furthered our belief that we can’t tell a people’s history of the NHS without talking to as many people as possible!  Please do get in touch with Natalie and Jenny at if you have a local or national group which you’d like us to speak at – however big or small, whatever the theme, we would love to hear your stories!

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