• 19
  • JAN

People’s History of the NHS

by Mathew Thomson

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.

22 thoughts on “People’s History of the NHS

  1. A great initiative. Can you say what the reach is? Does it include England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

    1. Hello – and thanks for commenting! We will certainly be looking at England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in our research – and would be fascinated to hear if you have any thoughts on the differences between the systems in the four nations. In terms of events, we are currently pilot of activities in our local area of Coventry and Warwickshire, but from Summer 2016 will be visiting across the UK also!

  2. I would love to contribute in some way to this important narrative.
    I am a nurse – 1976 – 2007 NHS, then transferred to Germany, contracted to MOD to the present – to provide primary healthcare to the armed forces and families which mirrors that in the NHS.

    1. Hello!

      Brilliant – thanks so much for commenting. We would love to hear about your experiences as a nurse, they sound absolutely fascinating. Please do consider sharing any stories which come to mind – as many as you like, as short or long as you like, – on the ‘Share Your Story’ page, and perhaps also answering our ‘Latest Call’, which is currently asking for your earliest memory of the NHS. Both of these are available in the members area:

      If you have any NHS-related objects you’d be happy to photograph, also, do feel free to get in touch with us via, and we’d love to put the pictures in our ‘Virtual Museum’ of the NHS.

      We hope to hear more from you!

      1. I started my Orthopaedic training in 1968 aged 17 and worked at Mount Gould Hospital Plymouth, and continued my training at Southampton witch became a university hospital while I was there.After working there for a year which was compulsory in those days worked IN Salisbury until I retired in 2012 at the age of 61. After completing an ent couse I worked in ITU, Cardilogy Aprivate ward dealing with all aspects of care and we became the first to look after terminally ill patients until the McMillan service came into being.I then worked on a female surgical ward, then High Care and after the grading fiasco left my Enrolled nurse days behind me to become an RGN. After working on a male surgical ward followed by high care and a short stay surgical ward which suddenly became a medical ward and we all had to learn new skills,I was then transferred back to another short stay ward which became an elderly ward. After going part-time at 55 I joined the bank and went back to my real love high care and day surgery.I saw many changes over the years and saw some very sad sights but it it the funny things that happened that most stick in my mind,and I don,t know if this is what you want or what happened in 1970 with the 3 day week and stikes or how technology changed our working practices I look forward to hearing from you.

  3. How timely! The NHS means so much to me, and I fear the current political agenda’s treat to its quality and reach. Having spent most of my working life as a nurse, here and abroad, I never take for granted the vision and commitment of those who instigated our system, based on collective efforts and compassion. It’s so worth fighting to preserve; this project is part of that. What frightens me is complacency. My challenge is how to involve those who would suffer most if the NHS is not there.

    1. Thanks Jeannie, the project’s about exactly that really, what the NHS means to everybody! Because the NHS is such a huge employer and working for it is so important to so many, people’s working lives are a huge part of that.

  4. Would be happy to be given the opportunity to contribute to this. I worked in the NHS pathology services for 46 yrs in Wakefield and witnessed the remarkable progression of the diagnostic sciences in a rapidly developing and growing NHSfrom 1962

  5. Happy to contribute.
    I’m a retired GP (retired 31.3.13 because of the implementation of the HSCA 2012) with a keen and enduring interest in NHS IT and health informatics – in particular as applied to and in general practice.

    1. That sounds really interesting! The memories of staff are a key part of the project and at some point we’ll be doing some more formalised long surveys and oral history interviews, details of which we can forward you when we firm out the details. In the mean time, feel free to share anything that was particularly important to you either here or in the members area “share you stories” section.

  6. I know Matthew knows a lot on the history of people with learning disabilities but I know a lot of material on the hospitals in herts – which were for people from London –

  7. Looked on the map for a Hospital in Wordsley, west Midlands. Nothing there. Sandfield house was on the origional site in 1756 That is where the name Sandfield came from and was used by the people of Wordsley to denote Wordsley Hospital.
    This is my first comment as I have just registered.I shall think about how to contribute and tell my story,
    So until the next time, I wish you all good Health.

    1. Hello. Ah very interesting to hear about the history and naming of this hospital! Please do contribute your story – or as many stories as you like – when you feel ready, and be sure to tag the Sandfield!

    2. Hi Mr C according to my grandmother’s death certificate she died in Sandfield House Wordsley Brierley Hill but her home address was 10 New Road Willenhall. she died in 1942. I live in Australia and was not born until 1950 so I never knew my grandmother. I’m trying to find out if Sandfield House was a regular hospital or a palliative care home or mental institute. My grandmother was only 53 when she died. Quite young really she left behind my mother who was 23 years old and 3 more girls the youngest of whom was only around 7 years of age from what I can gather. I’m wondering if you can give me any information about the nature of Sandfield House. Thank you.

      1. Like many institutions that were incorporated into the NHS in 1948, the one in which your mother died operated under quite a few different names and with a variety of remits over the course of its history. Most pertinently for you, in the 1900s it was known locally as the Wordsley Workhouse (officially, Stourbridge Union Workhouse). Like many similar institutions it was taken over by the army during WWI, and by the 1930s, it had re-opened as the Sandfield House Certified Institution and Infirmary, before becoming Wordsley Hospital in the NHS in 1948. This excellent local history website may be useful for you:

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  9. I think this is a great project. Like other commenters, I owe a lot to the NHS and feel it’s very timely. I’d like also to be able to contribute further to it. I’ve forwarded your original message about it to a friend who contributed significantly to a blog I set up in 2008, to gather the experiences of people who, like me, had been patients at the Marguerite Hepton Children’s Orthopedic Hospital at Thorp Arch, near Harrogate in Yorkshire. Cynthia did her early nurse training, aged around 16, at Thorp Arch, as we all called it in the 1960s. She used the blog combined with very effective further research, to write a history of the hospital, which is well worth reading and perhaps including in your history. I hope you’ll hear from her soon.

    You might also find the blog itself interesting/useful. Its patients mainly had either bone TB or Perthes disease. Its function as a memory-place for former patients, nurses and support staff such as cooks seems to have run out of steam, but it also has some useful documents and pictures, and I have some fruits of further research to add some time. The patient experiences recalled there span the period 1936-late 1960s (I was there from 1944-48), so before and after the NHS. As antiobiotics shortened the treatment for TB, the children’s hospital closed and the facilities were used for a care home for the elderly. It finally closed and eventually disappeared beneath a housing estate. The blog address is: It’s managed by me (my maiden name was Woodcock) and a fellow ex-patient, and has a link to the more famous Cragi-y-Nos blog and book, from Wales.

  10. The Restoration Trust would like to join you. We have two history and health projects where we can involve participants and partners in the Peoples History of the NHS. Change Minds looks at mental health 100 years ago and today. Feminine Hospital (in development) looks at the past, present and future of femininity in hospitals through uniforms and gowns.

    1. Hi, that sounds fantastic! We’d love to know more about your projects – we’ve an email you can contact us on as nhsengage (@)

  11. My 87 year old mother trained as a nurse at great ormond street in late 40s and then did midwifery and was a community midwife in a deprived area of Plymouth. Her memories should be recorded before they are gone.

    1. Hello,
      We absolutely agree, it would be so brilliant to hear about your mother’s memories in the early NHS at such an iconic institution as well!
      If your mother is able to type online, or if you are able to type up her memories for her, please do consider sharing them on our page, or through our survey of working life –

      Alternatively, you’re also very welcome to send written testimony to us, if preferred? Or we may even be able to come and interview your Mother in person, if she’d be open to that?

      Please do drop us an email at – we’d love to capture these important memories, however suits you best!

      All the best,

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