People's History of the NHS

  • 07
  • MAR

Bow Arrow Hospital, 1953

by Jane Hand

For many of us our memories of healthcare begin in childhood. From visits to the GP and vaccinations, to eye tests and dental check-ups, most of us have engaged with the NHS at a young age. Some children spend a considerable amount of time in hospital, engaging in the NHS in different ways to their peers, with the hospital becoming a location not just of prevention or treatment, but also of in-patient care. This photo, which we chose as the banner image for the People’s History of the NHS website, depicts such in-patient care in 1953 and within the newly formed NHS.

Showing children on a ward at Bow Arrow Hospital in Dartford, a specialist facility for treating tuberculosis, this photo prompts us to think about the place of children, childhood and the visual presence of the hospital within the cultural history of the NHS. It also allows us to consider the role that infectious disease, especially within childhood, plays in this history. This photo was taken at a time when tuberculosis as a widespread health problem was waning. A BCG vaccination scheme to prevent tuberculosis was introduced into the British schedule in 1953 for school leaving children (age 14), the same year that this photo was taken. Therefore this photo was taken on the eve of vaccination.

Yet, this image does not convey a public health story, the triumph of vaccination over the long scourge of tuberculosis. Instead, it emphasises the space of the hospital and the positioning of children within that space. The communal ward with beds and toys intermingled and the image of children alongside nurses but not parents represents a particular time within NHS care of children in hospital. Up until the late 1940s, it was widely accepted that it was undesirable for children to be visited regularly by their parents in hospital. Many hospitals permitted only monthly visitations and some not at all. During the 1950s however, there was growing concern about leaving young children in hospital apart from their parents and the threat of ‘separation anxiety’. This related to psychological theories about the importance of attachment. This slowly led to changes to make it easier for parents to visit children although it wasn’t until the 1970s that unrestricted visiting became standard policy in NHS hospitals.

From an historical perspective this image provides insight into the world of the hospital at a time when regular parental visitation was almost non-existent. It also points to ways that changes in disease impacted upon hospital provision and hospital spaces – there would be much less need for such childrens’ sanatoria in future and therefore, separating children from both society and their parents would become increasingly unnecessary.

Therefore, this is not a typical photo of childhood hospital care within the NHS. Yet it points to a particular type of care for children. The image emphasises the place of children at play, in part by centring the lovely mini merry-go-round, within their hospital stay. While bed rest was an important component of tuberculosis treatment plans throughout the 1940s and 1950s, this ward emphasises the place of play alongside rest to the recovery of these children. The piano and tables in the middle of the room similarly construct play and interaction between the children patients as an element of daily ward life. But it is also interesting to reflect on what this picture may tell us about the style of care given at Bow Arrow Hospital. It is both precisely ordered, with the beds perfectly made up even with their children occupants still in place. Yet the room is also child-friendly. It includes children’s toys, pictures on the walls and childhood interaction, which as a symbol of care emphasises committed nursing staff and their role in facilitating interpersonal interactions on behalf of the children patients.

The large, open windows and the airy, uncluttered atmosphere of the ward itself were partly about the focus on fresh air, light and exercise for treating tuberculosis. The high ceilings of the Victorian hospital were thus refashioned as important curative tools and visually linked to an ordered regimen. While later, these buildings came to be seen as cold, damp and unsuitable for modern, high-tech care, they remain important visual reminders in the British landscape of the former hospital site, where many personal encounters with the NHS were first forged. Although this photo shows us the interior of one specific hospital, it serves to touch on many of the themes, topics and interactions that we are looking to uncover through the People’s History of the NHS website.

While Bow Arrow Hospital no longer exists, with the building itself knocked down to make way for a housing estate, this image provides a wider snapshot of the place of the child within the early years of the NHS. It shows how the different needs of children, particularly their need to play, were facilitated and incorporated into the everyday life of the children’s ward. As such it allows us to consider the place of childhood illness within the cultural history of the NHS as well as the important location that the hospital has played, and continues to play, in providing care within a community.

We see this image as one way to spark a new conversation about the cultural significance of the NHS. We hope that it helps you remember or think about what your interactions with the NHS have meant to you, both in childhood and adulthood. We’d love to hear your recollections of time spent on children’s wards, as children, as parents and as nurses or doctors.

  • Did you spend time on a hospital ward as a child?
  • Did your parents visit you regularly?
  • Do you remember playing games or with toys on the hospital ward?
  • Did you work on a children’s ward in the early years of the NHS?
  • How did unrestricted parental visiting impact upon your job?

Comment below and let us know!

Read other posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

24 thoughts on “Bow Arrow Hospital, 1953

  1. I came across this site while I was searching bow arrow hospital telling one of my daughters about my childhood. I noticed that you were asking for any information from former patients of which I was one. I contracted TB from my grandfather and was sent to the TB unit at Bow Arrow hospital, Darford when I was around 2 1/2 , this was probably 1963/64. According to my mother I spent between 2 to 3 weeks in hospital. I remember the ward above being very spacious with big windows and I think I was probably in a cot because I do recall getting upset when my mother left me. I remember standing holding onto the bars of the cot and crying at the end of visiting time. I do think that this very early period of separation at a young age has affected my dislike of hospital I come out in a sweat if I am sitting in a hospital car park for example and if I have my blood pressure tested it rises as I do not like being inside a hospital.

    I asked my mother how often she visited me and she said only maybe 3/4 times during the period I was in. My mother relied on a lift to the hospital as we were a distance away and as stated there was no flexibility in visiting hours as there is today. My mother also found this period difficult and said she has done her best to forget it as it was long ago. She hated leaving me ther e, although the nurses always reassured her I was fine. She said it was at a time when you would never question a doctor or a nurse. She did however discharge me when I improved at around 2.5 weeks and asked to give me the medication at home which she did for 6 months after my discharge.

    My mother became a midwife and health visitor and agrees that it is better for visitation flexibility and for parents to be able to stay with young children . I too agree with is as my grown up children spent time in hospital and we were either allowed to stay or visit when we wanted.

    I also remember trying to escape from the hospital even though I was so little. We used to be taken outside for air on a nice day and I tried to run from my wheelchair out of the gate but was promptly caught by a nurse.

    I don’t remember playing with loads of toys, but then one often remembers events that are traumatic and I guess being in hospital away from parents does cause separation anxiety. I am grateful for the medical treatment that I recovered and I am pleased that nowadays the NHS has a softer approach to visiting hours where children are concerned.

    I looked at the old photos and it’s quite apparent the lack of parents and though surrounded by toys the children look quite miserable. I looked carefully but I am not in this photo above.

    I hope that this one account helps in your study in some way.

    Obviously, I have no recollection of time as I was too young but I do remember feeling alone and excited when my mum visited with chocolate buttons. Strange what one remembers! I am 55 this year.

    1. Hi and THANK YOU! Yours is a very moving story and really speaks to a particular time in the history both of the NHS and of tuberculosis therapy. It is easy to forget how recent the advent of (nearly) universal home treatment for this disease really is, and how much children and their parents suffered from what was then mandatory separations during treatment. Equally, without accounts like this, it can be hard to assess how much the NHS has changed, especially in response to changing attitudes to children in the wider culture.

  2. I was quite taken back when I came across this web site. I am the little girl sitting up in the bed in the corner of the ward. I was in Bow Arrow for about 9 months and have a lot of memories if you would like them.

    I first found this photo on the Dartford Hospital Histories site last year.

    Please let me know if you are still interested in My Story. This episode in my childhod has always stayed with me. I Was taken into hospital at 8 years old.

    Regards Ros Sullivan (age 69)

    1. Thank you very much for this message, how wonderful that you have come across our website! We would be absolutely fascinated to hear about your memories of this hospital. Whenever we bring this image to our events, on a banner, people want to know more about the children featured, and their memories.

      Please do send us your stories here – – as many or as few, long or as short, as you wish. We very much look forward to hearing more!


      1. HI Jenny

        I have at last just sent My Story over called ‘Bow Arrow Hospital’, I hope it arrives with some images. It is definitely me in the photo that is used as your website banner but I was in hospital between 1956/7 so I think you have the wrong date on your website.

        Looking forward to hearing from you.

        Ros Sullivan

        1. Hi Ros,

          What a remarkable story, thank you so much for sharing it with us. It’s amazing to hear from someone in this photo, and to see further photos as well, we’re really honoured to have heard from you. I’m so pleased that you found it liberating to write it all down, and agree that your memories are so vivid!

          Interesting about the date also, we will amend this, it’s so useful to hear from people who were there at the time!

          I’m sure we’ll be back in touch, and if you have any other stories or memories you’d like to share, do feel free to share as many as you like.

          All the very best,

  3. when I was in hospital in 1969, my mother visited every day. After being unconscious for 2 months, I used to get really excited when I saw her coming through the door. My mother used to help me eat my tea. I was a patient in the Birmingham accident hospital, on ward I, which was a childrens ward, I remember it had a big veranda where the nurses kept the toys. I was a patient there for 18 months.

    1. Thank you very much for sharing this memory, it’s really important for us to hear these experiences. 18 months is such a long time to stay in hospital – do you have any other memories of your time there? All the best, Jenny

  4. I was not in Bow Arrow. But, I spent time, as a small child, in a ward for malnutrition sometime in the late 1940’s. I was in a crib with a net over the top to cage me in. I remember crying a lot and my mother coming to see me one time. I remember seeing her go down the hall to leave and me yelling and begging her to come back. To this day I can not go To a doctors office or hespital without my blood pressure rasing. I am always told it is high. At home it is narmal. I have a deep disrespect for doctors and use natural herbs and victims alongside exercise to keep myself out of there hands. I wish I could get over this- I have tried therapy. I am 75 and would love to leave these memories behind.

    1. Thank you for sharing this painful but important experience with us. It has been interesting to hear from a number of child patients in this period, many of whom have described the same enduring feelings of sadness and stress or anger at how they were treated. Many were not aware of the extent to which hospital rules limited parental access and visits to even very young children; for some it has been a relief to learn that their parents did not leave them by choice, but because staff told them that infrequent contact was BEST for their children, or just refused to allow them to visit as often as they might have wished to do. In the end, patients, families and the community changed these harsh regimes for the better, allowing parents and their hospitalised children to have as much contact as they wanted; the shared experiences and testimony of children like you, and their families, were an important part of making that change possible.

  5. I was born in 1947. I was placed in Bow Arrow Hospital when I was around 4 years of age. I had TB. I remember being put in a large iron crib and having a stack of Reader’s Digests that my grandma had given me and a bag of those little cookies with an icing “kiss” on top. I was in the hospital for about a year. I remember being quiet and solitary and I cannot remember any of the other children in the ward.

    My Mother and my sister were also placed on TB wards at 2 other hospitals. I don’t think there was visitation from my Father, who was the only member of the family not affected with the TB.

    1. Your family was not alone: we’ve been given a wonderful and poignant set of scrapbooks kept by a woman who spent several years in a TB sanatorium up here in the Midlands. She met her husband in the sanatorium — she was accompanied by her sister and he by his brother, both of whom were also infected. At least they were all together, and not split up like your family: how awful. Her daughter recalled that her parents were quite secretive about their time in the sanatorium, due to the stigma of having TB in those days. Do you remember it being a bit of a secret in your family too?

  6. I spent 15 months in Bow Arrow and agree with your correspondent that the date is 1956-7. I am also in that picture (the middle child sitting at the table), and I remember several of those children as fellow patients. We were not allowed to play on that “lovely roundabout’ or touch the piano- there was a television in an upstairs room that ‘up’ patients could watch (Childrens’ television only). My mother could only visit once a week (we lived on the south coast) but I don’t remember being homesick. We were not encouraged to wander around, but did have earphones to listen to the radio. It did not give me a fear or hatred of hospitals- in fact I trained to be a radiographer and worked in the NHS for many years.

    1. Thank you for this. It is wonderful for us to hear from another person in this photo – how remarkable! Also brilliant to hear that you trained and worked within the NHS! Thank you, Jenny

  7. I was admitted to Bow Arrow Hospital in April 1956, 3 days before my 12th birthday and stayed for 14 months. One of my sisters was already there but in what we called the’ teenage’ ward. she was discharged after 6 mths and the same ambulance that came to take her home brought another of my sisters in. My dad was in Preston Hall Hospital at the same time so there was only mum to visit us. She would come on a Wednesday and visit dad on Sundays, a tough time for her travelling mostly by public transport.Other parents came more often and some were very kind in including me in their visits. Once I had settled in and adjusted to hospital life it became like home to me. The staff were lovely and couldn’t have been kinder, even when we had those horrible gastric lavages!! I remember sometimes being restricted to bed but when we were up we were taken by car to the schoolroom where we had lessons. I also remember if you were over 10 yrs and the weather was ok we would sleep outside on the veranda. I have many memories of my time at Bow Arrow, it was a significant time of my life and I’m sure had a big influance as my sister and I both became nurses later. I especially remember Sister Penney who on the day of my discharge in June 1956 told the ambulance crew off for being late!


  9. I came across this website yesterday – after a discussion on women’s suffrage – and Nancy Astor – the first woman MP and I had remembered how I, as a, probably about 9 or 10 years old, patient, and one who was allowed to get out of bed for a few hours a day, presented Lady Astor with a bouquet – I think it was at some sort of garden party at the hospital.
    Although I can’t find any trace of her visit, I have found this, and other websites, on Bow Arrow hospital and it has brought back far more memories than the ones that have always stayed with me.
    I spent around six months at the hospital in 1955 in the girls’ ward; I had my 10th birthday there in July; and was still there in September; and how I can be so specific about the date is that in September, Grace Archer in the – what was then – the Home Service (now Radio 4) died in a stable fire.
    For part of the year we, the children, were ‘bedded’ out on the verandas of the wards (in fact you were only in the ward if you were very very ill – or your bed was pushed back into the ward for the night – which happened to me once, if you were very naughty).
    But staying out on the verandas was lovely; you could look at the stars; make pets of earwigs (kept in boxes) and, listen though the headphones the radio! hence remembering so well – sitting there – wide eyed to Grace dying in the fire.
    My parents were allowed to visit on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons; my Mum- who had a job – would visit every other Wednesday afternoon – on the Wednesday afternoon when she couldn’t visit – she would have left a letter (sometimes a drawing by my Dad – or a present) for me.
    I had a little brother who wasn’t allowed to visit me – but on a Sunday – sometimes he would come with Mum and Dad – and someone would lift him up so that I could see him waving from the other side of the wall of hospital – -which I can see so clearly in the photographs.
    One of horrible memories of being there is something which was referred to as ‘Gastricks’; this involved sitting in – I think it was a kitchen of the ward – and a tube pushed up your nose and down into your stomach – and something pumped in and out – this happened for the first two days of the month – it was hateful – in fact we were told – not to tell any new children about it!
    Our schooling for some of the time continued in our beds – a teacher would come around tand give us exercises – or read to us; I can’t remember any toys as in the photograph.
    There are some good and some sad memories: the friends I made there – although no names now come to mind; the smell of the clean, ironed pyjamas my Mum would bring in for me; as opposed to the hospital laundry.
    I can also remember a little girl dying at the end of the ward.
    And when, one night, although even at that age I was questioning the existence of a God – I did think to myself ‘ I have had enough of this – perhaps if I wish hard enough they will let me out’ – so that’s what I did – every night I wished to go home; and one day I was told I would be allowed to get up for a few hours a day – this led to me, as I wished in time – going home.
    Home proved to be full of anxieties – my best friend (who I still know and we still talk of it) didn’t recognise me – as I had become so fat in hospital; I was behind in my education – which impacted on various exams – and – the most hardest load to bear for a 10-11 year old – my Mum told me – it was best that I didn’t let people know that I had had TB (as presumably there was such a stigma about it).

    1. Thank you for this wonderful, rich, and evocative memory. We really appreciate you taking the time to write it, and it has made me reflect on the sensory environment of the hospital ward, as well as the long-term impact for children of this kind of stay. All the best, and thank you again, Jenny

  10. I was in Kingston hospital in 1951 for a tonsilectomy. I was 6 years old.My parents did not visit and I was moved into a side ward because the other children were visited regularly. I would like to know how long I was in hospital for. What were the NHS guidelines for pediatric tonsillectomy post operation at the time.I would like to find out how many days I stayed in hospital to recover. It must have been one week to ten days. When my parents fetched me at the end of my stay I no longer knew them. It took a long time before I remembered them and remembered who I was. My mother did not work and could have come to the hospital on the bus. Why did that happen? And why did the hospital staff allow that to happen. The aftermath was terrible and has affected me all my life. I am 74. I had post traumatic stress disorder and terrible rages after this event. Then my mental health became even worse. Now at the age of 74 I am well. I am sure my stay in hospital was the root cause of what happened after that. Joy

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and the terrible effects of your long lonely stay in hospital as a child. Children did stay in hospital longer in the early years of the NHS (though over a week for a tonsillectomy would not, we think, be common even then) and it was not uncommon for parents to be discouraged from frequent visiting. In some cases, parents were forbidden from visiting, particularly in cases where infection or contagion was considered a risk, or if children were very upset: the view at the time was that parental visits could be disruptive to routine and even to healing. It sounds terribly cruel to us now, of course, and parents and children successfully fought to change these rules, even if the change came too late for your family. We can’t speak to your particular case, but it might be worth noting that visiting might also be discouraged if there were complications — which might also explain your long stay — or if there were outbreaks of childhood diseases in the neighbourhood.



Twitter Feed

The information is provided by us and while we endeavour to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the website or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained on the website for any purpose. We only capture and store personal information with the prior consent of users. Any personal information collected as part of the user registration process or the submission of material (including, but not limited to, name, address, e-mail address) will be stored securely, and accessible only to members of the Cultural History of the NHS project team. We will not sell, license or trade your personal information to others. We do not provide your personal information to direct marketing companies or other such organizations. These opinions do not necessarily represent those of Warwick University or the Wellcome Trust.