1948 - The birth of the NHS

By Guest, 5 July 2017 - 9:48am

The BBC’s Home Service broadcast an announcement by Government Minister Dr Edith Summerskill in 1948 in which she proclaimed the arrival of the NHS.

Anyone listening to it would have heard her boast that “after July, no mother in the country need consider whether she can afford to have a doctor for her sick child before calling one in".

Her broadcast promised the new Health Service would protect the public “from before birth to the grave”. It was to be free for all at point of use, paid for from general taxation.

Mothers and babies at the Woodberry Down Health Centre in Stoke Newington. Woodberry Down was first fully comprehensive health centre under the NHS. (Credit: Getty Images)

This was a monumental change – but it was a change in attitude, not provision. The National Health Service Acts (one for England and Wales, another for Scotland) did not bring new hospitals into existence or train more doctors.

The same medical staff and facilities were available in the second half of 1948 that were there in the first; the difference was that they became available to the poor.

Before July, poor people relied on questionable home remedies, charitable doctors who saw them for free, or a ‘panel’ doctor employed by friendly societies to which people made a small, regular contribution to cover health care.

In hospital, a patient would have a talk with the almoner, who would work out how much they’d have to pay. Hospitals were maintained by donations, flag days and ‘Hospital Sunday’ when churches would hold collections.

Many poor people were completely without provision, but the situation was not good for the middle class either. Families could be ruined by the cost of caring for a sick relative, particularly if that sick relative was the principal earner.

Stuffed with gold

The architect of the new health service was Health Minister Aneurin Bevan. The former miner, now left-wing MP for Ebbw Vale, based his ideas on the welfare club in his home town of Tredegar where he had been chair of the Cottage Hospital Management Committee.

Doctors organised by the British Medical Association argued against the new service as they wanted to keep their right to buy and sell their practices.

As late as May 1948, they voted against joining the National Health scheme, although some were in favour and others simply thought it inevitable.

Bevan made it so financially attractive for doctors to join that eventually they gave in. He said he had “stuffed their mouths with gold”. 

The biggest change our ancestors saw was an increase in simple aids to a better life. Newspapers reported an unstoppable demand for medicines, wigs, false teeth and spectacles. People had not been able to afford these things previously, so there was pent-up demand.

Bevan confidently predicted that the cost of the National Health would reduce as people got healthier and needed it less, but costly improvements in medicine undermined this notion. Soon, health expenditure was second only to defence spending in the national budget.

Wartime rationing continued, with sugar, eggs, cheese, meats and tea available only to those with a ration book. Not only did rationing continue long after the war, but some foods were rationed that hadn’t been during the conflict: bread was rationed from 1946 to 1948 and potatoes for a time from 1947.

It was forbidden to spend more than five shillings on a restaurant meal, although the idea of spending anything like that would have been met with laughter by most people.

Some foods, such as fish, were never rationed, but the Ministry of Food’s importing of millions of tins of the tasteless fish snoek was not greeted with pleasure by the public. These had to be sold off as cat food. Rationing did some good to the public, as figures released this year showed the lowest infant death rate on record.

Bevan meets a patient at Papworth Village Hospital in 1948. (Credit: Getty Images)

New arrivals

The British Nationality Act of 1948 created a single definition of British citizenship, one of the UK and Colonies that included Britons and colonial subjects, all with a right to enter the UK.

This did not create the right to emigrate to Britain (it actually restricted the total number who might enter because it excluded people who were not colonial subjects), but by positively defining nationality, it appeared to give a right of entry.

The Act did not begin immigration to the UK; this was already happening. On 22 June 1948, the merchant vessel Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks carrying 492 workers (and one stowaway, Evelyn Wauchape), mainly from Jamaica and Trinidad, many of whom had visited Britain during war service.

They had come to Britain at a time of labour shortages for the post-war reconstruction of a nation showing severe bomb damage.

The new arrivals were housed in the Clapham South Deep Air Raid Shelter, not far from the Coldharbour Lane Employment Exchange in Brixton where they started to seek work.

Your southern Irish ancestors were to enjoy all the benefits of UK citizenship under the new Act and to not be regarded as foreigners.

There were so many Irish people employed, particularly in the building trade and the armed services, that the nation could not afford to lose them.

Some of our forebears thought this a very peculiar concession, considering that Ireland had, for years, fought bitterly for independence.

London had been due to host the Olympic Games in 1944; these postponed games were held in a deliberately low-key ‘austerity’ event in 1948.

Nonetheless, a record 59 nations were represented, even if Germany and Japan were not invited to participate and the USSR chose not to send any athletes.

Germany, though, did have a presence: facilities were built with forced labour from among the 400,000 prisoners of war who had been in Britain.

About half this number worked in agriculture and building as war reparations. The use of such labour was hotly contested. Your ancestors will have had opinions on whether these were either slaves or enemies justly expected to make good national damage.

The last repatriation of Germans took place in November 1948. Conditions were probably not too bad for them here, about 24,000 chose to remain in Britain voluntarily.

Newspaper readers recoiled in horror at the news of a terrible murder on 14 May. A three-year-old girl, June Ann Devaney, had been abducted from a hospital in Blackburn, where she had been recovering from pneumonia, and was sexually assaulted and battered to death in the hospital’s grounds.

The entire male population of Blackburn was fingerprinted, the first time an exercise on this scale was carried out. One of only a few men to resist fingerprinting was Peter Griffiths, a 22-year-old flour mill worker. His prints matched and he was hanged at Liverpool’s Walton Gaol on 19 November.

The Labour government proceeded with its nationalisation programme, taking in the railways this year. Rail transport, like the coal industry, which was nationalised in 1947, was run down, suffering from years of under-investment and poor management.

Trains that were dirty, cold, slow and did not run on time were a part of life in the 1940s, but at least after nationalisation grumblers could complain that it was all the government’s fault.

Those train journeys might be enlivened for bored children by one of the sixpenny I-Spy Spotterbooks that began to be published this year (later just called I-Spy books).

Children could write in them, as they spotted the items pictured in the book. They wrote in to the publisher to claim an Award of Merit when they had spotted everything (and their work had been certified by a parent or teacher).

Younger children on the same train journey might be reading James the Red Engine, just published this year. It was the third book by Rev W Awdry about trains with human attributes; Thomas the Tank Engine was already a firm favourite. The bright illustrations, optimistic tone and low price of the little books had wide appeal in austerity Britain.  


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