Alternative medicine: photos show British healthcare before NHS

Ben Quinn
Student nurses at Atkinson Morley convalescent hospital in Copse Hill, south-west London, are given a lesson on bandaging. Photograph: Historic England Archive/PA

In one image, a patient relaxes with a specially designed cigarette holder after being treated in a saline bath for burns. Another shows student nurses learning how to bandage the torso of a mannequin sporting an Errol Flynn-like moustache.

They are just two from a vast photographic collection illustrating the human face of healthcare in Britain before the dawn of the NHS, which is being made available for public viewing online.

Scenes of improvised wartime hospital wards, treatment of burns and early plastic surgery are among more than 4,000 images dating from 1938 to 1943, which were recently discovered by staff at Historic England’s archive in Swindon

Nurses in training and relaxing during their time off are among others in the collection of photos taken by Topical press agency, which operated until the 1950s.

A patient enjoys a cigarette as he takes a saline bath at the Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex Photograph: Historic England Archive/PA

More than 2,100 images have been digitised to mark this year’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS. The project has been made possible with funding from the Wellcome Collection.

Each photograph is accompanied by a typed description from the time. One, showing a group of women taking part in an exercise class at the Pioneer Health Centre in St Mary’s Road, south-east London, in October 1938, has an original caption reading: “Peckham mothers can keep that schoolgirl figure. The cares of housekeeping and raising a family can play havoc with a mother’s looks and bodily shapeliness.”

Abigail Coats, the archive cataloguing officer at Historic England, said the photographs revealed health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change.

“But they also show staff having fun and unwinding after a long working day,” she said. “You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged.”

A young girl sits at a synoptiscope at King Edward VII Memorial children’s hospital in Ladywood, Birmingham. Photograph: Historic England Archive/PA

The collection can be viewed on the Historic England wesbsite, along with video interviews conducted with former nurses who were shown the photos.

Audrey Phillips, who was born in 1927 and began nursing in 1946, recalled the strict conditions imposed on her and other nurses who lived together in staff housing: “You were locked in at 10 o’clock. I did learn to climb up drainpipes but not till after I qualified.”

Jean Woods, who began nursing two years later, spoke of the challenges of coping with significant workloads: “You had big wards of 32 beds, don’t forget, and there were only two nurses on duty at night-time on those wards.

“If you were on a single, small ward of 20 beds there was only one of you. That was a bit hair-raising to be honest.”