Britain changed on the ‘appointed day’ of 5 July 1948. That date has come to be very important in our national story. It was the day on which a whole raft of Labour’s postwar reforms were introduced, including those to pensions, social security and – most famously – the introduction of the National Health Service. Yet the day passed without much fanfare and was little reported upon in the papers. In fact, Health Minister Nye Bevan received far more column inches that month for his comment that the Conservatives were, to him, “lower than vermin”. Since then the NHS has come to occupy a pride of place in collective thinking about British national identity. It’s undoubtedly symbolic, but what exactly does it symbolise? How has what it means changed over time? Oddly enough, these are questions that have gone unasked by historians of postwar Britain.
So I’m very happy to say I’m part of the team today launching the exciting new People’s History of the NHS website. It’s run by members of the Cultural History of the NHS team at Warwick University, generously supported by the Wellcome Trust. And the new website is a meeting point between us and the public.
This means we’ll be sharing some of what we find out in the course of our research. As well as the website’s regular blog, there are two ways we’ll be doing this. One is what we’re calling the People’s Encyclopaedia of the NHS – open to everyone and written with the aim of being accessible, this will share short articles on a variety of topics from the history of the British health service. We’ll be adding new entries regularly, but those already up include articles on the impact of the NHS on the stereotype of British teeth, the impact of the coming of the NHS on traditions of hospital fundraising, and NHS research and development of hearing aids.
The visual and material culture of the NHS is also something we’ll be exploring and sharing in the website’s Virtual NHS Museum. This includes galleries of images ranging from satirical cartoons to art based on NHS patient records, from campaign materials to public health posters and films. Again we’ll be adding more over the course of our project. A major part of this will be what’s shared with us by members of the public, whether that’s old photographs, uniforms or any other NHS-related items.
But this isn’t a one-way thing. It won’t just be about us sharing what we’ve found. There’s also the MyNHS members section of the website, where anyone interested can sign up to read, comment on and share their own stories and reflections on the NHS. We’re interested in everything from personal experiences with the NHS as a patient or professionally, to discussions of what the NHS means to you, as well as if and how that’s changed over the years. Members are welcome to share as much or as little as they want, as regularly as they want, giving as much or as little detail as they are comfortable with (including doing so anonymously if they wish). We hope this will provide a space for our research agenda to be influenced by those whose lives are part of the story we’re telling, as well as an interesting space for reflection and discussion.
If you’re at all interested in the NHS and its place in British culture, then please do hop over to the new website and take a look. You’ll find it at peopleshistorynhs.org