In Pictures: Vintage Photos Of The NHS In London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago
In Pictures: Vintage Photos Of The NHS In London
An older gent in a dressing gown lies in bed with headphones on as a nurse serves a cuppa
A patient in Charing Cross Hospital watches TV with headphones, 1972. Part of a hospital nurse’s duty of care
has always been to maintain a quiet ward.

"On any given day, in rooms smelling of disinfectant and hot radiators, around 1.3 million of us entrust our bodies or minds to it for treatment. It delivered most of us into the world, and will likely hand us out."

Not a bad description of the NHS, as appears in the intro to a new coffee book from Hoxton Mini Press, called simply The National Health Service.

A young girl has a new pair of glasses places on her by an elderly man
A young patient being fitted for glasses at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in east London, 1950. The NHS boasted that many stylish frames were available.

Once again, the east London publisher has thrust its hands deep into the image archives, yanking out a stash of photography that's as sharp and brilliant as it is nostalgic.

A smiling Nigerina nurse
Nigerian nurse in Brook General Hospital, London, 1958. The 1950s saw increased recruitment from the Commonwealth and Caribbean as the shortfall in nurses grew.

From naked children in steampunk goggles receiving (rather terrifying) sun-lamp therapy in the same year the NHS was created, to nurses decrying a 'sick government' as they picket for fairer pay in 1969 (sounds familiar), here are moments that capture NHS in all of its greatness and crises.

Lots of cranes in action building the hospital, with Parliament in the background
Construction of new blocks at St Thomas' Hospital. The plan included operating suites, an outpatients department, research institute, a nurses' home and nurses' training school, mid 1970s.

It's an assortment of the workaday (kids trying on their first pair of NHS specs), to the groundbreaking (Britain's first heart transplant patient Frederick West putting on a brave face with a gaggle of nurses post-surgery).

Young boys stripped down and wearing sunglasses with bright sunlamp rays on them
Children receive sun-lamp therapy, believed to have a curative effect on everything from chest infections to acne, in 1948. The link between UV rays and skin cancer was then unknown. It's unclear exactly where this photo was taken, although this kind of therapy took place in various London hospitals.

Though the book covers the whole country, London naturally features prominently. We found it especially fascinating to see the modern St Thomas' Hospital being constructed across from the Houses of Parliament.

A woman with a pile of pills in front of her - listing up one with a pair of tweezers
Checking contraceptive pills at British Drug Houses Ltd., 1965.

These days the front of St Thomas' is often the stage for protests from junior doctors and nurses, as they fight for better pay and working conditions, and the book reminds us this is nothing new — take the Raising the Roof campaign of the late 1960s, in which the Royal College of Nurses called for pay increases of up to 50%.

A man grinning in a dressing gown, surrounded by nurses
Britain's first heart transplant patient Frederick West with nurses at the National Heart Hospital in London, 1968. He would survive for just 46 days after receiving the donor heart.

The release of this book (April 2023) seems altogether fitting — in a time when the country — or should that be government? — could do with reminding themselves what a good thing we've got going here.

Two nurses holding a sign: 'we try to help sick people but a sick government won't help us'
1969 saw a nationwide 'Raise the Roof' campaign for fair pay, which reached the House of Commons with a lobby by the United Nurses Association.
A man in a suit pores over plans at a desk
Aneurin Bevan, who spearheaded the NHS, reviews the public information campaign, 1948

The National Health Service, published by Hoxton Mini Press, RRP £18.95

All images © Hoxton Mini Press

Last Updated 28 April 2023

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