Revealed: Life in pre-NHS Yorkshire wards

Student nurses around a patient's bed, whilst a doctor explains an X-ray image, at St James' Hospital, Beckett Street, Leeds''in 1941
Student nurses around a patient's bed, whilst a doctor explains an X-ray image, at St James' Hospital, Beckett Street, Leeds''in 1941
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IT was, to judge by the newly-recovered evidence, an age in which eight nurses in freshly starched uniforms attended to each patient.

But the 4,050 photographs found in an archive tell only half the story of healthcare in pre-NHS Yorkshire.

Four nurses pushing prams in single file along the driveway of the St Matthew's Hospital Nursery School, Buckinghamshire.

Four nurses pushing prams in single file along the driveway of the St Matthew's Hospital Nursery School, Buckinghamshire.

The pictures, taken in the early 1940s, show blood transfusions, sterilising equipment and early X-rays, and staff are seen enjoying their time off by ice skating on a frozen tennis court and riding carousels.

One, of a nurse hanging an “engaged” sign outside a private room, was captured at the Brotherton Wing of Leeds General Infirmary, which had just opened for the benefit of patients who could not afford a private nursing home but were not poor enough to go into a voluntary hospital.

The caption records that the paying occupants had telephones, wireless headphones, soundproofing, visits by hairdressers, and a switch system by each bed to call nurses. Their food was prepared “in the kitchen by dieticians” and served on heated trays.

But the description does not mention that a week after the picture was taken, a bomb fell through the entrance of the Brotherton Wing and went straight through the floor. It failed to explode – saving the and the patients and 90 staff inside.

A nurse in a white gown and cap taking a throat swab from a patient, at Middlesex Hospital

A nurse in a white gown and cap taking a throat swab from a patient, at Middlesex Hospital

Other images were taken at St James’s Hospital across Leeds, and at the Wharncliffe Emergency Hospital on Sheffield’s Worrall Road, which was used for military casualties. A patient is seen there receiving physiotherapy from a clinician whose only apparatus appears to be a mirror and a wooden stool.

Their original purpose is unclear, though they were taken by the Topical Picture Agency, which specialised in stock images typically used in advertising. Their existence was unknown until they were discovered in the Swindon archive of Historic England. The organisation has digitised 2,000 of them and is making them available for public viewing on its website from today.

Before the NHS was founded 70 years ago, most patients had to pay for treatment, with many councils running hospitals for their ratepayers under a system that had originated with the Tudor Poor Laws.

The descriptions that accompany the images betray insights into the attitudes of the time, especially towards paying patients.

“Peckham mothers can keep that schoolgirl figure. The cares of house-keeping and raising a family can play havoc with a mother’s looks and bodily shapeliness,” reads the caption of an exercise class picture.

Abigail Coats, archive cataloguing officer at Historic England, said: “Working with this collection every day has been fascinating and a real joy.

“The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change. You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged.”

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, said the pictures would “help us delve deeper into the history of healthcare”.