70 Years of the NHS: The Story of Our Lives

Explore how the NHS has changed since its creation in 1948. Stories from patients, staff, volunteers and campaigners and items from our collections bring to life the development of the NHS throughout its first 70 years. Further decades will be added over the coming weeks.


Before the National Health Service (NHS)

Before the NHS was created in 1948 quality and access to health care services varied in the UK. Most sick people paid for treatment.


Serious illness was treated at Voluntary Hospitals and Local authority hospitals. Mentally ill people were housed in Victorian asylums and stigmatised.

From 1911 all male workers had medical care through the introduction of National Insurance. This did not cover their  families.

In parts of the UK, health services funded by workers were formed. Tredegar Workmen's Medical Aid Society had been formed in 1890 and by 1933 supplied 95% of its local population’s needs. This model inspired Aneurin Bevan in founding the NHS.

No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means

Aneurin Bevan

Guys Hospital

Guy’s Hospital outpatients in waiting hall and dispensary, pre-NHS

Credit: Wellcome Collection

The Second World Ward (1939) and the NHS

Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS


1939: For the first time in the UK, hospitals came together in preparation for the expected civilian casualties

During the Second World War there was a political consensus that a’ National Health Service’ run by local  authorities was needed.



1942: Beveridge Report published

The report aimed to tackle ‘squalor, want, idleness and disease’. Beveridge’s ideas of compulsory contributions to cover social costs laid the foundation of the post-war welfare state, including access to education and the NHS.



1945: The Labour Party has a landslide victory in the General Election

Aneurin Bevan, a former Welsh miner, is appointed Minister of Health in the new Labour Government. He plans one ‘NHS’ system funded by taxes and controlled by Parliament.

Doctors and hospital consultants were opposed to Bevan’s proposals. As a compromise Bevan allowed GPs, dentists and others to keep independence and for consultants to see private patients.

Local Authorities controlled Public Health Services – including maternity and child welfare, vaccination and ambulances.



Our stories:
Before the NHS

Jean Grimes was born in 1932 in Liverpool.

Here she talks about her early childhood memories of healthcare in the 1930s. Jean later trained and worked as nurse in the NHS.

I remember my mum had to pay and I think it was about five shillings. That was a lot of money in those days
Philip Prosser in 2018

Philip Prosser in 2018

Credit: NHS at 70

Philip Prosser was born in Tredegar in 1939.

He was born with ‘club feet’ and describes here how his medical care was paid for by the Tredegar Medical Aid Society to which his father subscribed.




Listen to Jean's story


The 1940s


The 1940s saw the creation of the hugely ambitious NHS to bring free healthcare to all. Before the NHS a third of babies were born at home. Diseases like Tuberculosis and Polio were life-threatening. The discovery of antibiotics was a major breakthrough.


Everybody, irrespective of means, age, sex or occupation shall have equal opportunity to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.

Aneurin Bevan at the opening of the NHS at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Manchester, 5 July, 1948

Aneurin Bevan at the opening of the NHS at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Manchester, 5 July, 1948

Credit: Trafford Healthcare Trust


Timeline: The 1940s




1943: The first antibiotic cure for Tuberculosis (TB), Streptomycin, was discovered

Penicillin was the first mass-produced antibiotic from the late 1940s. Without it, the NHS might not have survived as it shortened hospital stays.

NHS Poster 1948
Empire Windrush

1948: The NHS is born

A new National Health Service Act created the NHS in England & Wales. Bevan ‘opened’ the NHS at Park Hospital, Davyhulme on 5 July 1948. Northern Ireland & Scotland established their own NHS.

For the first time, hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians, dentists, community nursing and health visitors were brought together to provide free services.

  • Almost all of the 19,000 GPs were men.
  • A third of the 8 million patients treated a year by dentists needed dentures.

Cradle to Grave: When the NHS began, so did a national social security benefits system protecting people from ‘cradle to grave’. Working people paid a contribution from their earnings and benefits would be paid to support the unemployed, the sick, the retired and the widowed.



1948: The Windrush.

The Empire Windrush passenger liner (a ship), arrived at Tilbury Docks with 492 passengers from the Caribbean. It marked the start of mass immigration and around 172,000 West Indian-born people moving to the UK by 1961.



1949: National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends formed.

Objective: ‘To mobilise, encourage, foster and maintain, the human love of the people of this Country, in the giving service to supplement the healing work of the staff and the State, and always ensure a humanising supplement to the work of the hospitals’.


Aneurin Bevan

Our Stories: The 1940s

June Rosen met Nye Bevan as her father was a Manchester City Councillor who escorted him during the ‘opening’ of the NHS. She trained as a Physiotherapist and still works in the NHS.


‘When I was 8, Aneurin Bevan came to stay the night with us because he was going to launch the NHS.

My mother said to me, “We’re going to take our guest breakfast in bed and you can come with me”. So we took a tray upstairs. I do remember exactly what he looked like sitting up in his pyjamas and this shock of grey hair.

My mother said it was the most amazing time to be involved in politics. We felt that we were going to build the New Jerusalem’.


Aneira Thomas


Aneira Thomas, Bevan's first baby

Credit: Aneira Thomas


Aneira Thomas was named by her mother, for the architect of the NHS.


‘It was coming up to midnight and my mother, who had been in labour for 18 hours, was just about ready to give birth to me.

She wanted to push. But the doctors and midwives looked up at the clock on the wall and said, “Stop. Hold on, Edna, hold on.” They knew they were moments away from the start of the National Health Service and wanted me to be the first baby born into this new service.

So my mother took a deep breath and held on. That’s how I was born at one minute past midnight on Monday 5 July 1948 – the first NHS baby’.


The 1950s


The 1950s saw major nurse recruitment, junior doctor training, NHS recycling campaigns and tackling huge waiting lists for healthcare and dentistry.


The link between smoking and its effects on health was also established. Around 80% of British adults smoked.


Timeline: The 1950s



1950: JS Collings’ Report into General Practice was highly critical of poor standards of practice and training.

Recruitment started in West Indies. Recruits worked as doctors, nurses, cooks, porters, cleaners and administrators. Without them the NHS would not have survived. Manchester hospitals employed 6 Barbadian women as domestic workers.



1951: Chief nursing officer went to the Caribbean to recruit nurses for the NHS.



Nye Bevan Resignation
Portable ventilator


Portable Ventilator used from 1955-65

Credit: Science Museum, London




1952: Charges for prescriptions and dental treatment started. 

Bevan had quit the cabinet in fury at this decision in 1951.



1954: The link between smoking and lung cancer was discovered.



1955: Nurses in Huddersfield object to employment of BME nurses on economic grounds.

Ultrasound was used for the first time to examine a pregnancy.




1956: Polio immunisation began.

NHS Administrator Training Scheme began in London and Manchester.

Consumers’ Association set up marking a change in public attitudes towards buying services and products.



1957: Whooping Cough immunisation began.


Polio Poster



NHS glasses 1950s


NHS Glasses from 1950s

Credit: Science Museum, London



1958: First mass vaccination programme for polio and diphtheria.

Race riots in London and Nottingham.


1959: Platt Report advised that parents should have unlimited access to children in hospital.



Our Stories: The 1950s


Beryl Howard was a nurse at Middlesex Hospital in the 1950s. In December 1958 she borrowed a Christmas display from Selfridges to decorate the ward.

Christmas day was lovely in hospitals. They used to send up a turkey. The consultant would come and carve it and we’d feed the patients and then the staff would all have their meal together. Not now because the food all comes up plated. We didn’t drink. Christmas Day was a party all day long.


Jane Milne recalls her childhood experience of being in Brampton Lane Fever Hospital in Bridlington in the early 1950s before parents could accompany their child to hospital.


Beryl Howard Christmas 1958


1958: Beryl Howard, left, and two other nurses – including one nurse who was smoking as it was still acceptable at that time

Credit: Beryl Howard