Founded on 5th July 1948, this year, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS has indisputably changed public interaction with health ever since its beginnings in 1948. It was described as;

the biggest single experiment in social service that the world has ever seen undertaken” – Lord Bevan, Minister for Health 1945-1951.

The staffing increases within the first few years alone are testament to this big experiment. Manchester Central Library’s Archive collection holds a hefty several hundred page volume of NHS statistics from 1949-1953 entitled; National Health Service: Hospital and Specialist Services England & Wales Statistics, 1949-1953. Published by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1953, this volume contains some fascinating data on the foundational years of the NHS and gives interesting insights into how it rapidly changed from its small-scale beginnings into the huge, multifaceted organisation we know it as today.

MRI 1950 blog post
Exterior of Manchester Royal Infirmary, 1950. From the Manchester Local Image Collection: m52916


Looking at this from a local perspective, the familiar building of Manchester’s Royal Infirmary (MRI), pictured above in 1950, offers some interesting insights into how the NHS rapidly changed within its first few years. Statistics recorded from 1949-1950 at MRI demonstrate the immense staffing changes that took place within the first two years of the NHS. On 31st December 1949 only 39 staff nurses are recorded to be working at MRI (p.201). This number increases threefold a year later, with 101 staff nurses working, as well as the introduction of 257 student nurses recorded to be working at MRI on 31st December 1950 (p.201). By contrast, there are no student nurses recorded at MRI in 1949. What was the driver for such an immense change and introduction of student nurses into MRI?

These figures relate to the implementation of the 1949 Nurses Act. This act sought to increase the numbers of qualified nurses working in NHS hospitals and featured an official and regulated student nursing programme. This was the foundation of the modern student nursing training which many students now undertake today. The popularisation of this course of training can be seen with 396 student nurses working at MRI by 1953 (p.179). This group of people and what they were training to become; nurses became the bedrock on which the NHS relied through increased numbers during its initial years. Nurses such as Ethel Starmer, pictured below, who would have worked with the Red Cross in wartime, now had increased opportunities for training and working within hospitals during peacetime, allowing both their individual careers, and the NHS more broadly, to develop.

es photo
Photograph of Ethel Starmer, Red Cross Nurse (taken from the Archives + collection: GB124.Q143)

With over 55,000 students undertaking nursing degrees for the academic year 2017/18 in the UK, (as published by the National Health Foundation), the legacy of the Nursing Act and the first cohort of student nurses and qualified staff nurses laid the foundations and helped to establish the programme of modern nursing education.  As the 70th anniversary of the NHS fast approaches, we should consider how these foundational years shaped the way in which healthcare and education became formalised, and remember those that undertook these challenging roles and appreciate those that continue to do so today.