Thursday, 21 April 2016

In Bolton in 1937, before the National Health Service

Before the NHS, The Working Man's Hair Specialist, Bolton, 1937

Now the National Health Service has always been  controversial.  

Even before its inception there were those who branded it as an opportunity for the workshy, and opportunist elements in society to take advantage of a service free at the point of need which would be funded through national taxation.

And in its first full year there was a huge demand seen in the number of free prescriptions issued for medicine and spectacles and in the rise in the cost of the NHS from £327.8 million in 1948-49 to £430.3 million by 1953-54.*

But that I suspect indicated just how much of a need there was from people who had not been able to afford even basic health care.

Moreover when the figures were adjusted for inflation the cost was less alarming and when judged as a % of GNP spending actually fell from 3.51% in 1948-49 to 3.24% in 1953-54

And set against this was the clear improvement in the nation’s health and a reduction in the levels of everyday pain as well as deaths from infectious diseases.  So deaths from TB were down from 25,649 in 1943 to 4,480 in 1958, diptheria from 1,371 to 8, whooping cough from 1,114 to 27 and measles from 773 to 49.

Only polio of these five diseases, was killing more in 1958 than it had done at the inception of the NHS but even here it was much lower than it had been.

Of course our standard of living had been steadily rising during the post war period while many of the worst slums had been demolished, but there is no doubting the impact on the population of the NHS.

More so because there are still those who can remember the time before it was created in 1948.  Theirs are stories of doctor’s fees which were beyond the reach of many working families, and of teeth being extracted in the market for a few pennies, and worst of all the do it yourself eye test where you tried different spectacles in the local store till you found one that suited.

The Pulsometer stall, Bolton OPen Market, 1937
And it is these pictures which bring that world back to us.

Like the Working Man’s Hair Specialist who operated in Bolton Open Market who claimed he could cure any ailment of the head.

Or the ‘stoutish woman dressed as a nurse’ who is selling coloured liquids in bottles to enthusiastic customers, and using a stethoscope and pulsometer to diagnose their ailments.”**

Such quack stalls were common and these were caught on camera in the September of 1937 in Bolton Open Market but could have been seen at markets and fairs as well as street corners throughout the century before.

The pictures are from WorkTown which were part of a Mass observation “project founded in the late 1930s by a group of young writers and intellectuals, led by Tom Harrisson. They believed that British society was deeply divided, with very little understanding or consideration given to the lives and opinions of ordinary people.

The first focused study carried out by Mass Observation began in 1937 in Bolton, which they called Worktown.

Bolton was chosen as a ‘typical’ northern working class town, and Harrisson recruited a team of men and women who tried to capture a vast range of information about the local population using observation techniques."

Detail from The Working Man's Hair Specialist, Bolton, 1937
They remain a wonderful and powerful record of life in the industrial north during the late 1930s and can be seen online at ***

Pictures; courtesy of Bolton Library Museum Services, working Man’s hair Specialist, 1993.83.01.24 & Pulsometer 1993.83.0139

*Source Report of the Guillebaud Committee Parliament. Report of the committee of enquiry into the cost of the national health service. (Chairman: CW Guillebaud.) Cmd 9663. London: HMSO,  1956, quoted from National Health Service History, Geoffrey Rivett,

**Humphrey Spender


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