Abigail Coates, Cataloguing Officer, Historic England Archive The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 7 (1) 2019

Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the Historic England Archive has completed a 12-month project to conserve, digitise, and catalogue a collection of photographic prints showing health and social care in the UK between 1938 and 1943.

The 4,071 black and white photographs were taken by Norman Kingsley Harrison for the Topical Press Agency and were only recently rediscovered in the Historic England Archive in Swindon. The Topical Press Agency was established in 1903 to supply newsworthy photographs to the Fleet Street press and specialist journals. While it is not clear why all of the photographs in the collection were taken, it is possible that some were produced for nursing journals such as Nursing Times.

Nurses adjusting weights attached to a fracture bed at Hope Hospital, Salford, 24th June 1942 (MED01/01/2945) Source: Historic England Archive
A patient and nurse with a budgerigar, at the Wingfield-Morris Orthopaedic Hospital, Oxford, 24th June 1939 (MED01/01/0439) Source: Historic England Archive

Each photograph is accompanied by a detailed caption written by the photographer, which has been transcribed and supplemented by further research. Sources including Medical Officer of Health Reports, hospital databases, journal articles, historical mapping, and Post Office Directories were used to provide background information and to determine locations.

To support the Medical Collection, Historic England Archive staff conducted oral history interviews with nurses who trained and worked at the Manchester Royal Infirmary in the 1940s and 1950s, and a short film featuring interviews shown alongside Medical Collection photographs has been published on YouTube. These captivating accounts have been stored in Historic England’s Digital Archive, and now form part of the Medical Collection.

A broad range of subjects is covered by the Medical Collection, including medical procedures, child welfare, blood transfusion, and nurses’ training immediately before the founding of the NHS. Wartime healthcare and nursing feature heavily, including auxiliary and military hospitals, improvised wards, and bomb damage. The collection reveals a snapshot of 1930s and 1940s Britain: the fashions, technology, and pastimes, and a health service responding to the demands of a country at war. Significantly, many of the sites shown in the photographs have changed dramatically or have been destroyed or transformed, giving added significance to the collection as a photographic record.

The Collection offers insights into the history of nursing, rehabilitation, specific procedures, and healthcare in the years prior to the founding of the NHS. It also provides a fascinating record of the growth of health movements and development of social care, as well as documenting ground-breaking medical developments during the Second World War, the beginnings of the National Blood Service, and the nursing of military casualties.

Student nurses are a particular focus of the collection. The photographer captured scenes in Preliminary Training Schools, including practical and theoretical classes, along with numerous group portraits of student nurses at various hospitals around the country. The introduction of training programmes for school-leavers, such as classes of cadet nurses, and the increase in numbers of male nurses is also shown.

Cadet nurses and a sister tutor in an anatomy class at St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth, 3rd March 1942 (MED01/01/2644) Source: Historic England Archive
Students ice-skating on a tennis court at the London Fever Hospital, 1st January 1940 (MED01/01/1227) Source: Historic England Archive

Training and working in healthcare was very demanding and often challenging, but the photographs show that nurses formed strong bonds with fellow students and staff, and spent their off-duty hours together in nurses’ homes, playing sports with friends, and enjoying days out. Many of the photographs provide a light-hearted look at nurses’ lives, as well as giving an insight into the rules and expectations of living, studying and working in a hospital in the 1930s and 1940s.

More details about can be found at www.historicengland.org.uk/medical, and the digitised photographs can be viewed on the Historic England Archive website (archive.historicengland.org.uk) by searching “MED01”. Low resolution images are available for free, and high resolution images for personal non-commercial use can be ordered free of charge. For more information about ordering, please contact archive@historicengland.org.uk