British photographic history

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Early nursing photographs from 1938-1943 discovered

A fascinating collection of more than 4,000 photographs uncovered in the Historic England Archive is giving up its secrets after more than 70 years and is now accessible to the public. Staff at Historic England’s Archive in Swindon recently discovered 4,050 black and white photographic prints documenting healthcare in Britain between 1938 and 1943.

Capturing hospital staff, patients, procedures and practices, the images provide an invaluable and extraordinary insight into medical and nursing practices during the Second World War, and immediately before the foundation of the National Health Service.

Thanks to grant funding from the Wellcome Trust 2,100 images have been digitised as part of the year-long project to conserve, catalogue and digitise the entire collection. The collection is being made accessible to a wide audience for the first time and can be viewed and searched on the Historic England website.

Historic England has also produced resources for secondary school teachers to help students explore the history of medicine as we mark 70 years of the National Health Service in July.

The photographs were taken by the Topical Press Agency, but how and when they were acquired by the Archive remains a mystery. They record improvised wartime hospital wards, blood donation and transfusion, infection control, treatment of burns and early plastic surgery, alongside nurses in training and relaxing in their time off.

Each photograph is accompanied by a typed description which gives extensive background information including date, location and details of equipment and procedure. Many descriptions also include the names of the doctors and nurses shown as well as captions that capture the zeitgeist of the era, such as “the cares of house-keeping and raising a family can play havoc with a mother’s looks and bodily shapeliness.”

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s Chief Executive, said:The Historic England Archive is full of countless gems but the Topical Press Agency images are particularly striking. Thanks to the Wellcome Trust we are able to conserve these photographs and share them with new audiences. They have the potential to expand our knowledge of wartime medical practice and revolutionary treatments and help us delve deeper into the history of healthcare.”

Abigail Coats, Archive Cataloguing Officer at Historic England, said:Working with this collection everyday has been fascinating and a real joy. The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change. But they also show staff having fun and unwinding after a long working day. You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged. I’m very proud to be a part of bringing this unique collection back to life and that we’re able to share this fantastic resource with the public.”

Chris Hassan, from Wellcome’s Humanities and Social Science team, said:These unique images offer a wealth of insights and surprises. Taken at a time of transition and rapid development for healthcare in the UK, these photos bring to life this fascinating period of medical history.

Memories of Nursing

We showed the collection to four nurses who trained and worked in hospitals in the North West in the 1940s and '50s. From bedpans and cut-throat razors to drainpipe climbing and hospital superstitions, watch Dorothy, Audrey, Margaret and Jean's testament to the spirit of the age. Video: https://youtu.be/Inx6etz-oYo

Our Archives 

The Historic England Archive is a national archive of the historic environment, with many major collections covering the architecture, archaeology and social history of England. The archives largely date from the mid-19th century onwards. They relate to the historic environment in the widest sense, including architectural and archaeological archives and aerial photography. 

The collection can be viewed at HistoricEngland.org.uk/medical

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