Healthy Britain . . .

For all the lovely things in Britain, for me and most others the best thing about Britain is our National Health Service.   You don’t pay to see a doctor or use a hospital for things you need.  It has often been called the Envy of the World and rightly so.   It might be one of the greatest advances in social justice  ever seen and has remained unmatched since its inception in 1948.

The health of the general population has been crucial to those in power at many key points in British history.  No-one, of course, escaped the effects of the Black Death which killed up to a third of our population.  Many whole communities were destroyed.  But the whole ancient feudal system entered a terminal decline that allowed people to become untethered to their overlords, free to sell their labour to the highest bidder.


For most of our history, treatment, such as it was, was administered (freely) by religious communities and these provide the roots of many of our oldest established hospitals.  Most people, in history, however, were cared for at home using traditional medicines.  And therein lies some of the reason for the late growth of comprehensive free healthcare, and that is, until recently, most illnesses were pretty much untreatable and accepted as part of life.  However, things changed rapidly from the eighteenth century onwards.  When Edward Jenner created a vaccine to cure Smallpox, it was freely promoted in order to stop the spread of this deadly disease.  Vaccines for Smallpox have been so effective that the disease itself was declared eradicated in 1979.

Crossness Pumping Station of London’s Sewer System

Through the Victorian era there were various Public Health Acts, including the 1848 establishment of (still working) sewers that stemmed the spread typhus and cholera.   The government also came to glance into the most personal aspects of citizen’s lives.  In the 1800 it was estimated that as many military personnel were lost to venereal disease as in battle and in the Victorian era there was a real fear, for the same reason, that there were not enough healthy sailors to man the fleet if it needed to sail into battle.  In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act allowed women to be snatched off the street, examined and hospitalized if they were suspected of carrying VD.

The general health of the population continued to be worry to governments during the First World War.  Many potential recruits had be turned away because of ill-health often stemming from the effects of poverty and neglect.  During this time, the cogs slowly rolled towards the establishment of our National Health Service.   A National Insurance Scheme was established in 1911 and access to medical help improved.  In 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the Beveridge report proposed the `Cradle to Grave’ welfare system that has improved the life of every person in the country, directly or indirectly.

Great Ormond Str Hospital Junior Doctors demonstration