June 2020

This year, 2020, has another marker on it other than that created by Covid-19. For it’s also the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Thus, the WHO (the World Health Organisation) has designated 2020 as the first ever year of the nurse and the midwife.  Cause enough for celebration on its own then. And it makes a good excuse to talk again about healthcare history and Swindon – it being a story not that well told. Still. And when it is told it tends not to be accurate.

The NHS: Born in Swindon

Back in 2014 – when the NHS turned 60 years of age, the BBC, on its local history area wrote:

‘It was 60 years ago that the National Health Service came into the World and its birthplace was a small hospital in Swindon.’  

 They go on to state that, back in 1871, staff from the GWR aided by a donation of £1k from Daniel Gooch, set up the GWR Medical Fund Hospital on Milton Rd in Swindon.

This is not entirely correct. For a start the Medical Fund Hospital was on Emlyn Square/Faringdon Rd – the building that is now Central Community Centre. And the first seeds were sown as early as 1845. The Milton Road facilities came much later – as you’ll see as you read on.

Healthcare History and Swindon - The Medical Fund society hospital - now central community centre
Sketch of Central Community Centre in the GWR Railway Village – the Medical Fund Hospital as was.
Sketch by Dona Bradley – Architectural Illustrator

1845 and the need for medical provision became paramount

I’ve written at length about this uber-important aspect of Swindon’s history in my first book, Secret Swindon. For obvious reasons I’m not sharing the whole thing!

But what follows are a few extracts to illustrate how Swindon and its Medical Fund Society became the crucible, the blueprint even, of the NHS.

‘Railway growth was now at its height. The uniform housing of the Railway Village was underway. But it couldn’t keep pace with the influx of workers arriving to the developing town.

With only basic sanitation, contagious diseases became rife. This then was no time to be poor. Not in an era with no NHS and in a town hit by TB. This medical help came from the Medical Fund Society set up by, and run with, extensive assistance from the Mechanics’ Institution. 

Now here’s another important thing to note: the GWR Medical Fund Society was neither GWR company initiative nor GWR company policy. The workforce started it, the workforce paid for it and the workforce ran it via elected officers. The GWR supported it of course. After all, why wouldn’t they? It cost them nothing and freed them of all responsibility for caring for their workforce.’

1847–1947: A Century of Medical Provision from the GWR Medical Fund Society

*It wouldn’t be true to say the Nye Bevan came to Swindon, saw the MFS and went: ‘Oh -that’s a good idea. I’d never have thought of that.’

For a start, his home town of Tredegar, in Wales, had a medical fund society. The Tredegar Medical Aid Society, though, was newer. It was founded in 1890 and wasn’t so extensive as Swindon’s model.

What made Swindon’s MFS so special was its length, its breadth and its scope. The Swindon model took a modern and holistic healthcare approach symbolised by the dispensary and baths at Milton Road. But that came later as we’ll see.

From cradle to grave

How familiar is that phrase now? It’s an expression indelibly associated with the NHS.  Yet Swindon can lay claim to offering that level of care decades before Britain got its NHS. 

The GWR Medical Fund Society gave an inclusive health service for 101 years before the NHS came into being.

There’s a thought to digest!

The Medical Fund Society gave healthcare ahead of its time. So much so that, when Nye Bevan visited Swindon to see the health provision the MFS provided, he famously commented:

There it was. A complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the whole country.’ 

Milton Road Baths - aka The Health Hydro
Milton Road Baths – aka The Health Hydro

The notion of the NHS

Even before WWII was won, the notion of a national health service had been mooted. In 1945, a parliamentary white paper had sketched out the plan. Yet, as Graham Carter wrote in the now-sadly-defunct Swindon Heritage magazine, records unearthed at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre reveal involvement by the committee of the GWR Medical Fund.

February 1946 saw the convening of an English and Welsh Medical Alliances conference with Swindon chosen to host in the building we now call the Health Hydro.

It appears that representatives from that famous medical journal The Lancet were in attendance, if the mention of the Swindon’s health service in the May 1946 edition is anything to go by. 

Outlining the town’s services and facilities, it focused on the dispensary and the baths, rather than the cottage hospital, because they better fitted new ideas about the importance of wellbeing and prevention.

In Swindon it found something special, something unique: 

‘it will be seen that the society provides for its members’ needs from cradle to grave’; in the words of a distinguished medical visitor, ‘The Medical Fund Society is the only current example in this country of an attempt to provide a comprehensive health service for its beneficiaries.’ 

A timeline of the Medical Fund Society

This is a whole section in Secret Swindon detailing the MFS timeline. For reasons of brevity – a few key points:

  • Autumn 1847: Gooch writes a beseeching letter to the directors of the GWR expressing the need for medical assistance. In December 1847 men of the GWR form a medical society.   In Secret Swindon there’s an image of an extract from that letter.
  • Late 1850s: The society first subscribed to hospitals in order to get letters allowing patients to be sent to them from Swindon. St George’s, St Mary’s and the Bath hospital were the first three. 
  • 1872: The hospital, now Central Community Centre, on Faringdon Road, opened. The medical staff increased to two surgeons, Messrs Swinhoe and Howse, and two assistants. 
  • The rules stated the hospital was for accidents only – not general diseases – and was to be free to all society members. Other servants of the GWR ‘shall be charged a fair and reasonable sum for their maintenance as may be decided by the committee’. 
  • 1892: A significant year:

    It saw the opening of new consulting room, waiting halls, and a dispensary, along with two new swimming baths – one small and one large.

    1899 saw the addition of new washing, Turkish and Russian baths.

    The Turkish baths are still going strong and are the oldest extant of their kind in the world. This building, the HQ of the GWR Medical Fund Society, is on Milton Road. It’s now mostly known as the Health Hydro, though interchangeably as The Baths, Milton Road Baths or the Old Health Centre. 

How it was paid for

Payment for this medical marvel came from subscription. 

Much as we now pay our National Insurance from our wages, these servants of the GWR Co. had their subscriptions to the MFS deducted at source. 

Swindon’s GWR Medical Fund Society then was a pioneering venture well ahead of its time. One that played a significant role on both local and national stages.

Thus, in the year that the NHS is 72 years old, Swindon’s precursor to it deserves as much celebration as is the NHS itself.

The Health Hydro plaque - one of the blue plaques in swindon
Milton Road Baths

Of related interest: