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A brief history of the NHS

In the summer of 1948 a leaflet was sent to every house in England about the NHS, stating: “It will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”

This month the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday – seven decades of inspirational work, of selfless care and life-extending treatments. In celebration and by way of thanks, the Local Buyers Club is offering 70% off membership to all NHS workers this year. (Click here if you work for the NHS)

And we’ve taken a moment to share some highlights in the NHS’ history.

Until 1948 patients generally had to pay for health care – those who worked contributed to National Insurance to help fund their own medical treatment. This usually meant women and children weren’t covered. In the 1930s thousands of children died each year of infectious diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio. Around one in 20 babies died before their first birthday.

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Some local authorities, such as the London County Council, did provide free healthcare from 1930 and England was home to some voluntary hospitals (charitable hospitals which took care of the sick) but generally there was a huge class divide when it came to access to healthcare.

The idea of a national health service was raised in 1938 and, though the Second World War effectively stalled its creation, anyone injured by enemy fire during the war years received free care at any hospital.

The foundations for the NHS were laid with the passing of the National Health Service Act in July 1946 when Aneurin Bevan was Minister for Health. It was a plan for health services in England and Wales to be paid for by taxes but free to all (even to those visiting the country) and it encompassed hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists.

The NHS was born on July 5th, 1948 – just three years after the Labour government came to power. Care was provided by the same doctors and nurses who had previously provided it.

Bevan, a Welsh Labour Party politician, was the son of a coal miner. He was a lifelong champion of social justice and he spearheaded the NHS. He wrote: “Society becomes more wholesome, more serene, and spiritually healthier, if it knows that its citizens have at the back of their consciousness the knowledge that not only themselves, but all their fellows, have access, when ill, to the best that medical skill can provide.”

Initially many doctors were opposed to Bevan’s plan. The British Medical Association voted in May 1948 not to join the new service, but Bevan worked hard to win them round – offering a lucrative payment structure for consultants.

The NHS has often struggled to keep pace with demand and spiralling costs. As illnesses were cured and vaccinations were introduced, so technology evolved, and people began to live longer. Average life expectancies are now 13 years longer than when the NHS was created. In 1952 prescription charges of a shilling were introduced in England (equivalent to 5p) and they’ve been creeping up steadily since.

Staffing too has been a major challenge. In the 1950s the NHS began recruiting staff from British colonies – by 1965 the UK was home to more than 3,000 Jamaican nurses and substantial numbers have come from the Philippines and South Asia. Doctors were also recruited from overseas – particularly from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the 70s almost a third of doctors were born and qualified overseas.

By the end of the 1970s the NHS had over a million staff – in 2015 it was the world’s biggest employer with 1.7 million.

Did you know?

  • Prescriptions are always free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • Until daily hospital visits were introduced in 1954, children in hospital were only allowed to see their parents for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays and they were frequently placed in adult wards.

  • The UK’s first kidney transplant took place in October 1960 at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – it involved identical 49-year-old twins.

  • The world’s first baby born as a result of IVF arrived in July 1978. Over a million children worldwide have now been conceived in this way.

  • MRI scans (providing detailed pictures of soft tissue such as the brain) were introduced in the 1980s.

  • The NHS Organ Donor Register was launched in October 1994

  • NHS Direct launched in 1998 and offered an alternative to traditional GP services – including walk-in centres, e-health services and a phoneline.

  • In December 2012, a surgical team at Leeds General Infirmary carried out the UK's first hand-transplant operation.

  • The NHS 111 telephone service was launched in February 2014 to make it easier for people to access urgent healthcare.

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