The Birth of the NHS

A new book offers a powerful family perspective on the revolutionary introduction of a national health service. Reviewed by Amanda Kendal.

“Hold on Edna!” cried the medical team as Edna Rees was about to give birth to her seventh child, late on 4 July 1948. If only she could “hold on” for just a few minutes more, then the child would be born on 5 July – the day that the National Health Service was to come into being.

Edna and her husband Willie wouldn’t have to pay for a midwife, as they had with their previous children. If mother or child was ill, they wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of calling a doctor – let alone the price of medicine.

It was the beginning of a new era in Britain, And by successfully “holding on” as requested, Edna gave birth to the first baby born in the NHS.

And now Aneira Thomas – named by Edna and Willie after NHS architect and Welsh compatriot Nye Bevan – has told the story of her family, in a fascinating book.

That story begins in 1835, in Wells, Somerset, with Torian Churchouse, Aneira’s great, great grandmother on her mother’s side.

Her father, a farmer, had died shortly after her birth, leaving his destitute family to face the grim reality of the workhouse. Tory, as she was known, grew up inside its walls, only leaving as a 19-year-old to marry Huw Hodges, a horse dealer for whom it was love at first sight when he spotted her serving on a workhouse stall at the city’s summer fair.

After Tory’s death, four of her sons set off to walk to Wales to find work. There, Robert married Jemima. Later, their son Thomas married Esther Edmunds, with the eponymous Edna being one of their offspring.

But if the family saga is interesting in its own right – and it is – what gives this book a particular edge is the social history and in particular, the constant theme of the impact of health care – or a lack of it – for women giving birth, for men injured in the mines, for children taken ill suddenly.

Health was a lottery if you were not well off enough not to fear the financial implications of calling a doctor.

The book also casts an eye over levels of ignorance about sex and reproduction, not least through the eyes of Willie’s grandmother, Hannah, who was a midwife in a mining community, just one of many characters to spring to life from the pages.

Aneira herself went on to become a nurse in the NHS and, among the book’s lengthy acknowledgements, is UNISON, for its “tireless support for the NHS workforce.”

If the bright tone of the telling sometimes belies the seriousness of the subject matter, Aneira Thomas’s book is a powerful reminder of the revolutionary nature of our NHS, even as, today, it is at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus in the UK.

  • Hold on Edna! is available from Mirror Books priced £12:99 for the hardback. It is also available as an ebook.

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