There might not be an NHS if it wasn’t for these women

If you were ill what would happen? Perhaps your parent would take your temperature and give you some medicine. If you didn’t improve they would take you to the doctor. They might give you some stronger medicine, and in a few days you would probably be better.

If you fell off the climbing frame in the park and broke your arm, they would take you to the hospital. The doctors might x-Ray your arm and put it in cast. In a few weeks you would be better.

All this care would come no cost because we have the NHS — the National Heath Service — which provides free health care for all.

It didn’t used to be like this though. In fact, the NHS hasn’t existed that long at all. When your great grandparents were children, if you got sick there weren’t many medicines available. If you wanted to see a doctor, you would have to pay for it. If you didn’t have any money, you had to get by with a sip of brandy, a cold flannel and a good deal of luck.

There were a lot more diseases you could catch back then too; things like small pox and polio, which killed huge numbers of children every year. Thanks to free vaccinations through the NHS, these deadly diseases have been wiped out and children are safer.

Creating the NHS made a huge difference to everyone’s health, but it didn’t happen overnight. There were many women in East London pushing for change for years before it formed. Much of the health care we enjoy today is because of them.

One of those women is Minnie Lansbury, who lived in a poor part of East London. She saw how bad the children’s health was, so organised free hot meals, set up a dental clinic and started a vaccination programme. As a result, deaths from disease fell to the lowest levels ever.

Another woman who helped to shape the NHS was Alice Model. She dedicated herself to helping sick, poor and housebound women. This included organising nurses to visit mothers and babies in their homes. Her organisation was the first of its kind in Britain, and shaped support we have for mums and dads on the NHS today.

Alice also set up a nursery, providing children with regular meals, a place to wash and daily visits from doctors. The nursery stopped viruses spreading, and the children’s health vastly improved.

In 1948, the NHS was finally set up, but there weren’t enough people to run it. So they put a call out around the world, inviting people to work and live here. One of the most famous ships that brought people to Britain was called the Windrush, which travelled from the Caribbean. Many came in search of new opportunities, including to train and work as nurses. One such woman was Bernice Burton who came from the island of Dominica. The Caribbean is a very warm and sunny place, and Bernice arrived here in February — she had never experienced such cold! Despite this, she stayed, and continued working for the NHS for 40 years. She was such a good nurse she was given a special award by the Queen, called an MBE.

Despite how much the NHS has helped us, it is under threat. It costs the government a lot of money to run, and politicians argue about how it should be paid for. Already many services have shut down, and parts of the NHS are being handed over to private companies, who often don’t do a good job of running them. Although the NHS has saved countless lives, if we don’t fight for it we might lose it.

Thankfully we have people like Shirley Murgraff, who despite being 90 years old, is fighting to save our NHS. She remembers the time before it existed, when people died of treatable illnesses. She calls the NHS the “jewel in our crown” and gets angry at the way it is being slowly destroyed.

On one protest, Shirley padlocked herself to a road outside the Houses of Parliament, to deliberately disrupt traffic. She wanted to make sure people heard her message: the NHS is not for sale. After refusing to move, police officers had to cut her out, and carried her onto the footpath by her arms and legs.

Shirley has been in hospital 24 times with serious illnesses, and claims she would not be here if it wasn’t for the NHS. She believes the service is in real danger of disappearing completely.

Now you have learnt a little more about the NHS, why not have a go at some activities to explore a bit more. Maybe you would like to try making some natural medicines, or setting up your own hospital. There are lots more ideas in your activity pack. If you don’t have one yet, you can download it online at eastlondonwomen.org.uk/learning/primary/ .

East London women-led digital non-profit, using tech to share stories from the past, and sharing skills to prepare young people for the future.