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18 June 2014
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A model for the NHS?

Birthplace of the NHS?

A dispensary was opened by the GWR in 1892
© STEAM - Museum of the GWR, Swindon
The concept of Swindon as the birthplace of the NHS is no longer new or original; indeed even those involved with the GWR Medical Fund Society anticipated that it was a role model for a future which would see health care provided by the state. The fund society’s 1917 Annual Medical Report said: “State Medical Service will undoubtedly be an ideal for the future but our present Society, properly organised and worked, could be made a model in miniature for a state organisation.”

In many respects the society did provide a working role model for the NHS. Its formation certainly showed remarkable foresight and a philosophy that was ahead of its time. In the 1840s, the same decade when working-class politics in the form of Chartism was at its most crude, an ideology of collective social responsibility found a practical outlet in the form of the fund.

Turkish baths
Turkish baths were part of the service provided by the Fund
© STEAM - Museum of the GWR, Swindon
However, as shown by its development, the GWR Medical Fund Society went far beyond the remit of the NHS. With the creation of leisure services such as the swimming pools, funeral services and even hairdressers, the fund grew to resemble a co-operative society rather than solely a health service. The other most poignant difference was the simplicity and lack of administrative tier in the NHS’s predecessor.

At the peak of its membership with 14,000, the medical fund was managed by nine railway workers who worked full-time and saw to the society in their spare time. This bureaucratic frugality contrasts rather sharply with the oft-quoted but never qualified statement that the modern-day NHS has more managers than beds. Perhaps the GWR Medical Fund Society represents the ideal of state-provided health care?


With many thanks to STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon.

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