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NHS at 70: A look back to 1948-58 when Addenbrooke’s became part of NHS

By David Cook

Victoria Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH
Victoria Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH

To mark the NHS’s birthday, we’re looking at how Cambridge University Hospitals – incorporating Addenbrooke’s and The Rosie – developed over the decades.

Storytime on the wards in the 1950s. Picture: CUH
Storytime on the wards in the 1950s. Picture: CUH

The first decade, 1948-57, was one of contrasts, featuring everything from rapid expansion plans to a much-loved children’s ward tortoise, called Archibald.

Addenbrooke’s, which opened on Trumpington Street in Cambridge in 1766, was designated an NHS hospital under the NHS Act of 1946.

It was designated a teaching hospital for medical students and was managed by a new board of governors. This made it different to non-teaching hospitals, which were administered by management committees responsible to the minister of health.

Addenbrooke’s gave its board the rather grand name of the board of governors of the United Cambridge Hospitals.

Goode Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH
Goode Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH

It reflected its responsibility for not only Addenbrooke’s, but also the maternity and Brookfields hospitals in Mill Road, Chesterton Hospital in Union Street and The Home of Recovery in Hunstanton. Together they had around 750 beds and saw 6,617 inpatients and 65,672 outpatients in their first year.

Even back then the issue of funding was on the agenda. The last Addenbrooke’s Hospital annual report before the creation of the NHS, dated December 31, 1947, noted: “Although the government will be responsible for the general maintenance of the hospital, it is certain that funds will be needed for many progressive activities which are unlikely to be regarded at first as the direct responsibility of the state.”

The chairman of the new board was Master of Sidney College, Mr T Knox-Shaw. He and his colleagues agreed they should press ahead with plans to house the whole of the teaching hospital on one site. Their first annual report said: “Negotiations for the acquisition of a suitable site are still in progress. It is the board’s desire that these negotiations should be brought to a satisfactory conclusion at the earliest date in order that they may be in a position to plan for the present and future hospital needs in the area.”

In the early 1950s approval was given to purchase 44 acres of land with frontage to Hills Road and access to Long Road with an option to purchase more.

Children on the ward gather around the TV in the 1950s. Picture: CUH
Children on the ward gather around the TV in the 1950s. Picture: CUH

In the meantime work at the ‘old’ Addenbrooke’s site carried on – with the archives giving a unique, and sometimes amusing, insight into daily life.

At that time children weren’t allowed sibling visitors but nursing staff had, as they still do, a few tricks up their sleeves to cheer up young patients. Archibald the tortoise comforted many a fretful child when his hatbox home was placed by their beds as a special treat.

As you can see from our 1950s pictures, story time, games and even television were as popular with children as they are today – albeit the technology has moved on quite a lot!

On Albert ward, an undergraduate patient left a note in his empty urinal that read ‘six pints Friday please’ – a surprise for the nurse tasked with collecting the bottles that day. Another came when it transpired that a patient admitted with abdominal pains was actually a prisoner on the run. After a good night’s sleep he got up, dressed and left.

The Old Addenbrookes site from around 1945. Picture: CUH
The Old Addenbrookes site from around 1945. Picture: CUH

Christmas was a special time at the hospital. “One of the highlights was to don our cloaks inside out and go around the wards singing carols and carrying torches. The patients were amazed and loved it and we did too,” said Maureen Dobbs, a nurse who worked in the hospital from 1952 to 1955, in a booklet called Addenbrooke’s Anecdotes by Gill Winser, which records the memories of nurses.

As the pictures show, the wards were immaculately presented with neat hospital corners on the beds, crisp sheets, polished floors and fresh flowers. The nurses looked smart in their pressed uniforms and aprons.

Jenny Lannon, who worked there from 1951-54, recalled: “Arthur the cleaner had a red wig which dropped into his bucket of water when he stood to attention one day as Matron Ottley came by with important visitors!”

It was a decade that also saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the end of butter, cheese and finally meat rationing in 1954, and a visit to Cambridge in 1955 by Her Majesty the Queen, who waved to patients as she passed by.

Griffith Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH
Griffith Ward in the 1950s. Picture: CUH

“The Queen had a wave and a lovely smile for the patients and staff grouped on the pavement and ward window,” read a report by the Addenbrooke’s League of Friends.

:: Look out for future pieces exploring each decade.

Read more

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