As I write, Gwent Archives’ Wellcome Trust project on hospital records, which I have been part of for the last six months, has just finished with a fascinating afternoon event on the 11th of April entitled ‘Public Health Care in Monmouthshire: A Historical Perspective’. This event brought together academics, members of the public and archivists from across the wider region with an interest in the history of public health in Monmouthshire and South Wales. The crossover between medical and social history seems to have become an ever more popular subject for both academic researchers and the general public, as there is growing awareness of the struggle it took to reach the universal standards of health care and sanitation we now almost take for granted. We were fortunate at Gwent Archives to receive funding from the Wellcome Trust to catalogue our significant health records in the NHS’s seventieth anniversary year.
After becoming Project Archivist at Gwent last November, I have really enjoyed getting to grips with health history, both in cataloguing hospital and health collections which will be used in academic research, and promoting our collections to the wider public in our blog at www.apennyinthepound.wordpress.com.
It was great to bring these two strands together at our event ‘Public Health Care in Monmouthshire: A Historical Perspective’ and to be able to hear from both academic speakers on the wider history of health provision in Monmouthshire and from members of the audience who told us how these official stories related to their own specific family and local histories.
After an introduction from our County Archivist, Tony Hopkins, we heard from three speakers, who each focused on a different aspect of health history. Professor Keir Waddington of Cardiff University talked to us about attempts to improve public sanitation in rural areas in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Monmouthshire. In his talk entitled ‘‘Kindly See to the Matter’: Local communities, sanitation and modernity in rural Monmouthshire, 1850-1914’, we heard how rural areas of South Wales were often falsely seen as ignorant places where the population were content to live in dirty conditions and an inferior state of health, whereas there were actually efforts for improvement being made under very difficult circumstances.
Dr Steve Thompson of Aberystwyth University gave us a fascinating talk on ‘‘The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’: The Medical Aid Societies of South Wales’. This is a particularly relevant subject as we hold the records of several medical aid societies here at Gwent Archives. Steve explained to us the ways in which these societies had a unique importance compared to other friendly societies as they aimed to provide universal healthcare for the whole population of an area, even, in some cases, going beyond NHS provisions.
Dr Peter Dickson of Swansea University, who is a retired G.P. now in academia, talked to us about Asian G.P.s in South Wales under the new NHS, asking ‘Was there a welcome in the hillside?’ Peter explained to us how working with Indian and South Asian doctors in West Yorkshire led him to research experiences of Asian G.Ps in the post-war years in South Wales. His project involves investigating experiences of social and professional isolation and community welcome in the Welsh valleys through interviews with retired doctors and their families.
Besides hearing from these varied speakers, the event was also a chance to publicise the results of our project and our newly-catalogued collections. During the coffee break, visitors were able to view an exhibition I curated featuring copies of health records from across the archives’ collections. The exhibition was organised around themes including medical aid societies, fundraising events and entertainment, maternity and children’s healthcare and the changing roles of hospitals in seventy years of the NHS.
I feel that working on this exhibition was a great opportunity to inform the audience about the work that is actually carried out in an archive and how we used the funding from Wellcome, as well as showing the wide range of health history documents and photographs available. Some of my favourite items from the exhibition include this photograph of a Fox-Trot dancing competition held by Royal Gwent Hospital in the 1920s (Gwent Archives Ref: D3345/14) and a brochure on being a new mother given to patients in Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in 1962 (Gwent Archives Ref: D6305), featuring the latest trends in maternity wear! It was also interesting to be able to tell the longer history of a hospital which reflects the history of the NHS, such as Llanfrechfa Grange in Cwmbran, using records from across the collections.
There was a lively exchange of questions from the audience after each talk including pertinent queries on connections to local history and the operation of medical aid societies, and also from the archivists and even between the academics! It was great to facilitate an opportunity for archivists and academics to talk about how working together can lead to greater benefits for both parties in terms of research scope and securing funding resources.
Now that we have completed the cataloguing work we set out to do, and held this outreach event, it will just be a few days until the project officially closes. We are grateful to the Wellcome Trust for this opportunity to significantly improve access to hospital and health records that might not have received a specific focus without this dedicated funding. The new catalogues will shortly be uploaded to our website.
However, work on medical collections at Gwent Archives will continue with new deposits occurring regularly and a full ‘Hospital Records Guide’ to be produced in the future. Right now, we look forward to welcoming new researchers to study the health collections which my colleagues Clare Jeremy, Sally Hopkins and I have been working to make accessible over the last year!
Dr. Lucy Smith