Thursday, September 8, 2011

Great Western Railway Medical Fund

In 1948 Aneurin Bevan, Labour's Minister of Health, rolled out the revolutionary National Health Service, a cradle to grave safety net of state health and welfare care. Something GWR employees at Swindon had enjoyed for over 100 years.

The World War II Coalition government had debated the whys and wherefores of creating a National Health Service but it was the radical Welsh MP Aneurin Bevan who masterminded the plan having been inspired, it has been said, by the GWR Medical Fund at Swindon.

He had urged members of Clement Attlee's post war Cabinet to visit the town and see just how an employee's contributory scheme could, and did work. "There it was," Bevan is reported as saying, "A complete health service, all we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country."

Daniel Gooch, Locomotive Superintendent at the railway works is acknowledged as being the initiator of the GWR Medical Fund. As men were dismissed or put on short time working when a depression hit the railway industry in 1847, Gooch approached the Directors of the GWR with a number of proposals. Included in his letter is a request made by the men "one of the plans is to arrange with Mr. Rae, (sic) Surgeon, to attend the whole for a small weekly payment by each man..."

His first suggestion was that company doctor Stuart Keith Rea be paid an annual salary of £30 with a rent-free company house A shop on the corner of London and High Street was converted into a surgery and dispensary. Dr. Rea also received a capitation fee of between 10-18s (50-90p) according to the number of patients, out of which he had to pay for all medicines, bandages, splints and leeches!

By December 1847 the GWR Medical Fund was up and running. Membership became a condition of employment and subscriptions were deducted from the men's wages, 4d per week for a married man earning more than £1 and l 1/2d for a boy earning less than 10s.

The implementation of the Public Health Act of 1848, prompted by an intolerably high rate of death and disease in rapidly expanding Victorian towns and cities, led to a damning 1850 Public Enquiry into conditions in Swindon. Although the inquiry concerned itself mainly with Old Swindon,conditions in the new settlement at the bottom of the hill were, if anything, worse.

With railway village residents receiving a water supply pumped from the Wilts and Berks Canal, also the repository for New Swindon's cesspools and ditches, it was no wonder the new churchyard at St. Mark's was rapidly filling up. Across the summer of 1851 there were 13 burials. Life expectancy had plunged from 36 to an even more shocking 29 years. Clearly the newly created Medical Fund Benefit Society had its work cut out.

The minutes of early Medical Fund committee meetings contain regular complaints against the GWR Company, the most pressing of which was the need to resolve the drainage and water supply problems in the railway village. The committee also wanted residents banned from keeping chickens, rabbits and pigs, all of which added to the general filth and health hazards.

GWR company houses were regularly inspected with the medical fund providing free carbolic acid and lime wash in the battle against dirt and disease. In the 1850s a Keeper of Lime Brushes and Invalid chair was appointed with a salary of £1.5s.

Desperately needed washing facilities were created with eight baths in the Mechanics Institution, later moved to a yard at the back of the Barracks. When this building was converted into a Wesleyan Chapel in 1868 the Fund built 32 new baths on a piece of land between Taunton Street and Faringdon Road.

In 1871 the fund established an accident hospital, subscribing initially to St. George's and St. Mary's in London and Bath General Hospital where their members could receive further treatment if necessary.

In 1887 the Medical Fund employed a dentist. Records show that in his first year the zealous dental surgeon performed over 2,000 tooth extractions.  That same year the fund appointed an undertaker. Members had free use of the horse and shiliber (funeral carriage) but if the funeral was for a dependent a charge was made for the use of the horse.

Artificial limbs were produced at the works for patients across the GWR system and returned for repair or alteration. A notebook dated 1893-1896 held at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham includes detailed diagrams with measurements, materials and cost.

Friendly and Benefit societies already existed in many industrial towns, including the 'GWR Locomotive and Carriage Department Sick Fund Society’ established in Swindon a decade earlier, however, the GWR Medical Fund was unique in the wealth of services it provided.

Although such comprehensive health care provision would have been difficult to achieve without the support and involvement of the GWR company it was the ordinary railway men who ran the complex system.

With the position of president held by the Works Manager, it was work colleagues and members of the Society, who elected the rest of the nine-man committee. Results of the 1911 election reveal the committee members worked in the Loco Department, A Shop, the Carriage Department, the Wagon Department and the Traffic Department.

In 1948, at the time of its absorption into the newly created National Health Service, the GWR Medical Fund was providing health care for over 40,000 Swindon residents.

1847 smallpox epidemic - launch of the GWR Medical Fund Benefit Society was announced during the same year.

1848 Public Health Act

1850 Public Inquiry - Inspector George T. Clark declares Swindon to be 'particularly unhealthy.' 1853 typhus outbreak

1864 Old and New Swindon Local Boards of Health elected

1865 Letter to the Swindon Advertiser stated 'small pox and fever were raging in the town.'

1868 baths build on land between Taunton Street and Faringdon road

1871 Accident hospital opens in the converted armoury on Faringdon Road

1887 Dental Surgery opens

1892 Milton Road Baths open on corner plot of Milton and Faringdon Road

1927 Accident Hospital enlarged

1930 Ophthalmic department opened

1939-45 Chiropody and psychiatric clinics introduced

Photographs - Top Aneurin Bevan, Daniel Gooch, 1907 Management Committee and 1947 Officers of the Society.  Visit Swindon Local Studies Collection on

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1 comment:

  1. An interesting read. My grandfather was born in Milton Road Maternity Home, would this have also been in the Milton Road Baths, or was this a separate hospital in the same street? I am looking to add google maps links to all the specific places in my genealogy blog and am trying to decide the location to link to for his birth.