These two magic lantern slides of hospital wards date from the 1890s. One is a children’s ward, the other seems to be a mix of adults and children. I’m used to seeing Victorian photographs of street urchins and kids dying of starvation in filthy attics, so these slides (one of which is beautifully hand tinted) showing children being well cared for, in clean and tidy wards, by clean and tidy nurses, make a pleasant change. At a time when there was no free healthcare provision, what are these photos really showing?
My knowledge of medical care in the late Victorian period is sketchy but I’m aware that various social reform movements were, by that time, well established, including enlightened employers who realised that providing better housing, education and leisure pursuits for their employees led to a more productive workforce; uniformed youth organisations, such as the Boys Brigade, which aimed to look after boys’ moral welfare through Christian and quasi-military teaching and temperance organisations which, in addition to encouraging adults to be tee-total, also provided a raft of social activities for hundreds of thousands of children. In addition, legislation was addressing working hours and sanitary and housing conditions. All of these were recognition that, in the richest country in world, with a mighty empire, the lot of the ordinary man, woman and child needed to improve.
Free healthcare arrived fifty years after these photos were taken, in 1948, with the formation of the NHS. So, are these private wards in private hospitals or private hospitals with wards paid for by charities or charitable hospitals funded wholly by donations?
From the 1860s onwards, charitable hospitals did indeed exist, some specialising in particular medical conditions, others offering more general care and even treating accident victims. Many of the doctors weren’t paid for their time at these hospital and earned their living from private practice. So, free medical care was available long before 1948 and these slides probably show wards in charity-funded hospitals.
We don’t know why or where these photos were taken. The pristine conditions shown might have reflected day-to-day reality or perhaps the presence of the photographer justified a bit of a tidy-up before-hand!