Nurse reveals dark times before the NHS was founded

Ethel Armstrong remembers the days before the NHS, when families would have to choose between feeding their children or paying for them to see the doctor.

They were dark times the 88-year-old hopes we never return to.

“If you had a really serious cut, you had to work out if you had enough money in your pocket to go to a doctor,” she says.

“There were no freebies. The public had to be very responsible for their own health.

“Sometimes, if the doctor knew that a family was struggling to pay him, he’d
leave the money they gave him on the sideboard on his way out. But not everyone was that lucky.

“That was the reality and we can’t go back to that. We take so much for granted now, I will stand on my head to preserve what we have today.”

Ethel was a nurse cadet from the birth of the NHS on July 5, 1948, and is still involved today.

As the NHS turns 70, to say it has changed lives would be the understatement of the century.

Ethel says: “If a baby was born on July 4, 1948, the mother would have had to pay a shilling and sixpence. If that child had been born the following day, that would have been free.”

Ethel worked for the NHS for 42 years, mainly in radiography and nursing, and after retiring she joined two charities aiding NHS staff.

Now, she is a governor on the board of County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust.

We meet at the University Hospital of North Durham, where Ethel is stopped and greeted by many who recognise her.

She makes sure to say hello to every NHS worker, even if she has never met them before.

She always knew she wanted a career in medicine or dentistry but would never have been able to afford to go to university.

Instead, she took an office job at a Newcastle hospital.

Ethel says: “I wouldn’t even dream of asking my parents to fund university. I had a wonderful headmaster who helped get me a job at the largest psychiatric hospital in Newcastle, doing admin.

“I did 10 months then got a message from him asking if he could put me forward for an interview for a new scheme. It was called the National Health Service and I said, ‘I’m in’.”

She began her training in radiography and ­recalls how important personal appearance was back then. “I loved it from day one,” she says.

“Dress code was very important. Everyone was inspected every morning to make sure their uniform, the white overall, was clean and pressed. The first thing they looked at was your shiny shoes. To this day, I always make sure my shoes are shining. The protocol was so strict you never spoke to a consultant unless he spoke to you.”

Ethel began as a junior radiographer on £17 a month and it became her passion. “The NHS runs through me like letters in a stick of Blackpool rock,” she says.

She worked for the service all over the country because of her husband Harry’s job as a director for aircraft manufacturer Hawker Siddeley.

“It was no problem for me. I had a testimonial which allowed me to work anywhere in the country within the NHS,” she says.

Ethel has always ­genuinely cared for her patients and says once that stops, there is no point being in the profession. She still thinks about her patients, particularly one she treated in 1952 with cancer in his leg.

She says: “The very first sarcoma I saw was on a 17-year-old boy. It was a bone tumour. He had been kicked ­somewhere on the leg and all he wanted was to play football.

“That is what he wanted to spend his life doing but he never did. He first lost his leg because we had to amputate and then his life. Nowadays something like that would’ve been picked up quicker, he might have had much more time.

“Bone sarcomas are difficult but with good chemotherapy and radiotherapy he could have been around longer.”

Don’t miss our TV health awards gala

Ethel will join royalty and some of Britain’s biggest stars as a guest of The NHS Heroes Awards, brought to you by ITV and the Daily Mirror.

The awards will honour the dedication of NHS staff, volunteers and supporters – from lifesaving doctors and nurses to tireless porters and support staff.

The landmark event to celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS will be hosted by Paul O’Grady and screened on Monday, May 21, at 8.30pm.

Guests include Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and a host of famous faces from film, TV, sport and music.

In 1978, Ethel helped launch one of the first breast cancer screening mobile buses in Liverpool.

While it might not look like much, the unit Ethel refers to as “the old crate” ­transformed screening for the disease.

“I knew from being a radiographer if we’d had certain women earlier, we would have picked up early breast cancers.

“Then we got dedicated breast cancer units and I am very proud of that. We ­trundled that old crate around Liverpool. It was an old chest X-ray unit that was redundant and we kitted it out with a mammography unit, examination table and an interview table.”

The team took the buses to large ­businesses and offered the screening service to working women, and it soon caught on. It took time for the NHS to fund the units but after much ­persistence from Ethel and colleagues, they agreed.

She has seen many other changes but one constant has been cash shortages.

“The biggest challenges were always thinking, ‘How can we do this without spending lots of money?’. You had to be very aware and had to work within
your budget.”

But despite these challenges, Ethel has seen the health service grow and thrive. “Now there are babies the size of a bag of sugar in special care units who will survive. But they wouldn’t have survived before 1948, because a delivery cost one and sixpence. That sum would also have bought bread and margarine for that family, many of whom had up to 10 or 11 children because of the post-war baby boom. So many took their chances giving birth at home.”

And while the technology has ­advanced dramatically, Ethel says the most important thing is loving the job and the NHS – something she witnessed with the palliative care team who looked after Harry before he died of bowel cancer 20 years ago.

Ethel says handing her beloved husband over to the hospice was the hardest thing she has ever done.

“We were like chalk and cheese but he was my rock and I was his. The week before he died, I said to him, ‘Oh Harry, you’ve lost your sparkle today’. And he said to me, ‘You’ve always been my sparkle’. If you get that once in a lifetime, your life has been worth living.

“Handing him over to Macmillan was the hardest thing I had to do, handing him over to people I didn’t know. But the hospice were incredible.

“The girls there cared for him like he was their dad. Nothing was a trouble. And that is what it’s all about.”

After retiring in 1990, Ethel joined the NHS Retirement Fellowship, which helps retired caring professionals meet and socialise with others – and she is involved with the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, supporting those still working as nurses or midwives.

Ethel was also honoured with an MBE in March for her services to the NHS, which was presented by Prince Charles.

  • Find out more about the NHS R­etirement Fellowship at or by calling 0130 536 1317.

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