Radium, recruitment and emergency beds: the work of the Fund in World War II

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Part of 120 years of The King's Fund

The King’s Fund celebrated its 120th anniversary over the course of 2017. In the fifth of a series of blogs looking back at our history, Nikki Smiton looks at the work of the Fund in the years leading up to and during World War II.

Before the creation of the NHS in 1948, the work of the Fund was primarily focused on raising money and public support for voluntary hospitals, which cared for the poor. One of the Fund’s achievements in the years between the wars was the creation of Hospitals Flag Day in 1937. Flag days – when hospitals sold small flags for people to wear to show their support for a good cause – were a popular way of raising funds. Initially each hospital ran its own flag day, but the Fund encouraged hospitals to co-operate with a combined scheme, which was a great success. The first flag day in 1937 raised more than £32,000 (over £2 million in today’s terms) and this increased to more than £78,000 (over £3.6 million today) in 1941 (p 89).

Hospitals Day

During this period, the Fund also worked to support services provided by voluntary hospitals. In 1937, the Fund set up its Radium Committee; voluntary hospitals frequently appealed for radium (used in research and the treatment of cancer) and the Fund had been involved with the supply of radium to London hospitals for some years. A donation of £50,000 from Sir Otto Beit – a German-born British financier and philanthropist ­– meant the Fund could set up a radium ‘pool’ from which hospitals could borrow. The Fund even had a specially designed lead-lined car with a safe for transporting radium (p 56). The work of this Committee became more challenging during the war because it needed to ensure that the radium could be contained safely amid air raids and bomb damage.

Before the war, the Voluntary Hospitals Committee asked the Fund to create a centralised scheme – known as the Voluntary Hospital Emergency Bed Service – under which people with urgent medical needs could be rapidly admitted to a voluntary hospital. After the Munich Agreement of September 1938, the Ministry of Health asked the Emergency Bed Service to keep records of available beds and civilian casualty lists should war break out.

On 3 September 1939 war was declared and, initially, the Emergency Bed Service struggled to cope with the challenges that war brought: a 1942 publication describes how ‘during the first fortnight of war it was impossible to operate the Service in the absence of the trained staff on their war-time duties’. Things quickly improved, however: ‘…on September 16th of that fateful year a new staff was assembled at the offices of the Fund and an attempt made to resume routine duties’ (p 88). Throughout the war, the Emergency Bed Service worked alongside the Emergency Medical Service to co-ordinate emergency admissions with both municipal and voluntary hospitals, despite the difficulties that air raids and interruptions in telephone services represented.

Before the start of war, nursing recruitment was high on the Fund’s agenda (p 90), so it set up a Nursing Recruitment Committee and in 1940 opened a Nursing Recruitment Centre in Cavendish Square, London. The 1941 annual report details how the Centre helped more than 4,500 individuals who asked for information on a career in nursing (p 16).

The Fund did not produce many reports during war time but afterwards began again to publish reports that reflected areas of concern at the time. In 1945, the Fund wrote about standards of nursing staff, the employment of domestic staff in hospitals and post-war hospital problems. In the years following the war, the Fund also produced many reports looking at the issue of food in hospitals. Given that rationing did not end until 1954, there was much talk of how to make the most of food available. A popular publication produced in 1943 on hospital diets was followed in 1945 by guidance on menu planning for hospitals (p 8).

1942 saw the publication of the Beveridge report, which led to the creation of the welfare state as we know it, including the establishment of a National Health Service. In the next blog in this series, we will look at how the creation of the NHS changed the work of the Fund.


Chrissie Ives

Comment date
09 June 2017
A.G.L. Ives who became Secretary to the King's Fund in 1938, was my paternal grandfather. He was very much at the heart of Fund's work during World War II and Post-war.

Reading about the role of the Emergency Bed Service, it is just incredible to think about the challenges that everyone faced during such demanding and uncertain times !!

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