After graduating with a PhD in English from the University of Portsmouth in 2018, I decided to return to the practical side of research and my experience as an archivist, and started working at Gwent Archives on a project cataloguing health and hospital records.
Gwent Archives is a County Record Office located in Ebbw Vale, based in the renovated Steelworks headquarters building. My project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and comes in the wake of the NHS seventieth anniversary which had particular significance for Monmouthshire, as it was the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS.
I joined the project in November, working alongside Clare Jeremy, the previous Project Archivist, and Sally Hopkins who worked as Preservation Assistant for the project. The collections that I worked with at Gwent are somewhat of a departure from the Victorian photograph albums that were the subject of my PhD, but I have enjoyed the challenge of working in a new subject field. I had three major collections to catalogue including a collection of hospital registers dating back to 1903 which contained records of Second World War military hospitals, a large collection of architectural plans showing how the NHS modernised in the post-war period, and a collection of midwifery records which demonstrates how conditions for women’s health changed dramatically in the mid twentieth century. More information can be found on our project blog: apennyinthepound.wordpress.com.
On Thursday 11th April, we held an event at the Archives to mark the conclusion of the project which featured three speakers who are specialists in the field of health history: Professor Keir Waddington of Cardiff University spoke about poor standards of sanitation in rural Wales in the nineteenth-century, Dr. Steve Thompson of Aberystwyth University spoke about the unique importance of South Wales’ Medical Aid Societies before the NHS and Dr. Peter Dickson, a former G.P., spoke to us about the social and professional difficulties faced by South Asian doctors in Wales in the post-war period.
I was able to produce an exhibition to accompany the event, telling the story of health in Monmouthshire through records from throughout Gwent Archives’ collections. Some of my favourite items from the exhibition include this poster for Subscribers to Tredegar Park Cottage Hospital, which was built and funded by the Tredegar Medical Aid Society from a ‘penny in the pound’ of workers’ wages, and this page featuring ‘Dandie the Hospital Mascot’ appealing for donations to Victoria Cottage Hospital in Abergavenny. These records show how vital subscriptions and public fundraising for healthcare was in pre-NHS days, even at the level of saving silver paper wrappings to send to Matron!
After planning the event for some months, it was great to see lively discussion and engagement between our speakers and members of the public. The afternoon also turned out to be a great opportunity for academics and archivists to meet, share common interests and discuss future ideas for research.
The new catalogues will go online at Gwent Archives’ website in the next month, so researchers will be able to study the health collections I and my colleagues have working to make accessible over the last year. It’s really satisfying to be able to work at the foundations of research in this way, knowing that the work you have done has such lasting utility for the future.