NHS 70: ‘Pioneer’ George Lansbury didn’t live to see his dream, but his descendant ‘volunteers’
- Credit: TH Archive
A leading campaigner for a state health service was the radical Mayor of Poplar who in 1921 would rather go to prison in Great Rent Strike than have the polltax of his day forced on the East London’s poor.
George Lansbury, who went on to become an MP at Westminster and a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 Labour government, used his political career to push for health and other social reforms.
But he didn’t live to see his dream of free medical care for all. George Lansbury died in 1940—some say from a broken heart, a year into the Second World War that he tried to avert as a leading international pacifist in the 1930s.
Yet he is still very much connected to the NHS today through a direct descendant.
His great-great granddaughter Nancy Lansbury-Whiskin, born 21 years later, is the fulltime coordinator running Barts NHS Health Trust’s volunteers at the Royal London, Newham, Mile End, Whipps Cross and St Bartholemew’s hospitals.
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“Poor people didn’t have access to health care when George was mayor,” Nancy explains. “He saw the poverty at first hand in the East End which tormented him right through his political career. It wasn’t about being a politician, but doing the right thing.
“George Lansbury was forward-thinking who set up the first free ante-natal clinic in Whitechapel—but sadly he didn’t live to see the birth of the NHS which the family has always regretted because the health service was his vision.”
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The years following the First World War when George was Mayor of Poplar before going to Westminster left many hospitals in debt and fees for patients were brought in with means testing.
A physician at The London, Lord Dawson, advised the government to set up primary health centres. Poor law infirmaries such as Mile End and Bethnal Green were converted to municipal hospitals by the London County Council in 1930, run by their own boards of governors.
The new National Health Service took over in 1948 with the state taking control of health care under the National Health Act, but with the local boards continuing to run the hospitals for the next 28 years.
NHS reorganisation was centralised in 1974, however, when health districts and regions took control.
But this proved too bureaucratic, with its ‘top heavy’ management and not enough priority on patient care.
Eventually, the health service reverted to local running with the creation of NHS trusts in the 1990s like Barts.
Today, Nancy Lansbury-Whiskin continues the Lansbury family tradition of social action, co-ordinating her legions of Bart’s NHS volunteers at five hospitals across east London.
“Volunteers make us all better as a society,” she tells you. “I’m always looking for recruits.
“The Royal London tends to attract students, while Mile End and Newham have a mix of students and older volunteers, Whipps Cross has retired people and St Bartholemew’s often has former patients returning to help out.”
Volunteers work in three-hour shifts, some acting as ‘meet and greet’ when new patients arrive who face the trauma of entering a hospital. They also keep patients company in the wards with activities.
“They do it to give back something to the NHS,” Nancy adds. “That’s what we need to keep the NHS going for the next 70 years.”
Volunteers can join Nancy’s Barts NHS volunteers online.