2017 Conference blogs – ‘Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History’

George Campbell Gosling, University of Wolverhampton

Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History

I didn’t set out to research the history of retail. I was intending to work on the history of the NHS.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of Britain’s National Health Service in 2018, I was hired to work on one of several major research projects looking at its history from new perspectives. One aspect I’ve been looking into is the role of hospital charity, investigating the different meanings of donating money to a tax-funded, universal and comprehensive service providing medical care free at the point of delivery.

There’s a slightly odd idea that the arrival of the NHS ended hospital charity. Certainly, critique and cynicism of the social act of handing over money was a defining feature of the politics that founded the British health service in 1948. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan was adamant that patients should not at any point be asked for money, which amounted to a ban on hospital fundraising – hitherto a vibrant field of community activity – to ensure medical care was understood to be a universal right of citizenship. This meant no more promoting pseudo-insurance hospital contributory schemes, no more calls for donations in the local newspaper, no more flag days, fetes or bazaars, and collecting boxes brought in from waiting rooms, railway stations and public houses up and down the country. Yet at the same time, he wanted to see the voluntarist tradition maintained in the form of linen guilds, libraries and canteens. Once the dust had settled on the new service, however, leagues of hospital friends sprung up to restore much of the earlier volunteering and fundraising activity, even if without the same sense of urgency.

George 1

Pre-NHS hospital flag pins as sold by fundraisers

Although the Leagues of Friends were new, they were engaged in many of the same fundraising activities as had been seen before the NHS. Historians Barry Doyle and Nick Hayes have drawn our attention to the emergence of a new type of community fundraising that came to the fore in the hospital charity of the 1930s.[1]

We see this echoed in the sewing parties and local flag days that carried on, with the Nottingham hospital flag day continuing until 1988. Though we also see an evolution, as some forms of fundraising activity gave way to others – for example, with fetes and whist drives giving way to bring-and-buy sales and the League of Friends’ hospital shop.

Under the NHS, therefore, there was a place for retail within these changing practices of hospital charity. Gambling and the sale of tokens associated with the hospital had been common before the NHS and they did not entirely disappear, but they were now accompanied with more recognisable consumer models of retail operating on a not-for-profit fundraising basis.

One model was the sale of goods produced by volunteers. This was not new, but took on a greater retail focus after the introduction of central ordering in the 1970s. Before this the Nottingham General Hospital, for example, had large quantities of bed linen, surgeon’s gowns and gloves, surgical stockings and other items made to order by their Linen Guild. After this, their focus turned instead to sewing and knitting items for sale to raise funds.

After the first few decades of the NHS, the League of Friends canteen and tea trolley gradually took on a more retail focus. The tea and cigarette trolley became a ward trolley, selling a miniature range of the items on sale in the hospital shop. Discounts might be secured from commercial providers, but these were the neither specifically hospital-related or volunteer-made products. One function here was to bring retail into the hospital, and with it the opportunity for patients and visitors to easily purchase everyday goods or entertainments.   The other was, of course, fundraising. And in this the two types of retail, with differences in the type and production of items on sale, were the same. They were both retail for a social purpose. Fundraising-oriented retail therefore deserves a place within the long but often-overlooked history of social business.

Another distinction concerns the sites of fundraising retail. The oldest, as seen in the pre-NHS hospital fetes and flag days, was retail taking place within the community. And they continued with bring-and-buy sales taking their place, even if the hospitals were no longer dependent upon this source of income. Doyle and Hayes have identified such activities as important for forging a sense of community ownership over local hospitals in the 1930s. We should therefore ask whether such local fundraising retail activities in the postwar years played any part in bringing together communities and the welfare state at a local level.

In other cases, as with the ward trolley and the hospital shop, retail was brought into what were otherwise medical and welfare arenas. These designated retail spaces were not commercial bubbles within the hospital, as could be seen when the shop served as a space for the social welfare activities that accompanied the core medical work of the hospital. They were simply different spaces within hospital life continued.

All of which raises some questions. If our focus is on fundraising, we might ask: does it make a difference when fundraising takes the form of retail? Alternatively, if our focus is on retail, we might ask: does it make a difference when the purpose of retail is fundraising? There is great variety of method in the history of fundraising, the same can be said of models of retail. But as we see commercial retailers becoming more and more common within NHS hospitals – as the League of Friends’ canteen and shop makes way for Costa and McDonald’s – we are inevitably left wondering whether we might lose something if we no longer see this marriage of retail and charity in our health service. If there is something distinct that we might decide is worth holding onto, what exactly is it?

[1] Nick Hayes and Barry Doyle, ‘Eggs, rags and whist drives: popular munificence and the development of provincial medical voluntarism between the wars’, Historical Research, vol. 86, no. 234 (2013), pp. 712-740.



Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

2 responses to “2017 Conference blogs – ‘Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History’

  1. Pingback: Retail as Fundraising: Some Questions from NHS History – Musings

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    Great post. Spouse and I left Australia to work in NHS hospitals years ago and I greatly valued the hospital shops and trolleys. But it didn’t occur to me that once a nation’s medical care became a universal right of citizenship paid for from the tax base, that money would still need to be raised. If there was a ban on hospital fundraising, then the voluntarist tradition should have been maintained by sick-visiting, running a library for patients (and staff?) and donating artwork/photos/furniture for the rooms..

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