Oral evidence of changes in public health in the borough of Islington in the twentieth century

Pupils from St John Evangelist interviewed some elderly residents in the borough who kindly volunteered to participate as part of the project. They were asked about their memories of aspects of public health in Islington from when they were growing up. Some typed up verbatim sample responses to some common questions are given in boxes below. Beneath the boxes all the questions posed are repeated again with links to the actual recordings of individuals included with a brief summary of each particular response. Copies of the interviews have been lodged with Islington Museum.

What was it like living in Islington and Finsbury as a child?

“You could go anywhere you like, no problem, you could walk for miles and when you were a kid you could take a bottle of water and a jam sandwich. You could go to Finsbury Park or Highbury Park….. We used to play cricket in the street, you could play football in the street, you could play skipping…..”

What was it like if you were ill as a child before the National Health Service?

“Say you had measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, mumps, diphtheria that was called a contagious disease and you were put in quarantine………”

“You couldn’t just go to the GP when you were ill, you had to pay and the fee to go to the doctors was half a crown which was two shillings and sixpence, which is about 30p today….. It was a great deal of money for our parents……. Pharmacists were very important to our parents because you could go in there, tell them what was wrong and they would prescribe something for your illness which was much cheaper than your parents going to pay for the doctors…… If the illness was very, very serious you had to have the doctor come and the doctor’s fee to come home was seven shillings and sixpence…..”

What was it like going to the dentist?

“Like the death chamber”. “Dreadful, absolutely dreadful………… We sat in a big chair……. And then they would put a mask over your face because that was the ether (gas) to send you to sleep……. Very frightening as a child…… Someone in a white coat coming towards you and putting a mask over your face…… They didn’t believe in filling your teeth, more often than not they would pull your tooth out!

 How did going to the doctors change under the National Health Service?

“It changed a great deal…… If you went to the dentist, you went to the optician, you went to the hospital you didn’t have to pay………….. When people thought they didn’t have to pay they thought it was a gimmick but it wasn’t a gimmick but people soon became used to that kind of system………….”

What was it like going to the Iron Monger Row Baths and why did you go?

“Well in those days nobody had bathrooms….. They had slipper baths (at the Iron Monger Row Baths) where you could go and have a bath. It was tuppence-you’d get a towel and a little piece of soap and there were all different cubicles, mostly people used to go on a Friday night and you used to meet all your friends there. All the cubicles had numbers and you shout out “more hot water in number 10 please!”

Clips from interviewees in answer to the same questions can be accessed below by clicking on the indicated link above a summary of what was said in that clip.

What was it like living in Islington and Finsbury as a child?

The interviewee describes primary schools as being very strict with teaching restricted to the 3rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. they refer to the disruption of education during the second world war caused by bombing and the impact of evacuation.

The interviewee describes how children had the freedom to wander where ever they liked for example to parks, carrying only a jam sandwich and a bottle of water. they refer to children being able to play games freely in the streets like cricket or skipping.

The interviewee describes how children played in the streets and that there were horses and carts about.

Do you remember what happened if you were ill when you were a child?

The interviewee describes herself as a skinny child who refused to eat much but claims she did like rice pudding, roast potatoes and yorkshire pudding (as part of a roast dinner on a sunday), fruit and cadbury`s chocolate. she was treated at saint bartholomews hospital.

The interviewee talked about how less serious illnesses were treated at school by nurses. before the national health service it cost half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) to visit the doctors which was too expensive for most ordinary people. to avoid the cost some people preferred to go to pharmacists who might recommend medicine or treatment which would be cheaper than that recommended by the doctor. it cost over seven shillings for the doctor to visit at home. for really serious illnesses people could be sent to saint bartholomew`s hospital (saint barts). the interviewee claims that 1947 changed everything because people didn’t have to pay for their treatment but they still ended up paying for the national health service through national insurance.
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What was it like going to the doctor before the National Health Service?

The interviewee refers to visiting a hospital for treatment of a bad burn. they describe hospitals as being very strict by comparison to today. the interviewee lists diseases like measles, mumps, chickenpox and diphtheria as contagious diseases which required victims to be quarantined in hospital or in their own home for up to 6 weeks.
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What was going to the dentist like?

The interviewee compares a visit to the dentist as a child as going into a death chamber. rubber masks would be placed over a child`s mouth so that they could be given gas to send them to sleep. they claim that the visit to the dentist is fine now.

The interviewee describes visits to the dentist as dreadful. children would be administered a gas called ether and experienced real fear as the rubber mask was pulled over their face. problem teeth were more likely to be pulled out than have a filling put in. the interviewee claims that the poor diet of people lead to most adults are losing their teeth and having false teeth fitted by the time they were 30 or 40. they describe dental treatment as being much better today.

The interviewee describes visits to the dentist as terrible and how sometimes your teeth might be inspected at school. they refer to children heard screaming at the dentist and how the child might refuse an injection. the interviewee refers to the use of gas at the dentist at the finsbury health centre in pine street.

What was it like going to Finsbury Health Centre?

The interviewee describes going to Pine Street (Finsbury health centre) to have all their milk teeth taken out. They described how they were given gas so that this operation could be carried out. They refer to being sat in a row of patients for treatment.

The interviewee refers to Finsbury Health Centre as appearing new and modern and mentions the Sunray treatment.

What was it like visiting Iron Monger Row Baths? Why did you go?

The interviewee refers to sunbed treatment at finsbury health centre (which was partly designed to combat ricketts)

The interviewee describes a visit to finsbury health centre as like going to a clinic where mostly minor elements were treated. the interviewee refers to an ointment described as tension violet which was applied to rashes and spots. medical staff at finsbury health centre took notes on individual patients for future reference. the interviewee describes the finsbury health centre as sitting between treatment in school by the school nurse and going to the doctors.

How did going to the doctor or hospital change after 1947?

The interviewee describes how treatment became free and included free glasses.

The interviewee claims that everything changed because people didn’t have to pay for treatment although they still needed a referral from the doctor to attend the hospital. at first people found it hard to believe that they didn’t have to pay anything. the interviewee claims that everything changed because people didn’t have to pay for treatment although they still needed a referral from the doctor to attend the hospital. at first people found it hard to believe that they didn’t have to pay anything. the interviewee praises the professionalism of staff at saint bartholomews hospital and refers to the national insurance stamp which helped to pay for the national health service.

The interviewee describes how he was taken to the baths for swimming from school and that you could go to have a bath on a Sunday.

The interviewee describes the site as offering three services, swimming pools, public baths and a laundry. they refer to people queueing up for a bath on the saturday morning. people did this because they had no balls in their own home and going to the public bus was a real community occasion where people saw everyone they knew.

The interviewee describes the baths available to the public at iron monger row as slipper baths. people paid two pennies or tuppence and for this were provided with a towel and a little piece of soap. each individual went into a different cubicle and if you wanted more hot or cold water in a particular cubicle you could shout out for that. the interviewee claims that most people went on friday night.

How has Islington and Finsbury changed since you were young?

The interviewee describes has streets were full of houses, mostly with two rooms on the first floor and two on the ground floor (two up and two down). there were no baths and people went to the toilet in outside privies. the interviewee mentions slum clearance programs by local councils which demolished these kinds of houses and rehoused people in more modern accommodation.

The interviewee claims that everything has changed and that in particular there were no takeaways apart from pie and mash and fish and chips

The interviewee refers to the ruins created by bombing during the Second World War and the lack of cars.

Do you think people in Finsbury and Islington our healthier now than they used to be? If so why?

The interviewee thinks that people are healthier now than they used to be and that their diet is better but that community spirit has been lost, particularly because people move out of the area so easily now.