This somewhat bleak conclusion raises a question: why would I be interested in these organisations at all? Thinking about this made me realise how stories have been central to my research. My overall motivation and my specific research questions have been greatly influenced by personal accounts written by the recipients of charity. It would be naïve to think that personal narratives provide unrestricted insight into the ‘real’ experiences of their authors, but they do highlight the multifaceted nature of historical charities. They reveal the many interpersonal interactions among donors, managers, employees and inmates, which characterised these institutions. They also emphasise how charities often had a profound effect on their wider societies.
Bella Aronovitch’s little known memoir Give it Time, An Experience of Hospital 1928-32, is probably my favourite example of such a story, even though it is set almost a century after the time period that I study. It details the four years that she spent in London hospitals following a failed appendectomy. Aronovitch’s vivid descriptions of contemporary voluntary hospitals encouraged me to discover more about how these institutions functioned. I want to find out how charitable hospitals affected the lives of all those associated with them, including patients, administrators and medical staff. The hospitals’ reliance on voluntary contributions meant that their doctors were under severe pressure to discharge patients like Aronovitch, who were seen as a drain on resources. Give it Time highlighted the power that the hospitals’ lay governors exercised, it described the deference that they expected from both doctors and patients and it showed how individual patients could become problematic ‘statistics’. Being shuttled between five different hospitals made Aronovitch’s experience unusual, but this is what made it so valuable. It allowed her to provide a fascinating comparison of the standards of care in different contemporary institutions. Focusing on a single personal experience allowed the book to successfully communicate the gravity of the decisions made in these hospitals. Two of the institutions described in the book were former Poor Law infirmaries. They mainly catered for incurable patients, and their doctors almost decided that Aronovitch, too, was beyond help. Only her transfer to yet another charitable hospital led to her cure and eventual discharge. Aronovitch’s story deserves to be more widely known and I highly recommend Give it Time to anyone who wants to find out about healthcare before the NHS. It was through reading personal accounts like these that I realised that pre-Welfare State charities were fascinating, complex institutions that are worth exploring further.
Give it Time, An Experience of Hospitals, 1928-32 was published in 1974 and can be accessed in the National Library of Scotland, extracts from it and from other accounts of hospital care can be found in Deborah Brunton (Ed), Health, Disease and Society In Europe 1800-1930: A Source Book (Manchester, 2004).
Joe Curran (@JokeCurran)