Before the NHS there were almost no private hospitals in Britain. Mostly, there were public or charity hospitals, some of which had a few rooms for middle-class patients who were excluded from the free or subsidised main wards.
If you wanted to see a GP or get medicines over the counter, then whether or not you could pay was hugely important. But the situation if things got worse and you had to go to hospital was rather different.
One of the few, and one of the largest, entirely private hospitals in the country was the Queen Victoria Nursing Institution in Wolverhampton. It originally opened in 1887 in Clifton Terrace and moved to a purpose-built site on Bath Road in 1895.
By the time the NHS was established in 1948, it was the only fully private hospital in the West Midlands. St Chad's Hospital in Edgbaston had once been a renowned institute, which hospitals around the country had visited to learn from in the 1920s, but which was less successful in the 1930s and closed.
The longevity of the Queen Victoria tells us there was a demand for elite private institutional care in Wolverhampton, something more typical of southern England. The ratio of private hospital beds to population was above average in the south and below in the north, with the Midlands exactly in line with the national average. The only two private hospitals in England many more than the Queen Victoria’s 42 beds were in London and Bath.
The fees were as much as the most expensive private rooms in London too. Patients might pay as much as £10 per week to the hospital and then have to negotiate a doctor’s fee on top.
What made the success of the Queen Victoria possible was that it combined cutting edge training for nurses with delivering nursing care – in the home of those deemed the sick poor and in the expensive private rooms for middle-class patients.
Generally, middle-class people of the era avoided hospitals because of their association with poverty. They preferred paying for care in their own homes or in one of the comfortable nursing homes that were financially beyond the reach of most people.
This mindset only really started changing once the NHS undermined the class divisions in who should receive what type of medical care. They didn’t entirely abolish them, however. Many of the private beds remained, providing an option for those who could afford it to go private within an NHS hospital.
The Queen Victoria was halfway between a private hospital and a nursing home. It had the operating theatres and labour suites found in the most modern of hospitals, but it was also an acceptable site for the respectable treatment of the middle classes.
It remained popular through its amalgamation with the Royal Hospital in 1940 and its incorporation into the NHS in 1948. It only closed three decades later when the new Nuffield Hospital opened in Tettenhall and the building was bought by Banks’ brewery.
While we celebrate today’s anniversary of the NHS, it is interesting to note that the city was very rare as one of few known for its private offering before the system came into being.