Shaftesbury’s Westminster Hospital Wants Your Memories On 70th Birthday Of NHS

It’s obvious why people in this country have such a strong affection for the NHS – most of us who were born in Britain don’t remember life before the health service. Events to mark its 70th birthday have been held all over Britain and in Shaftesbury, the Westminster Memorial Hospital team needs your help in making their celebration special.

“We’re all very excited that we’ve done 70 years of the NHS. Everybody in this country should be proud of the NHS because it’s touched everybody,” said Matron, Helen Lawes. Helen wants to know how the Westminster Memorial has been part of your life or whether your friends or family have been helped at the hospital. You’re being encouraged to share your stories, in time for a birthday party in the hospital grounds on 21stJuly.

Hospital staff celebrate the 70th Birthday of the NHS

“Were celebrating 70 years of the NHS and 30 years of the League of Friends. We have a lot of memorabilia being set up by Matron. There’ll be teas, cakes and the town band are coming in the afternoon. We hope that people will come and share their memories of the hospital,” said Denise Potter. Denise has been a member of the hospital staff for over 30 years and she serves on the League of Friends committee, too.

Matron Helen Lawes

A former patient has already contacted Helen to share his vivid memories of a hospital stay, soon after the NHS was born. “He thinks it was 1949 or 1950,” Helen said. “He came here as a young child and had his tonsils and adenoids taken out. He described the bay that he was in. I think it is part of the old hospital, which dates from 1873. He could tell me the names of all of the children who were in that bay. There were six of them, in four beds, and two camp beds. It was fairly cramped but they obviously they had a great deal of fun, taking blankets off each other’s beds when the nurse wasn’t looking.”

Helen said the patient also recalled the poor standard of hospital food in the years following the war. “They were given dried eggs for breakfast and they were awful. He was part of a rural family and they kept chickens, so he was used to free range eggs,” Helen said.

Denise Potter

Stories about bad NHS food have provided many comedians with punch lines over the years. And Denise accepted that choices used to be limited. “If it happened be roast beef then you would have a minced version of that, if you couldn’t manage it,” said Denise. “There was little choice.”

Today, the Shaftesbury Hospital kitchen team is highly skilled. Helen demonstrated this, displaying an appetising birthday cake decorated in the NHS’ blue and white colours by the hospital’s Hotel Services Manager, Angela Ford. That’s a job title that you wouldn’t have found within the NHS in 1948.

Whether you want to share memories of bad meals or stories about incredible staff, there’s a box where you can post your tales in the hospital reception. “I’d love to have them by 17th July. That will give me time to get them typed up,” said Helen.

Helen hopes that locals will look through their old photo albums too. She’s planning to display pictures next to the stories and anecdotes about hospital life. “We are going to be doing a memory board – a collection of photographs. We’ve got lots. I’d like to have some stories to put on the board, so that people can come in and have their cup of tea and piece of cake, wander through, read those stories and get people talking,” she said.

Helen hasn’t found any photos taken on the first day of the National Health Service yet, but she has plenty of pictures taken during a VIP visit. “We’ve got a wonderful album of the Duke of Westminster and his wife coming here to open the new outpatients department back in the 1970s. That’s quite a nice album to look through. I think people will enjoy looking at some of the old shots of Shaftesbury within that,” said Helen.

If the hospital staff of 1948 toured today’s Westminster Memorial they would hardly recognise the place. The hospital fulfils a very different role. “The hospital certainly provided operations for adenoid removal and tonsillectomy. They also did carpal tunnel repair and people had babies here. A wide range of things were undertaken, different to what happens today,” Helen explained.

“When I first started, because there were no nursing homes in the area, we were like a nursing home. We had continuing care wards. Patients sometimes stayed here for seven or eight years,” said Denise.

Whilst most patients still live in or around Shaftesbury and Gillingham, the hospital is now fully integrated into the wider NHS system. Patients from further afield might be given one of the fifteen beds in the hospital if other units are busy. As we chatted, Helen explained the process and logistics required to move one patient from a neighbouring hospital to a bed in Shaftesbury. So many people, departments and conversations need to take place. It was clear that Shaftesbury’s hospital was closely connected with the wider organisation.

“Obviously we are part of Dorset Healthcare and they have eleven community hospitals,” said Helen. “We are the furthest north and we sit on the border with Wiltshire. Our main feeder hospitals are Salisbury and Yeovil. When hospitals are under pressure, they want to know our bed capacity. We’re not just a little hospital in the back of beyond. We’re part of the big picture,” she said.

Many of the changes in the approach to healthcare are not that obvious immediately when you visit a hospital like the Westminster Memorial. “It’s not all about inpatients and beds, as important as they are. We are developing a lot of community services based at the hospital,” explained Helen. “It is about providing services that are closer to home. We have just increased access to GP services on Saturday. And there is a doctor in the hospital who does some clinics. You can book into them through your GP surgery.”

Helen said that a nurse offers a dressings clinic on Saturdays, too. “We have a walk-in minor injury clinic and we host South West Ambulance’s out-of-hours service. Many people in the community will have telephoned 111 and will have been diverted here to see a doctor, out of hours,” said Helen.

Health and social care professionals meet regularly at the hospital to discuss the progress of their clients within the community. These ‘virtual ward’ meetings aim to reduce the need for different staff to visit the patient and repeat the same type of questions. “We always hear those stories that the district nurse will go and you tell them your story. Then the therapist goes and you tell them your story. Then the social worker goes and you have to repeat your story again. Throughout Dorset community hospitals we’re promoting ‘virtual’ ward working. We’ve got our elderly mental health team, social services and a huge therapy team based here in the hospital. It cuts down the visits to, perhaps, one person who will go and check all of those things. It’s working together, as one team,” said Helen.

When TV programmes portray NHS hospitals, they usually report busy, urban A&E departments. Small town facilities rarely get featured. Denise says Shaftesbury may be rural but our hospital isn’t a sleepy place. “Sometimes I wish people would come here and make a programme about what we do. We might be small but we cram a lot into our day. We have a lot of clinics,” said Denise.

“The nurses here have to be very skilled because this is a nurse-led unit,” added Helen. Doctors are usually on site for around seven hours each week. “Someone has to recognise when a patient needs to be transferred or requires a specific treatment. In an acute hospital, you can page a doctor. You can’t here. It’s about being resourceful. Sometimes people underestimate that for community hospitals.”

I had certainly underestimated the volume and range of work undertaken by the Shaftesbury team. And I think it’s fair to say that the staff here is considerably busier than their counterparts were on that first day of the NHS in 1948.

Healthcare practices are vastly different but I suspect the motivation of the Westminster Hospital staff hasn’t changed in 70 years. They still want to do their best for people in Shaftesbury and North Dorset. “Whatever problems people have, you can come in and talk to somebody. We’re just a very big, large family. We support everybody and everybody is there for us,” said Denise.

If you have memories of Shaftesbury’s Westminster Hospital please pop your notes or pictures into the box in reception by the 17thJuly. Or you can email your stories to Please refer to Shaftesbury Hospital in your email.