Women sitting on tiered benches holding badminton racquets and knitting.
A group of women at the Pioneer Health Centre watching a game of Badminton while waiting their turn to play. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0041.
A group of women at the Pioneer Health Centre watching a game of Badminton while waiting their turn to play. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0041.

Retracing the History of the Topical Press Agency Medical Collection

A recently discovered medical photography collection sheds light on how healthcare was visualised in interwar and wartime Britain.

I am a PhD candidate at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture, working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council- funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with Bristol University and Historic England. My research explores visual representations of healthcare settings, staff and medical procedures that were produced in Britain and across its empire between 1920-1950. During this period, photography depicting medicine and healthcare settings increasingly appeared in the press, as the emergence of new photo-mechanical techniques and subsequent proliferation of mass media transformed visual culture in Britain.

What we know about the collection

The Topical Press Agency medical collection, rediscovered by Historic England in 2016, is one of the key photographic collections I have been researching for my thesis. Comprising over 4,000 photographs, the Topical Press Agency collection offers unique insights into the visual representation of healthcare between 1938 and 1942. Taken by Norman Kingsley Harrison, a press photographer and pioneer of British medical photography, the collection features photographs of patients undergoing a variety of medical procedures at the hands of a doctor or nurse, and receiving care in a range of new specialist health clinics and hospitals.

Together, the images shed light on how photography of public health provision in Britain projected a vision of the nation as a world-leader in medical care, such that medical press photography became a useful form of propaganda to raise public morale as the country went to war.

I’m exploring the extent to which the collection also illustrates how good health and good citizenship were viewed as inextricably linked in the interwar and wartime years; the photographs visually reinforce a connection between modern citizenship, an individual’s health, and the wider health of the nation.

The Pioneer Health Centre

These intersecting themes can be identified in a series of Topical Press Agency photographs of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham in 1938.

Opened in 1926, the Pioneer Health Centre was an internationally renowned health club which promoted ‘positive health’ by offering families ‘health overhauls’ and exercise and recreation facilities on-site.

Images of the centre in the Topical Press Agency collection picture focus predominantly on ‘Peckham mothers’, suggesting the photographs might have been commissioned by an illustrated magazine aimed at female readers. One photograph pictures empty prams lined up outside the centre in the ‘perambulation garage’. The accompanying caption describes how ‘the occupants are inside the building enjoying themselves in the nursery while the mothers, free from responsibility for the moment, indulge in recreation’. The other photographs picture women participating in a range of physical exercises, from badminton to swimming. In all of the images, the women are smiling and engaged, apparently enjoying the ‘keep fit’ exercises the captions tell us are a hallmark of the Centre.

The emphasis on women’s health and maternal welfare in these photographs reflects governmental concern in the interwar years about Britain’s declining birth rate and the poor health of the population after the First World War.

 In 1938, Britain was on the brink of another war, fuelling national anxiety about the fitness of recruits as the country prepared for the mobilisation of its army. This culminated in a far greater focus on women’s reproductive health issues and child welfare in the interwar years, with clinics such as the Pioneer Centre focusing on maternal health in a bid to ensure future populations would be healthy.

Photographs such as the image of women watching a swimming instructor perform a pedagogical function, instructing their presumed female viewers to take responsibility for their own health in order, it is implied, to sustain the future industrial, economic and imperial health of the nation. The perspective on health reform these photographs promote is implicitly eugenicist in its suggestion that unfitness is inherited and can be ‘bred out’ if maternal health is addressed.

Many social reformers and urban planners across the political spectrum held eugenicist views in the interwar period; Innes Hope Pearse, one of the founders of the Centre, was in regular contact with Julian Huxley, the president of the British Eugenics Society, even giving a speech for the Society in 1943 (see Lewis J and Brookes B: 1983). The photographs of the Centre are one example among many of how the Topical Press Agency photographs express shifting conceptions of healthcare and social reform in these years.

Researching the publication context of the photographs

To date, very little is known about the Topical Press Agency collection; there is no detailed record of where the photographs in the collection were published, or if they were seen by the public at all. During my research, I have identified various Agency medical photographs in publications like ‘Illustrated London News’, ‘Nursing Mirror’ and ‘Tatler’, but there remains a great deal of work to do to retrace the circulation networks of these images.

How my research will benefit Historic England

My objective is to better understand the intended audiences and publication contexts of the Agency’s photographs, and in doing so contribute to the body of research that underpins Historic England’s collections.

This will help to open up the collections to a wider audience, laying the groundwork for future public engagement activities with the photographs with relevant groups, from researchers to healthcare workers and members of the public. The photographs also feed into wider historical understandings of healthcare provision before the formation of the National Health Service in 1948. The collection has already been shown to four nurses who worked in hospitals in the North-West in the 1940s and 50s; their interviews can be watched on the Historic England website.

The collaborative element of my PhD has also created opportunities for academic engagement with other Historic England photographic collections; my supervisors from Cardiff and Bristol University who are both historians specialising in photo history have visited the archive with me, enabling us to view a variety of photographic materials together. Their ideas and insights into the collection have fed into my PhD thesis, but also inspired them to use Historic England’s collections in their own research.

Cross-collection themes

My project provides an opportunity to explore the Historic England photographic archives with a fresh perspective, asking research questions that might not have been considered before. I am hopeful that this will lead to connections being made between discrete archive collections that haven’t been placed in dialogue with each-other until now; I am in the process of identifying cross-collection themes that will bring different collections and archive items together. This research also has the potential to enrich the Archive’s catalogue records and add new contributions to Historic England’s Enrich the List application. In doing so, my project will provide a case study for how Historic England’s archives can be used by future researchers, to engage diverse audiences and help the public to learn about contested heritage and challenging histories.

About the author

Name and role

Sadie Levy Gale

Sadie is a second-year PhD student at Cardiff University’s school of Journalism, Media and Culture, undertaking a collaborative doctoral award with Bristol University and Historic England. Her research explores visual cultures of public health in Britain and its empire, 1920-1955.

Further information

Gruffudd, P. ‘Science and the stuff of life’: Modernist Health Centres in 1930s London’, Journal of Historical Geography, 23 (2001)

Historic England Archive Collection page for the Topical Press Agency Medical Collection.

Lewis J and Brookes B, ‘A Reassessment of the Work of the Peckham Health Centre, 1926-1951’, The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society, Spring, 1983, Vol. 61. No. 2, pp. 307-350.

Pearse, I. The Peckham Experiment: A Study of the Living Structure of Society, (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985)

Weindling, P. ‘Julian Huxley and the Continuity of Eugenics in Twentieth-century Britain’, Journal of Modern European History, 10 (2012)

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