‘A Piece of Useful Propaganda’: Britain’s First Hospital Film as Fundraiser

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Sheffield Royal Hospital Annual Report, 1931

How the voluntary hospitals of interwar Britain raised the cash to keep them running has been a major issue for historians in recent years. Large-scale surveys and local studies have challenged the traditional image of failing charity and endless, futile tin-rattling on street corners. They have uncovered a world in which charity gave way to payment, though largely at one step removed via membership of a mutual contributory scheme. Yet our (including my) fascination with contributory schemes – insurance or voluntary gift? Source of power or toothless club? Alternative to socialism or short term expedient – has led us to ignore the role of face-to-face fundraising in interwar hospital budgets. Yet this remained an essential element in the income mix, especially for capital projects and for clearing debts racked up in the aftermath of the First World War and the lean years of the economic depression.

In a recent article Nick Hayes and I explored some of the ways hospitals benefitted from and utilised traditional forms of casual income – legacies, endowments, non-cash gifts etc – but also how fundraising was modernized between the wars as new social groups like students, schoolchildren, works’ social committees and even political parties used their collective pennies to match the large gifts of the wealthy. One element of this I found particularly interesting was the harnessing of new techniques and technologies to fundraising, typified by Sheffield Royal Hospital’s Centenary Appeal of 1932.

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Sheffield Royal Hospital Annual Report 1932

The appeal was launched at the end of 1931 as the city of Sheffield reached the pit of the Great Depression and one in three men were out of work. As the later official history noted ‘Realising at the outset that few large contributions could be expected owing to the depressed state of the local industries, the Centenary Committee approached every section of the community with a request that efforts of all descriptions should be started; such as Entertainments, concerts, Dances, Garden Party…’ The range of activities was immense drawing initially on traditional fundraisers like flag days, sales of work, whist drives and hand delivered appeal brochures. Women, in particular, were tasked with these more conventional approaches, often supported by young people in schools and youth organisations and by the unemployed.

But the Committee also embarked on a range of new methods. They applied to the growing range of charitable funds. They approached, directly, the Miners Welfare Fund. They encouraged saving schemes using postage stamps on cards and the assembling of miles of pennies. There was a gymkhana and the equine theme continued with a parade of pit ponies to support the flag day. Furthermore, modern technology was utilised to boost the effort. Electric light signage advertised the appeal while the Sheffield Motor Organisation arranged various events including an Air Pageant. However, the most interesting was the production and distribution of a short film entitled ‘A Day in Hospital’.



The 3 reel, 16mm film, a copy of which is held in the Wellcome Library and is available to download via their online service, was written and directed by Dr Skinner and shot by Mr Watson, the hospital radiographer. Lasting just over fifteen minutes it ranged across the work of the hospital including scenes that showed nursing staff, domestic activities (like the delivery of the daily bread), the work of the hospital board, preparation and consumption of food, the work of the laundry and a closing shot of a busy telephonist. The elements of the medical work of the hospital were carefully chosen to reflect the modern, up to date and relevant services. As my book on hospitals in Leeds and Sheffield has shown, the 1920s saw a significant growth in outpatient appointments forcing hospitals to improve the facilities and operation of this part of their service and the film proudly showed the progress made in this area. It also gave extensive coverage to the electro-massage and physiotherapy facilities and to the oldest of the outpatient departments – ear, nose and throat. The important role the hospital played in the city’s economy and society was demonstrated by the prominent position given to the orthopaedic department and the accident service, including shots of an ambulance arriving.

The hospital’s own history of the appeal devoted considerable attention to the film which it claimed was ‘unique in as much as it was the first film of the actual work of a hospital to be produced.’ Whether this assertion is true remains open to dispute but it is clear that the novel fundraiser did its part to bring in cash and publicise the work of the institution. It proved itself ‘to be a piece of useful propaganda’ being shown all over the town and surrounding districts – including all the Sunday schools – and even in other towns and cities.

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Tapton Hall, site of the new nurses’ home

Although the appeal failed to meet its headline ambition of raising £100,000 for the objectives shown in the image above, it laid the groundwork for considerable expansion at the hospital in the mid-1930s. The cash collected put a small dent in the substantial overdraft but this proved less important than two significant donations. Local philanthropist Alderman J G Graves gave Tapton Hall and its grounds as a new, more convenient and salubrious nurses’ home. The building was quickly refurbished by the gifts of other leading figures from Sheffield’s industrial and medical establishment, including the newly wealthy Viners. In addition, the Miners’ Welfare were convinced by the need to support the institution and gave £25,000 towards the building of a new seven storey block which included an orthopaedic department, x-ray facilities and a private ward for paying patients of moderate income. In a third instance the convalescent services were extended by a major grant from the Zachary Merton Trust to fund a 48 bed unit adjacent to the Fulwood aftercare facility on the semi-rural western edge of the city.

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The new Miners’ Welfare Block, opened in 1937

On the face of it the Royal Hospital Centenary Appeal – by securing less than half its target – fits the model of declining private charity in the face of economic pressures and state growth. Yet it belies the idea of a stagnant, traditional approach to fundraising with its dependence on the middle class and the collecting tin. Rather, it embraced both new givers and modern technology –especially cinema, the ‘essential social habit of the age’  – to mobilise a more democratic philanthropic movement.


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