Mr Somervile Hastings and the Socialist Medical Association

The precursor to the NHS

Somerville Hastings was born in 1878 in Wiltshire. He was the son of Henry George Hastings, a Congregationalist minister, and Ellen Ward. Hastings won a medical scholarship to University College and the Middlesex Hospital in London.

After the First World War Hastings emerged as an important figure on the medical left. As well as being a Labour MP for Reading he also became a leading member of the Labour Party's public health advisory committee. By the 1920s he had formulated what were to remain his core beliefs – a vision for a health service that was to have an integrated hospital system with salaried medical personnel, and no private practice. Free and comprehensive services were to be organised around health centres, with an accompanying shift from curative to preventive medicine.

In 1930 Hastings helped form the Socialist Medical Association, which was affiliated to the Labour Party in 1931. As its founding president, a position he retained until 1951, he expended considerable energy, particularly in the Association's crucial pre-war and wartime campaigns on socialist medical politics. He was often the Association's delegate to the Labour Party conference, and was instrumental in having the party commit itself to a national health service. He wrote and lectured extensively on his vision of a socialised medical service, and travelled abroad to study foreign medical systems and meet other socialist doctors.

In 1932 he was elected to the London County Council (LCC) which was Hastings's most successful and important venture into politics. In 1934, after Labour took control of the LCC, he became the chair of the Hospital and Medical Services Committee. For the next ten years he held what was a very important position within the Council. The LCC had recently taken over the management of all hospitals and health centres, and was the largest provider of hospital beds in the country. His influence was to be felt in Hackney as the LCC improved hospital provision at both Hackney and St Leonard’s Hospital with new facilities and buildings for staff and patients.

During the Second World War the influence of Hastings and the Socialist Medical Association increased. He was one of the three original association representatives on the British Medical Association's medical planning commission; and he was chairman of Labour's revived advisory committee on public health – a body responsible for formulating proposals for a national health service. It seemed possible that Hastings's vision of a socialised medical service would be realised, given his heightened influence in labour and medical politics.

He claimed publicly that the post-war Labour government's National Health Service was in large part attributable to the work of the Socialist Medical Association. Hastings deserves acknowledgement as a pioneer of socialised medicine. He was a lifelong Christian and teetotaller, and seemed to lead an austere life. Hastings typified the altruistic, middle-class Christian socialist of his time.

Back | Next

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 27/03/2010.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.