How to look for records of... Public health and social policy in the 20th century

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find records of health and social welfare policy, and central health administration, since the creation of the Ministry of Health, established in 1919 under the Ministry of Health Act.

The Ministry of Health records at The National Archives are wide-ranging and cover many aspects of the development of health policy in Britain. They show the ways successive governments tried to tackle social and health problems.

This guide will also point you to some related records held elsewhere.

2. Key changes to central health administration

The Ministry of Health, following its creation in 1919, took on the powers and duties of the health functions of the government, which were previously fragmented across departments, most notably from the following:

  • Local Government Board
  • The National Health Insurance Commissions of England and Wales
  • Privy Council
  • The Home Office
  • The Board of Education

For papers relating to the formation of the Ministry of Health search within MH 78, RECO 1, CAB 21/72 and PC 8/854.

The principal purpose of the new ministry was to consolidate under a single authority the medical and public health functions of the central government and the co-ordination and supervision of local health services in England and Wales. Revisions to the administration came throughout the 20th century; notably, the co-ordination of local medical services was greatly extended in connection with emergency and wartime services from 1938 to 1945, and these developments culminated in the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.

The Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) was created in November 1968, merging the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Security. Responsibility for a number of its functions was transferred into and out of DHSS during the twenty years of its existence. In 1988 the department was divided once more and the Department of Health was formed, separate to the Department of Social Security.

Throughout the 20th century there was a rise in lobbying of central government by groups with an interest in health and social welfare issues, and policy on health care provision was affected by the economic events, crises, and developments of the period such as:

  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • maternal and infant mortality
  • health insurance
  • mental health
  • preventative medicine

For information on public health before this period, see our guide, Public health and social policy in the 19th century.

3. How to search for records

Records of the ministry are arranged largely in file series broadly reflecting the functions of its specialised divisions. Due to the complex system of registration each record series can contain very broad topics; for example, MH 148 is a series that contains policy review relating to food hygiene, fluoridation of water supplies, medical examinations of Commonwealth immigrants, and the 1962 survey of children born with congenital deformities due to thalidomide. You can browse each series using the browse function from the catalogue description page.

The MH 148 catalogue description page in our catalogue. The search boxes allow you to search for records within this specific series, as is the case with the catalogue description pages for all National Archives records series.

The MH 148 catalogue description page in our catalogue. The search boxes allow you to search for records within this specific series, as is the case with the catalogue description pages for all National Archives records series.

As health can impact all aspects of life, health records can be found in files of the majority of government departments. Depending on the topic, it is always worth doing a broad key word search in the catalogue to start with.

The majority of records relating to health policy and social care in the 20th century will come under the following record series and department references:

  • MH – Records created or inherited by the Ministry of Health and its successor the Department of Health and Social Security, Local Government Boards and related bodies relating to the provision of health and public health services (1798-2001).
  • BN – Records created or inherited by the Department of Health & Social Security and related bodies (1834-2003).
  • JA – Records created or inherited by the Department of Health (1988 to 2018).
  • PIN – Records created or inherited by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, and of related, predecessor and successor bodies (1854-1998).
  • FD – Records of the Medical Research Committee and Medical Research Council touching all aspects of medical research carried out in the UK (1901-2017). Annual Reports are catalogued by date in FD 2.
  • MH 96 – Records of the Welsh Board of Health (1872-1978).

Other significant departments are:

  • HLG – Records of branches and divisions relating to the supervision of local government services (1831-1996).
  • AST – Records of the Unemployment Assistance Boards, the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and of related bodies (1894-1997).
  • INF – Records of the Central Office of Information (COI) and its predecessor government information departments and ministries relating to the provision of government publicity and public information.

These record series and department references will help you to focus your search for relevant records using the advanced search option in our catalogue. For more tips on how to search the catalogue effectively, use the help page.

You can also browse series by record creators, such as the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Health.

It is worth bearing in mind that relevant records relating to health and social policy may also be found in other key government departments such as:

  • Cabinet Office (CAB)
  • Prime Minister’s Office (PREM)
  • Department of Employment/ Ministry of Labour (LAB)
  • Home Office (HO)
  • Department of Education (ED)
  • Treasury (T)

4. Online records

Some useful resources relating to health policy are available online.

4.1 Parliamentary Papers (1715-present)

Search Parliamentary papers for reports relevant to health, unemployment and poverty. These are available online at The National Archives and many libraries and academic institutions with a ProQuest account. You can:

  • search for papers using the paper number and the year
  • browse by century, year and volume
  • browse the 20th century collection by department

4.2 Legislation

Search legislation.gov.uk for relevant legislation.

4.3 Government datasets

Search Discovery, our catalogue, for information and statistics related to health policy held in digital datasets. See our research guide on government datasets for detailed advice on how to do this.

4.4 The King’s Fund Digital Archive

Search the King’s Fund Digital Archive for King’s Fund publications and documents from 1898 onwards.

4.5 The Wellcome Library’s Digital Collections

The digital collections of the Wellcome Library cover wide-ranging topics, including public health.

4.6 The UK Government Web Archive

Browse archived websites to view snapshots of the Department of Health and NHS departmental websites. You can also use keywords to search the whole of the UK Government Web Archive..

The front page, with the Crown seal at the top, of the draft of the Coalition Government’s White Paper on a National Health Service, February 1944 (catalogue reference CAB 66/46/24).

Draft of the Coalition Government’s White Paper on a National Health Service, February 1944 (catalogue reference CAB 66/46/24).

5. The National Health Service and hospitals

With some minor exceptions The National Archives does not hold records of hospital patients. We do, however, provide guidance on where you can find Historical NHS patient records.

Many hospital records are held at local archives and the records we hold mainly relate to high-level administrative matters. For more information see our research guidance on Hospitals.

Prior to the NHS, joint hospital boards were authorised to establish and maintain local hospitals. Search for their records in:

  • Local Government Board correspondence (1868-1935), organised by County and District Councils, in MH 48
  • Joint hospital boards’ correspondence and minutes (1903-1961) in MH 67

You should also search for related records in local archives.

After the inception of the NHS in 1948, regional hospital boards (RHBs) were established to administer hospitals in specific regions. You can browse representative correspondence between the RHBs and the ministry (1941-1969) in MH 90.

Target the following key series:

6. Public assistance and health insurance

In 1911 the National Insurance Act was passed, which created a system of health insurance for workers based on contributions from individuals, employers and the government.

Search the following key series:

A main function of the ministry was the supervision of public assistance services. In 1930 the old poor law boards of guardians were replaced, under the Local Government Act 1929, by public assistance committees and county borough councils. High unemployment levels between the wars were a major influence on economic, social and political practice and theory; successive governments sought new ways to address the problems of widespread poverty.

To find relevant records, use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within department reference MH, PIN, or AST, or click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series, using keywords such as ‘public assistance’, ‘casual poor’, ‘medical relief’, ‘care of the aged’ and ‘welfare’, or try browsing:

The following series are best searched by browsing by date and/or area or county council:

7. Food, diet and nutrition

The key records relating to food, diet and nutrition are in record series MH 56, which includes papers from various food and nutrition committees (1850-1967). Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to identify specific records from this series or from across all the records in MH, AST, JV (Milk Marketing Board) and MAF (Ministry of Food).

Search using keywords such as ‘food’, ‘diet’, ‘nutrition’, ‘malnutrition’, ‘children’, ‘families’, ‘welfare’, ‘milk’ – or combinations of these.

Search by keyword or browse the following key series:

8. Family planning and mother and child welfare

With the rise of the welfare state in Britain and the inception of the National Health Service, educational campaigns on birth control were launched and the provision of mother and child welfare services increased.

The records consist of internal correspondence between officials and correspondence with organisations lobbying for reform, covering issues such as:

  • whether ante-natal clinics should be provided by the local authority or the voluntary sector
  • moral and social questions relating to birth control including abortion
  • religious opinion on the provision of such clinics

To find specific records, use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search across all records within MH and JA, using keywords such as: ‘birth control’, ‘abortion’, ‘birth clinic’, and ‘maternity clinic’ or ‘child welfare’.

Browse the following key series:

9. Mental health

The Lunacy Commission and Board of Control had responsibility over admission, detention and discharge of psychiatric patients and had powers to inspect asylums.

For more information about the Lunacy Commission, Board of Control and related record series, read the administrative background to MH Division 14 in our catalogue.

See our separate guide to lunatic asylums, psychiatric hospitals and mental health for how to search records on this topic.

10. Public health: diseases, epidemics, sanitation and health education

Public health is complex and can cover environmental health and the provision of adequate sanitation, responses to infectious, chronic, and epidemic diseases, as well as the introduction of public health services and campaigns.

Advances in medicine reduced levels of infectious diseases, but serious outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and measles were not unusual through the inter-war period, although epidemics were increasingly rare.

By the end of the 20th century, authorities dealing with public health tended to focus on chronic conditions, such as diabetes or obesity, or on health education about lifestyle choices. There were also responses to the appearance of new infectious diseases like HIV/ AIDS.

To identify specific records from the catalogue use the the advanced search option in our catalogue and search by name of a disease, sanitary measure, and/or a place name.

Browse or search by keyword the following main record series:

Browse by date the following series:

A more comprehensive list of key series relating to public health can be found in the catalogue description of the Records of the Health Divisions.

11. Sterilization and eugenics

Physical and mental degenerative diseases were of interest to eugenicists both in Britain and abroad.

Whilst no legislation for legalising sterilization and euthanasia was introduced in Britain, the government corresponded with groups who favoured legislation on sequestration, sterilisation and euthanasia of people suffering degenerative diseases. A report on the illegal sterilisation undertaken in Britain at the Gateshead School is found in MH 79/291.

Search by the key words ‘mental defective’, ‘euthanasia’, ‘sterilisation’ and ‘heredity’ in Discovery or browse the following key series:

The Foreign Office’s General Correspondence printed indexes, available at The National Archives in Kew also include mention of cases for sequestration of people with mental diseases and also some general reports on genocide. Many papers referred to in the printed indexes do not survive, but those that do are in FO 371. See our guide to Foreign Office correspondence for detailed advice on searching for these records.

12. The pharmaceutical industry

Regulation of pharmaceutical products was limited at the beginning of the 20th century. Throughout the period the industry became increasingly regulated, particularly in the wake of the introduction of thalidomide to the market, which resulted in the births of children with congenital deformities.

The Committee on Safety of Drugs was set up in 1963 to advise government health ministers on the quality, efficacy and safety of medicines and was replaced in 1968 by the Committee on Safety of Medicines following the Medicines Act, 1968. It provides advice to the Licensing Authority on whether new products should be granted a marketing authorisation and it also monitors the safety of marketed medicines.

To identify specific records from the catalogue use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search by name of a Pharmacy Act, poison, and/or drug.

You can target the following series to narrow your search:

The following committee minutes are arranged by date and may not include names of drugs or specifics of regulations in the catalogue description:

13. Doctor and nurse recruitment

Nursing shortages throughout the 20th century led to various nursing workforce policies and planning. Ministries dealing with nurse recruitment policy and planning include:

  • The Ministry of Labour and National Service
  • The Ministry of Health
  • Colonial Office

The Ministry of Health took over the recruitment of nurses from the Ministry of Labour from 1957.

Search the following key series using keywords such as ‘doctor shortage’, ‘nurse recruitment’, ‘overseas nurse’, ‘foreign nurse’, ‘recruitment of doctors’ – or combinations of these. You can, alternatively, search across the whole of LAB, MH and CO series using the

See our guide on Doctors and Nurses for information on other records we hold.

14. Further reading

14.1 Online resources

14.2 Online journals

Online journals available via our e-library:

Jane Lewis, ‘ Gender, the Family and Women’s Agency in the Building of ‘Welfare States’: The British Case’, Social History, 19 (1994). Access via the e-library on-site at Kew.

14.3 Printed resources

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library.