Voices from the NHS Retirement Fellowship

The NHS Retirement Fellowship is a national membership organisation, with local branches, which provide friendship, fellowship and fun to retired NHS and social care staff and their friends and families.

Since 2017 NHS at 70 have been recording NHS stories across the UK for the first shared public archive of NHS history. We have worked closely with some local branches of the Retirement Fellowship to give members a chance for their story to be included.

In 2018, when the NHS marked its 70th anniversary, the NHS Retirement Fellowship also celebrated its 40th anniversary and explored its own history and heritage. 

We are delighted to feature here a selection of excerpts from interviewees for NHS at 70, who are also members of the NHS Retirement Fellowship. 


Ethel Armstrong MBE is from Stanley in County Durham. Ethel trained as a cadet nurse at St Nicholas’ psychiatric hospital in Newcastle in 1947–48, then as a radiologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead after the foundation of the NHS. She went on to work in radiography across several regions of the UK, including Wales and Liverpool. From 1978 to the mid-1980s, she was heavily involved in Liverpool John Moores University’s pilot project for mobile breast cancer screening vans. After retirement Ethel joined the NHS Retirement Fellowship, of which she was president and is now a life patron. Ethel was heavily involved in the NHS' 70th anniversary, speaking publicly at events across England.


Ethel Armstrong pictured at Westminster Abbey, 5th July 2018

Listen to Ethel talk about the ‘old remedies’ in the village and how there was always somebody that ‘could do’. She recalls too her paternal aunt Lavinia, who ran a GP surgery out of the kitchen in her two-story home.

Listen to Ethel, a life patron of the NHS Retirement Fellowship, talk about how she got involved with the NHS Retirement Fellowship.


Gwen Crossley, born in 1946 in Wallasey, wanted to be a nurse from the age of eight. Her father was initially unhappy with her career choice, but after coming for her first interview, he later relented. She worked first as a cadet at Ancoats Hospital, then aged 18 did nurse training at Crumpsall Hospital. Later, as an Ancoats staff nurse, she developed an interest in preventative health, which led her to pursue a health visitor role in the NHS. She spent ten years in that role, prior to teaching fieldwork and moving onto management. Gwen retired aged 54, and joined the North Manchester branch of the NHS Retirement Fellowship, where she has taken an active role as secretary. In 2017 Gwen joined NHS at 70 in our first cohort of volunteers. Since then she has been instrumental in recording stories of individuals across the North West, many of whom are also Fellowship members, as well as attending events promoting the project across the UK. Gwen claims the milestone of being the first interviewee for the project back in October 2017!


Gwen Crossley

Listen to Gwen talk about the opportunity to train as a health visitor, negotiating with matron to leave her midwifery training part way through, and taking a career break for children.



One of Gwen’s interviewees, Hylda Whitehead, was born 1941 and worked as a medical secretary for many years in the NHS. She left school at age 16 to work in insurance, then studied biology at night, before coming to work at the NHS as a medical secretary. She did some work for the private practice of her ENT [Ears, Nose and Throat] surgeon and returned to the NHS, going on to work in neurosurgery and neurology. She recalls there were limited medical tests at that time. Consultants were excellent diagnosticians, although some had poor bedside manners; they “ruled” then, not the administration. Hylda worked at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and she remembers the introduction of electric typewriters, computers and the patient administration system. Hylda worked in neurosurgery and neurology and went on to help found the British Society of Medical Secretaries.


Hylda Whitehead pictured in 2018

Hylda Whitehead pictured in 2018

Listen to Hylda talk about her husband Victor’s lung transplant and describe writing “the most difficult letter ever” to the donor’s family.


Born in 1952, in Lower Gornal, in the Black Country, Bob Middleton spent 41 years in the NHS and in health-related activities. He began in 1975 as a finance officer for Dudley Family Practitioner Committee [FPC], moving on to Hertfordshire FPC, participating in a large-scale audit. In 1982 he went to Wolverhampton FPC, handling complaints, arbitrating in GP disputes and deputising for the administrator. He later joined the [NHS] Modernisation Agency, as a project manager in critical care in the West Midlands, and was promoted to Programme Manager for Coronary Heart Disease Network. He has worked too as a Senior Primary Care Manager at North Staffordshire. In 2016, after his retirement, Bob joined the NHS Retirement Fellowship as a part-time project manager.


A picture of Bob Middleton

Listen to Bob speak about being seconded to North Staffs and Mid Staffs Health Authority for six months to “innovate” and bring back NHS reforms. His reforms include bringing back minor surgery to GPs, setting immunisation targets and working in health promotion.


Eulon Graham, born in Jamaica in 1937, came to Chorley, Manchester, to train as a nurse in the 1960s as at that time it could take up to three years to get a training place in Jamaica. Eulon’s brother was already working in Chorley as a mechanic and sent her the address of a local hospital to which she could apply directly. She recalls the experience of seeing snow for the first time, having never worn a cardigan in Jamaica. She reflects too on how the freedom to express religious beliefs—for instance, the offer to pray with patients—in the NHS has changed over the years. Eulon is an active member of the North Manchester NHS Retirement Fellowship and also volunteers with Oldham Bereavement Support Service.


Eulon Graham

Here Eulon talks about living in the nurses’ home, where Gwen Crossley also stayed, and the significant role of the sister in their lives.


Born in 1928, Ruth Edwards grew up in a mining family in the village of Garn Diffaith, South East Wales. After completing one year of grammar school, she secured her first job with Monmouthshire County Council as a trainee laboratory technician in the public health laboratories. She contracted TB as a result of examining the specimens and was treated in a sanatorium in Denbighshire. This experience drew her to the role of hospital almoner. In 1950/51 she took a social work course at Cardiff University. She later applied to the Institute of Almoners in London, receiving her qualification in 1956. She worked as a hospital almoner in South Wales from 1956 until early retirement in the mid-1980s. Ruth met Aneurin Bevan during his tour to the region in late 1948, the year the NHS was launched

Ruth Edwards meeting Bevan 1948

Ruth Edwards meeting Bevan in 1948

Listen to Ruth reflect on her mining community’s frequent exposure to death of mature adults, as well as the death of children, with girls often carrying the coffins to the burial site.


Sylvia Bagot was born in Blackpool in 1945, where she also grew up. She took secretarial jobs upon leaving school, later working as a school secretary. In 1981 she joined the Health Service to test the hearing of children in schools and at clinics until her retirement at age 60. An active member of the Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde branches of the NHS Retirement Fellowship, in 2018 Sylvia arranged for herself and three other branch members to be interviewed for NHS at 70: The Stories of Our Lives.

An image of Sylvia, she is wearing a floral top and smiling

Listen as Sylvia remembers her father being diagnosed with scarlet fever and recalls the experience of seeing him in Blackpool’s isolation hospital, where she visited him.


John Rostill was born in Birmingham in 1947 and worked primarily in hospital administration within the NHS. He has served in various administrative posts, such as Deputy Director of Patient Services in Cumbria and South Birmingham HMC Assistant Group Secretary for Personnel. Following NHS restructuring in 1974, he became Regional Personnel Manager in Walsall, where he spent six years addressing industrial relations issues. He eventually became Walsall’s chief executive and later the district administrator. He talks about being retired for a month, then going on to work as the salaried director of the NHS Retirement Fellowship which, in 2018, celebrated its 40th anniversary.


Here John speaks about the separate areas of the canteen where NHS workers took their lunch, reflecting on the “unofficial differentiation” of hospital staff.


Dr Cynthia Matthews was born in 1938 to a farmer’s family near Cambridge, where she lived until 1956. She left to attend King’s College London and St George’s Hospital Medical School, qualifying as a doctor in 1961. She did a year as a house physician, then went into general practice. From 1963–64, she travelled to the United States where she worked at a hospital, returning to St George’s to do general medicine. She took her ‘membership’ exam, moving to Bristol in the dermatology department and then to South Wales in 1978 as a consultant dermatologist. She has been there ever since. She says Wales is home now, she speaks the language and “feels Welsh as much as [she] feels English”. Over her time, she has seen much change and tremendous advances—from CT and MRI scans to keyhole surgery.

Cynthia wears a pink jacket and is smiling at the camera

Listen to Cynthia discuss the experience of her medical training as a woman in the late 1950s and early 1960s.