Before the advent of the National Health Service people relied on a variety of disparate medical services, including the voluntary or charity hospital, for their medical needs. The Voluntary Hospitals Database documents these charitable and self-funding hospitals between the 1890s and 1940s.

The database was developed at the University of Portsmouth between 1996 and 1999 and is now hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Sadly there are currently no plans to add further details to the database.

There is a brief outline of the development and role of the voluntary hospital with a useful bibliography. An overview of the database and its sources is also given. The two main sources containing statistical material are: Burdett’s Hospitals and Charities: The Year Book of Philanthropy and Hospital Annual, published between 1892 and 1930; and its successor, The Hospitals Year Book. Helpfully the site gives specific page examples of the type of material that can be gleaned from these publications which goes someway to contextualise the material for each hospital.

Searching is easy. There is a map of the British Isles and users can easily navigate to a particular hospital; or users can search by county, borough or type of hospital (all with drop-down lists); there is also a free text facility – “enter name”.

Each hospital is linked to the Hospital Records Archive (maintained by The National Archives and the Wellcome Library) which gives a potted history of the hospital including date of foundation, previous names and locations. Sometimes the pop-up window presenting the information can be too large and obscures information and the link (you may have use the Crtl – shortcut to see all the information). It is also best to open the HRA record in a new window as returning to the database takes users back to the search screen or map rather than the hospital being explored.

Data can easily be downloaded into spreadsheets and covers number of beds, expenditure, sources of income, and staffing. The data is presented as a series of graphs on screen. Martin Gorsky and John Mohan outline the uses of the database in an article in Social History of Medicine vol. 24:2, 2011 p. 478-83.

In the following article in the same issue Nicole Baur in Oral Testimonies in Mental Health History discuses two other online projects – Testimony – Inside Stories of Mental Health Care and Bexley Health.

The Testimony project started in 1999 when over 50 users or former users of the mental healthcare system were filmed talking about their experiences of care between the 1930s and 1985. There are video clips and transcripts of the interviews as well as a keyword index.

Bexley Hospital is a website where recollections provide examples of aspects of institutional life from the Victorian period until the closure of the hospital in 2001. The website has a brief history of Bexley Hospital and charts the changing mental health policies. There is also a selection of documentary material about the hospital, including statistics, and nursing practices.