Aneira ‘Nye’ Thomas, from Wales, was born just after midnight on 5 July 1948, the first baby delivered on the newly-formed NHS. In her new book Hold On Edna!, she tells the story of her family’s generations of hardship before the establishment of free healthcare.
How did you come to write the book?
I used to ask my mother Edna questions about my family. I was curious – I never had a grandmother, because she died young. This was previous to the NHS, when only the privileged few could afford healthcare. After my mother died my heart broke, so I wrote and wrote and wrote in longhand bits that I remembered she’d told me about our family. I was having lunch with my journalist friend Martin Bagot, the health editor at the Daily Mirror, and I was telling him a couple of stories. He said, “Nye, why don’t you write a book?” And I said, “Well, I have actually.” And that’s how the book came about. They did say that they had to remove the naughty bits about my life. I’m glad really, because my children wouldn’t have spoken to me again!
There’s still a couple of questions I’d like to ask my mother. Because the doctor gave me my name Aneira after the founder Aneuran Bevan, I wish I’d asked my mother what she would have named me. I’ll never know now. One more thing I’d like to have known – what did she wear on her wedding day? It was the lean times of the 1930s. She probably only had one dress, but I’d like to have known.
How did you do your family history research?
I did my family research the hard way. I went round the churchyards and went to archives. Now we’ve got the Internet. I delved and delved. Some of the book I had to imagine, like what it would have been like in a workhouse, where my great great grandmother lived as a child. Her name was Tory and in the archives it was spelt as Toriano. I think she might have been named after Glastonbury Tor, near where she was born. I used to go to Glastonbury with my sister. When I was crossing the bridge, going from Wales to England, I always felt I belonged there, before I knew that’s where they came from. My family came from a little place called Godney near Glastonbury, and I always think the initials come from ‘God’s little acre’.
Why did the NHS make such a difference to your family?
Before the NHS, it was real tough times for them, having to check their pockets to see if they could afford healthcare. And if they could, it was just basic. Lots of children were left without their parents. My father was orphaned at two. He had six older siblings. His mother’s gravestone is in the village I was brought up in, and in Welsh it says ‘Mary Rees, aged 34’, and also there’s four of her babies in the grave with her that died at birth. 34 is no age at all, is it?
My mother used to say, “Look what the NHS has done for me”. She’d lived a long life. She’d say, “I’ve seen my children grow up, I’ve seen my grandchildren grow up, and I’ve seen great and great great grandchildren”. She had seven children, 21 grandchildren and about 65 great and great great grandchildren. When she passed away, the preacher in the village said, “I’ve never seen a funeral like this”. There were about 200 people walking behind her hearse. He said, “Edna May’s left a legacy”, which she did. She always used to say, “I’m rich in love”.
My family have always worked in healthcare. We were five sisters, four of us were nursing. My daughter’s a paramedic. Two of my Dad’s sisters were nurses. My aunt was a matron in Cardiff for nearly 30 years. She was known as ‘the dragon’! Both my children have suffered brain haemorrhages as well, and the NHS saved them.
The book has contributions from Keir Starmer and Michael Sheen, the actor. He’s a big advocate of preserving our fantastic National Health Service, because it touches all our lives, and especially with coronavirus, they’ve really put their lives on the line.
How else have you supported the NHS?
On my 70th birthday I was invited all round the country as part of the NHS anniversary celebrations, but I chose to be in Wales, at the ceremony at Llandaff Cathedral. I’ve been on Lorraine and The One Show. I’ve made a short film with Michael Sheen. I’m known as the ‘pin-up girl of the NHS’. I turned Page 3 down, though. They didn’t have enough money for me!
Hold On Edna!: A true story of love, hardship and the first baby born on the NHS by Aneira Thomas is available now in paperback from Mirror Books (352 pages, £8.99)
Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine