Teddy Webb

President and first general manager of Bupa
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The Independent Online

Teddy Webb supervised and steered Bupa, the British United Provident Association, from its pre-NHS beginning, when it provided hospital insurance at minimal cost to people of limited means, to the major private healthcare insurer it has now become.

In 1946 he was running the Oxford Provident Association, one of about 100 such organisations providing hospital insurance when the National Health Act was passed. The National Health Service was to start functioning in 1948 and was clearly going to provide for most of the people who were his subscribers. Moreover, almost everybody thought that the NHS would eliminate illness, at least to a large extent, and there would be little need for healthcare of any kind.

As a consequence, the Oxford association amalgamated with 16 others in 1947, forming the British United Provident Association, which chose Webb to be their general manager. He steered the association for 30 years; so impressive was his competence that the constitution was altered to allow him, as a salaried person, to sit on the board. When he finally retired aged 70, he was made life president.

Teddy Webb was born in 1907 in the Kentish village of Stone Street, near Sevenoaks, the son of a tea importer who was also a founder of Wimbledon Tennis Club. His father was is his mid-fifties when he was born, and he had a strict Edwardian upbringing. He went to a prep school in Broadstairs, which was evacuated to the Forest of Dean when zeppelins landed on it during the First World War. From there he went to Winchester College, where he was in the bottom form, was bullied, and felt out of his depth. He presumably rallied, because five years later he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where several of his mother's family had been. He excelled at rowing and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

He didn't want to become a businessman or a commuter like his father, who wanted him to be a chartered accountant, and preferred the idea of service. His Oxford tutor, who ran the Colonial Services Club at the university, arranged for him to enter the colonial service, which meant an extra year at Oxford, but on a salary.

Webb then went to what is now Tanzania, serving two tours of duty, each consisting of two and a half years' work and six months' leave. He earned £400 a year, a substantial salary at the time. He was an assistant district officer, which meant being policeman, magistrate and tax collector. Although he felt he wasn't the colonial type, he liked the work and he loved Africa. There wasn't much air travel in those days, and on the boat coming back from his first leave he met Llona Llewellyn-Lloyd. They soon got engaged and she later joined him in Tanzania, where they married.

He didn't return in 1936 after his second tour as by then he had private means, so, following an interview with Oxford University's careers advisers, he took a year's unpaid administrative job at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Here he learned how to run hospital stores. That enabled him to join a company selling ancillary services to hospitals, and this included running a provident scheme.

In those days, voluntary hospitals ran on contributions from the public. Working men paid tuppence a week if they were single and fourpence if they were married. Those who earned more than £414 a year were ineligible for a voluntary hospital scheme, and most joined a provident association. Hospitals were facing rising costs and the system couldn't last much longer. Various commissions tried to find a way out of the situation.

When the Second World War broke out Webb was deemed to be in a reserved occupation, but he was called up in 1941 and commissioned as a flight controller. He felt himself fortunate to be given desk jobs in Oxford, East Anglia, Worcestershire and Scotland. He left in 1946 as a squadron leader and an MBE.

After being demobbed Webb went back to the Oxford Provident Association, and also ran Oxford University's provident scheme. In 1947, with the NHS about to take effect, these associations thought they would fade into insignificance. However, they amalgamated with similar organisations, not least because they didn't want to let down their subscribers. Also, Webb felt that the NHS could not be everything to everybody, and, additionally, that it shouldn't be a monopoly. Bupa began to take off, evolving into the organisation it is today.

He recognised early on that most of the nursing homes the association used were antiquated, and built more. Bupa also built and ran the network of Nuffield private hospitals and nursing homes. He cared passionately about Bupa's not-for-profit ethos, and believed that there should be a paying service available for those who wanted a private room, to have a health check, to choose their doctor or the date of their operation, or simply to pay their own way.

Teddy Webb loved rowing, cricket, tennis and golf, and was a churchwarden. He was popular, avuncular, and big-hearted but not overbearing. The historian Arthur Bryant in his history of Bupa said that he inspired levels of loyalty and dedication seldom seen outside a crack regiment. He remained in good health for his 98 years, was alert to the end, and died at home of old age.

Caroline Richmond