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Bevan's inspiration for health service shuts after 125 years

An organisation which inspired the establishment of the National Health Service is disbanding after serving a South Wales community for more than a century, writes Tony Heath.

The Tredegar Medical Aid Society was founded in 1870 and sustained through the years by voluntary contributions of 3d in the £1 from the wage packets of miners and steelworkers. The novelist AJ Cronin was one of the society's GPs in the 1930s and his novel The Citadel is based on his experiences.

But the demise of the foundries and collieries means membership has dwindled from a peak of 20,000 to under 100.

Legislation requiring friendly societies to submit to expensive annual audits hastened the end. Cash dried up from a torrent to a trickle and the £7,000 left in the kitty is being used to buy equipment for Tredegar's 58-bed hospital.

At one time the society employed five doctors, a dentist, a chiropodist and a physiotherapist to care for the health of about 25,000 people. Two surgeries, one at either end of the valley town, buzzed with activity. One is now a snooker hall, the other the privately-run Christina Louise nursing home.

The commitment to provide free treatment for all in need is widely recognised as a touchstone for the NHS which was inaurugated in 1948 by Aneurin Bevan, who was born and brought up in the town. Bevan served on the society's management committee before being elected and MP in 1929. In recent years the society has topped up the NHS with grants for specialist treatment and convalescence as well as donating equipment to the local hospital.

Generations of volunteers ran the organisation. The current and last chairman, Rowley Morgan, a 52-year-old local government official, recalls: "My father served on the management committee as did his father. We go back a long time in the valleys. It's sad that the society is coming to the end of its life but we are proud of the pioneering work. Long before the NHS came about we had our own local national health service here in Tredegar."

The society's secretary, Nora Childs, looks back on 54 years unbroken service. "I joined straight from school when I was 17 and I've never had a day off through illness."

A stone's throw away a bypass is being driven along the valley floor. It is obliterating the last traces of an engineering works which for decades kept the area's pits functioning; its 300 workers were among the society's staunchest supporters.

A book describing 125 years of the society is now planned.