Do they still make 'em like the old days? Barbara Millar on some memorable managers

Some of their names evoke fond memories of 'a golden age'. Others are still uttered with loathing.

They have been likened to 'barons who ran their individual fiefdoms' or 'the administrative equivalent of Sir Lancelot Spratt'. But one thing is for sure - NHS managers of the past were a different breed.

Nigel Weaver, former chief executive of Barnet health authority, who retired in 1992, recalls that, when he joined the NHS in the 1960s, there were lots of 'real characters' around.

'They were a different vintage, ' he says. 'The training schemes selected us for our qualities, but we were all much more conformist than those who went before.

'There were some towering characters who personified real leadership. Yet this was also the era when everything was done by the book. You could spend an hour in a meeting discussing what to call a ward.'

Even so, a leisurely approach was still maintained. 'Eric Stonebanks, the group secretary of the Bedford hospital management committee, used to take two days off after every HMC meeting to write up the minutes, ' Mr Weaver recalls.

Many regional administrators had run swathes of India before independence.

'They had to be found something to do when they returned to Britain, but when they saw the size of their plot and compared it with the areas they had been running before they decided they could coast along.'

'You could do things in the 1950s and 1960s that I would sack people for today, ' says Ken Lewis, chair of Horizon trust in Radlett.

'When I was a senior clerk at the North West metropolitan hospital board in the 1950s, we would raid the catering stores after a doctors' or nurses' party to fry up bacon and eggs at 1am. Next day we would get the catering officer to sign a chit for the food. I'd never let anyone get away with this now.'

Clerks would also get a daily beer allowance as part of their conditions of service, he adds.

Group secretaries and house governors were powerful men. Some London house governors 'led the life of Riley', says Mr Lewis.

In the final months before the NHS, some teaching hospitals simply did not pay their bills, knowing the NHS would pick up the debt, he says. The funds went into 'free monies' accounts, often used to set up house governors with flats. One kept a car at each end of the hospital site.

One house governor used to come into work at 10am and send his secretary to the bookies up the road to place his bets, says Howard Lyons, chair of the Institute of Health Services Management's independent sector reference group.

'I received a letter from him one day which started 'Dear Lyons'. I was affronted - I hadn't been called by my surname since I was at school. But I was later told that this was a friendly overture on his part.'

Some house governors ruled by fear.

Mr Weaver recalls one who 'shouted and raged at staff'.

Mike Schofield, chair of Dorset Community trust, won't 'name names' but adds: 'Some people were truly awful to work for. They terrified staff. Thankfully that is not a management style which has survived.'

Richard Crail, who retired last year as chief executive of East Lancashire HA, recalls Squadron Leader Rimmer, a group secretary in Epsom in the 1950s, who made staff stand to attention by their desks when he entered the room.

He also inspected women staff members' fingernails to see that they were short and clean. 'He ran the office as if he was still a commanding officer, ' says Mr Crail.

He remembers a Mr Fawcett, group secretary of Wandsworth HMC, who was a keen cross-Channel sailor. 'He used to detail his deputy and hospital manager to listen to the shipping forecast on a Friday and report it to him, ' says Mr Crail. 'He would always dispute what they said, so one of them would then have to ring the Met Office.

'One morning he arrived at work with a big gash on his forehead. We were expecting to hear a tale of daring as we knew there had been bad weather in the Channel.

'It turned out that he'd been hit on the head by a tin of baked beans which had fallen off a shelf in the galley.'

Mr Lyons says Patrick McMahon, house governor of the Westminster Hospital, was reputed to be a demanding boss. 'People who worked for him tended to get thrown in at the deep end.

If they swam they were okay.'

Many of the early NHS managers were inspirational leaders. Both Mr Lyons and John Wyn Owen, secretary of the Nuffield Trust, remember John Phillips, the staff officer for the Welsh hospital board.

'He was a kingmaker, ' says Mr Lyons. 'People used to quake before him.'

'He was the most influential person in my whole career, ' adds Mr Wyn Owen. 'He was imaginative, innovative and a visionary. He expected the highest standards and had the ability to treat everyone the same and give everyone opportunities.'

Another manager who was at least five years ahead of his time was Bert Ashworth, group secretary of Central Middlesex HMC in the late 1960s.

'He had a multidisciplinary team with a nurse, doctor and treasurer - as everyone else was told to do years later, ' recalls Brian Edwards, former West Midlands regional general manager and now dean of the school of health and related research at Sheffield University.

'It was an exciting time to be there. Bert Ashworth knew everyone on his patch and this was a great strength, ' says Professor Edwards. 'He was visible and well known. Everyone felt they could talk to him.'

To become a group secretary or house governor was the pinnacle of your career and you stayed in the job for 20 or 30 years, says Gerry Green, a former chief executive of Royal Hospitals trust and now executive director of Healthcare Projects Ltd.

'They knew everyone from the laundry workers to the consultants and they knew everything that was going on.'

Brian Edwards was also impressed by Willie Groves, group secretary of Central Wirral HMC in the 1950s. 'He ran a sparkling training scheme for young administrators, ' says Professor Edwards.

'He spent time with the trainees and gave us access to everyone from the bottom of the organisation to the top. He got on well with doctors as colleagues - they were on the same side, fighting for their hospital.'

Mike Schofield was 'given a good start in my career' by John Button, then hospital secretary at Broad Green Hospital in Liverpool. 'He gave me lots of time and lots of encouragement, ' says Mr Schofield. 'He was also the first person I had met who could say 'no' to doctors.'

Bryan McSwiney, clerk to the governors at St Thomas' Hospital in the 1960s, was also very well respected and produced 'a stable of people' who have risen to the top of the NHS, adds Mr Schofield. 'He had a very good strategic vision, he operated a stimulating, non-bureaucratic environment and gave people space to get on with their jobs.'

'He was exceptional, ' says Mr Wyn Owen. 'A lot of people were mentored by him. He believed administrators had to be as well qualified as their medical colleagues and practised what he preached by becoming a barrister.'

For Andrew Wall, honorary fellow at Birmingham University's health services management centre and former general manager of Bath HA, Tony Dale, group secretary at Doncaster HMC from the mid-1960s, was the manager's manager.

'Doncaster was the place to be then, ' says Mr Wall. 'Tony Dale really put it on the map. He was totally uncynical and believed everyone would have the highest principles. He set high standards and everyone responded to them.

'He was also a wonderful judge of people's strengths and gave you the work you were likely to be good at. As a result many of us excelled.'

Mr Weaver agrees. He spent three months working for Mr Dale in Chertsey. 'I can remember his upright, intellectual calmness. He was as straight as a die, committed and inspirational.'

Mr Wall had worked with 'a terrible group secretary' in a former job. 'I had picked up lots of bad habits in order to get round him, ' he says. 'I had learned to get my own way by a mixture of subversion and aggression.'

But Tony Dale's belief that integrity is all, and his energy and stamina, soon rubbed off on him, Mr Wall adds. 'He is the person who has influenced me most in my career. To me he represented the highest order of our business and that is why I dedicated my book on ethics and management to him.'