Then, as now, bad news took precedence over good, and on the day the NHS began the papers were dominated by news of Britain's worst air disaster, in which 39 people died.

Sport was also on the front pages: the England cricket selectors had omitted Sir Len Hutton from the Test side, to general dismay. But both the Manchester Guardian and The Times welcomed the NHS in their leaders. The Guardian said the new legislation was only the beginning: 'One must think of the health service as a huge, natural organism in process of growth; not as a creature of magic, called out of the void by the minister of health.'

The aim was to even up the weak with the strong, but: 'This policy risks an increase in the proportion of the less gifted. Its logical counterpart is to take every possible step, especially in the field of child health, to prevent all accidental deficiencies and to minimise all inherent ones. Prevention is not only better than cure, but cheaper than insurance.'

The Times observed: 'For all their inevitable and mostly constructive compromises, the new services attempt to embody certain principles which can today be fittingly recalled. They treat the individual as a citizen, not as a 'pauper', an object of charity, nor a member of a particular social class. In matters of medical care, the intention is to enable the masses to join the middle classes...to give each the full care appropriate to his needs. Many years will be needed to reach this end...'

The Times said doctors would become 'social servants... because it is increasingly difficult for any doctor to stand apart from the social services which now surround the family... If doctors are wise and socially alert, they can use the act's new opportunities for promoting a steady improvement both in the general standard of medical care and in their own social prestige. The health service... can knit the nation together in a new way. In the maze and jumble of 'post-war reconstruction'... it would be a mistake to overlook the deep feelings and sense of purpose and common humanity which all the new social services are trying, however imperfectly, to express'.

The Daily Mail was less enthusiastic, and clumsily linked page one leader comments about the air crash under the heading 'Death' with those on the NHS under the heading 'Life'.

The NHS and social security schemes were 'excellent in principle', it said, but added: 'There is likely to be disappointment among many people at the service available under the health scheme. There is a shortage of doctors, nurses, health centres, hospitals and equipment... An even greater anxiety is the financial side... the country's position is worse than anyone foresaw in 1942... we depend on America to save us from ruin... In our view it would have been wiser to postpone the schemes until the national finances were sounder.'

The Communist Daily Worker also took a rather jaundiced view. True, it devoted a page to an explanation of the new services and had a picture of three 'Bevan Babies', born just after midnight on Sunday, when the health service officially started. But it pointedly remarked that the new NHS was a system similar to others elsewhere.

The Daily Mirror had no such reservations. Under the headline, 'World's Biggest Health Army Starts Today', it wrote: 'Today the greatest army ever assembled to fight sickness and want goes into action in Britain. It is the army raised by the government to operate the new social insurance and health service... All the same, the health service will only give of its best if we all co-operate. Your first step - if you have not yet taken it - is to enrol. DO IT TODAY.'

In Scotland, the welcome was unequivocal. The Glasgow Herald saw the NHS as an improvement: 'Hospital organisation had grown without planning or co-ordination, leading to unnecessary overlapping and to competition on the one hand, and a desperate lack of special services as for orthopaedic, cancer and neurosurgery.'

Since the passing of the Scottish act, 'there had been enough time to devise and set the administrative machinery but not enough for recruitment or building'.

The Glasgow Herald concentrated on the facts and figures of Scotland's NHS: 80 per cent of Scottish GPs had enrolled; the Scottish NHS boasted 400 hospitals, with 65,000 beds run by 85 boards of management under five health boards.

The South Wales Echo reflected stronger support in its statistics: just about all the doctors in Wales and Monmouthshire had joined the NHS. This was more than those who had accepted 'panel' patients (the predecessor of the NHS for most people) and an extra 973,132 people in Wales, previously uninsured, had asked to come into the NHS.

But the welcome was not universal: 'Cardiff Royal Infirmary today flew a flag at half-mast. An Echo man who went to see what it was all about was told that it was not official. Unofficially, The Echo was told that the unofficial incident was due to the unofficial activity of certain medical students.'

At The Spectator, Royal College of Physicians president Lord Moran was arguing that the NHS was only the last phase of work which had gone on for generations. The war, by 'rubbing the nation's nose in the facts, prepared it for reform and educated many in the medical profession to accept change. Surveys of public hospitals carried out during the war were disquieting'.

Lord Moran, Churchill's doctor, was concerned that, with the capitation fee for GPs, 'we are encouraging quantity rather than the quality of his work'. But he added that the health centre system 'spread over the country will be of incalculable benefit to our art'.

His remarks brought a furious riposte from a correspondent, JER Laddis, from Weston in Bath, a couple of weeks later. 'I write as a patient who, from the first, has vigorously protested against the attitude of the minister of health, in daring to impugn the motives of the members of this honourable profession.' The writer went on to say that the matter 'might be more diplomatically settled if the present minister (himself no professional man) had been removed and someone with more experience and wider humanity chosen...'.

Aneurin Bevan spent the first day of the NHS visiting Davyhulme Hospital in Manchester. But this photo opportunity had little coverage, for that weekend Bevan had told a Labour rally in Manchester of his 'burning hatred' for Tories. Conservatism was 'organised spivvery', and the Tories were 'lower than vermin'. His comments were widely reported - and criticised in national leader columns. The doctors took his remarks as a personal attack on the medical profession.

But while doctors were wary of 'socialist medicine' and - GPs especially - a salaried service, nurses had no such qualms. In a leader headed, 'Our Health Service', Nursing Times commented: 'This is a tremendous advance in the history of any country.

'That this country should take the responsibility of such a service is a fact of which we may all be proud... Nurses were able to rely on a salary in the past - doctors will now be able to do so too.'

Health centres would change going to the doctor 'from a dreaded visit... to a social club with opportunities for getting help and advice... more on the lines of the Peckham health centre'.

Miss P Loe, matron of St James' Hospital, Portsmouth, talked of 'the opportunities before the nursing profession under the NHS'. 'It seems as if, at last, nurses will have a definite contribution to make towards planning and policy in the hospital,' she said.

The doctors were part of the new NHS, but they were still protesting to the British Medical Journal. In August, Paul Harris wrote from Salisbury: '...we should have a trade union...I hope that no silly squeamishness will prevent our taking this action.'

It was scarcely necessary. British Medical Association members needed no lessons in trade unionism - throughout 1948 calls for mass resignation were frequent. Dr JAH Sykes went one further and wrote to the BMJ suggesting that mass resignation be followed by mass emigration by the medical profession.

Abuse of the system was another recurring theme in the BMJ. Patients who found the surgery packed would request a home visit; one doctor said that new prescription spectacles were available in large quantities from local pawnshops; entire families would arrive when their mother had booked just one appointment.

And by November 1948, a leading article in the BMJ commented: 'A large proportion of those who might well have been expected to pay for their medical treatment have asked to be cared for under the National Health Service scheme.'

It also noted 'the eagerness with which the public has sought to take advantage of the service... everything from wigs to iron lungs... Doctors' surgeries are crowded out...'.

Fifty years on, those early hopes for the NHS - and many of the complaints - are familiar.