Glenside Hospital Museum wants to trace past nurses and other staff from the Caribbean and former UK colonies who answered the post-war call to join NHS.
February 2023 saw the first graduates of a new leadership programme for nurses and midwives who are descendants of the Windrush Generation – men and women from the Caribbean who answered Britain’s call for workers after World War II.
The Florence Nightingale Foundation’s Shine A Light programme, funded by the Health Education England, provided opportunities for 44 participants from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Meanwhile at Glenside Hospital Museum research has started to celebrate the contribution made to mental health nursing by those from the Commonwealth and UK colonies who joined the hospital staff from the 1950s onwards.
Perhaps the best known was Princess Campbell one of some 5,000 Jamaicans who joined the NHS in the 1960s. She arrived in Bristol in 1962, overcoming prejudice to become the first Black worker at the Wills Tobacco Factory. But Princess wanted to be a nurse, and started her training at Manor Park Hospital in Fishponds.
There was prejudice to found at Glenside Hospital too, where she began her career. “The English nurses would have the easiest jobs; we, the black nurses, would be in the sluice cleaning bedpans and vomit boards,” she told local school children working on the Easton Heritage Project in 2007. “You couldn’t complain because the ward sister made a report. You had to put up or shut up.”
She recalled that attitudes persuaded some black nurses to quit. Despite losing out at first to a younger, less experienced white nurse, Princess persevered and became Bristol’s first black ward sister, at Glenside, remaining in post until her retirement in 1990. Conscious of the position she found herself in, she made sure to take her mark. “I think I had the best ward.” she said. “I knew as a black sister that I would be scrutinised. I dotted all the ‘i’s and crossed all the ‘t’s.”
With a certain irony, in 2011 she was made a Member of British Empire (MBE) for her service to the local community. Committed to ‘positive activism’ Princess helped set up the United Housing Association to provide affordable housing for Black people discriminated against in the housing market. The Association went on to create nursing homes and sheltered housing for the elderly.
“Use determination and your self-esteem: value yourself and let no one crush you.” was her advice. “When you come up against challenges and adversity, don’t run away; stay and fight if you want to change things. Education is a most powerful tool and it opens doors”.
“The pen is mightier than the sword. You are able to use the pen to get where you want and what you want in a very modest and peaceful way, in a dignified and diplomatic way.”
She served on the management committee of the Malcolm X Community Centre in St Pauls and the Golden Agers Club in Easton, two of the most culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Bristol.
She is also remembered for her involvement in the Bristol Black Archives Partnership and was a Bristol Legacy Commissioner keeping alive remembrance of the impact of slavery and its abolition.
“The pen is mightier than the sword,” she insisted “You are able to use the pen to get where you want and what you want in a very modest and peaceful way, in a dignified and diplomatic way.”
In 2014 Princess was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the University of Bristol in recognition of all her achievements.
The 1948 British Nationality Act had conferred citizenship on residents of the colonies, and on 22 June 1948 the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury carrying more than a thousand passengers, 80 per cent of them from the Caribbean.
Two weeks later, on 5 July, Labour’s Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan launched the National Health Service at what is now the Trafford Hospital in Davyhulme, Manchester. There was plenty of work to do, with an estimated shortfall of some 35,000 nurses in the fledgling institution.
In 1949 adverts appeared in the colonies encouraging more people to come to Britain to apply for work as auxiliaries and trainee nurses. Enticed with offers of 3-year contracts, applicants had to be aged 18 to 30, literate, and willing to pay their own way. Thousands of young women from the Caribbean responded. Tens of thousands would follow them over the next decade.
The training they got was not what they expected. Whatever their qualifications, they were put on a two-year course to become a State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) dealing with clinical duties, rather than State Registered Nurse (SRN) course, the higher status route to better wages and management roles.
Interviewed by the University of West London one NHS recruit said no-one ever explained why they could not do the SRN training. “I was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Cheshire, when I really wanted to do general nursing,” she said.
It was not uncommon for nurses from the Caribbean to be allocated to mental hospitals, and many found the going tough as both patients and staff could be forthright in their racism. Some reported being spat at as well as verbally abused.
The new nurses were often exploited, working night shifts and shouldering responsibilities beyond their SEN status. One said “[W]e had to get on with all the drugs, the drips, whatever treatment… but our pay remained the same.”
In those days life for all nurses was strictly regimented. Matron was in charge, and woe betide anyone who breached her rules, or whose starched uniform was not up to scratch. Patients were to be addressed formally, without the use of first names.
Male visitors were not permitted in the single sex nurses’ homes like The Hollies, in Quarry Road, off Bristol’s Blackberry Hill – now student accommodation. Pregnancy out of wedlock would mean instant dismissal, and matron would inspect potential marriage partners.
Once nurses married they had to leave hospital work, a rule that did not change until the late 1960s.
“Our Answering the Call project is keen to hear from any former nurses from the Commonwealth with stories to tell about those days,” says project co-ordinator Stella Man. “We hope to compile an oral history, and encourage them to engage with our work at the museum.”
Stella says anyone wishing to be part of the project can call her on +44 (0)7968 869840, or call in at the Museum on Wednesday mornings and all day on Saturdays.
thanks Mike, a well-deserved tribute to a hard-working woman and to the many like her.
It only needs one determined & principled person to bring about much-needed change. We owe a large debt of gratitude to these people.