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By Rachael Simões on

Remembering the contribution of Windrush nurses to the NHS

On this day in 1948 - just 13 days before the National Health Service was established - the Empire Windrush ship arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex with 429 Caribbean migrants aboard. In this blog post Trainee Assistant Digital Curator Rachael Simoes explores the integral role Caribbean nurses have played in the NHS over the past 75 years.

The history of the NHS is intricately linked to the Windrush Generation. Arriving between 1948 and 1973, many Caribbean people contributed to rebuilding Britain after the Second World War.

The Ministries of Health and Labour, the Colonial Office, the Royal College of Nursing and the General Nursing Council worked together to recruit Caribbean women to fill the nursing shortage, which had reached 54,000 vacancies by 1948.

With recruitment campaigns and local selection committees set up in 16 British colonies, trainee nurses were drawn from all over the world, but the majority were recruited from the Caribbean Islands. By 1977, overseas employees occupied 12% of all student nurses and midwife roles – with over two thirds from the Caribbean.

One Windrush nurse who gained global recognition for her work is Daphne Steele. Daphne and several family members – including her sister, an actress known as Carmen Munroe – arrived in the UK during the early 1950s from Guyana. At age 16, Daphne started training in nursing and midwifery at a hospital in Georgetown, Guyana. Around the age of 22 she started a training programme at St James’ Hospital in Balham, South London – where a Blue Plaque commemorates her today.

In 1964, Daphne became the NHS’s first Black Matron at St Winifred’s Hospital in West Yorkshire. On being appointed Head Matron Daphne said: ’I got about 350 letters from around Britain and around the world. It did something for race relations and it also did something for other blacks because if one can do it we all can do it’.

This image from the Daily Herald Archive features Britain’s first Black matron Daphne Steele at St. Winifred’s Maternity Home with a patient and her new baby.
This image from the Daily Herald Archive features Daphne Steele at St. Winifred’s Maternity Home with a patient and her new baby.

Throughout her career, Daphne witnessed racism from white colleagues and patients, which was a painful reality for many Black Windrush Generation nurses and nurses from Africa. This is especially distressing since these nurses were responding to desperate recruitment drives to fill the nurse shortage in Britain.

One notable Windrush nurse who actively fought against racism in the NHS is Professor Carol Baxter, who later in her healthcare career worked as a Public Health Nurse/Health Visitor, and as the Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights at the NHS.

Carol arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1970 aged 19, and first worked as a nurse in in Greater Manchester. In 1988 she published her book Black Nurse: An Endangered Species – A Case for Equal Opportunities in Nursing, in which she argued that the vast amount of discrimination Black nurses faced, both by patients and staff, led to them starting to look for work elsewhere.

Carol highlighted that Windrush nurses often weren’t given the option to choose which field of nursing to work in. Generally, Black nurses were pushed to work for marginalised groups such as the chronically sick, elderly people, people with disabilities, and the increasing number of people with post-war trauma in psychiatric hospitals, and often denied nursing in any other area that would help them progress in their career. This meant that many Windrush nurses who intended to return to their home countries would not be able to work there as nurses, as they did not have valid qualifications.

Despite this, Baxter also noted that ‘it was [Black nurses] […] who showed compassion, and who […] showed that kind of skills and high professionalism which raised the standards of services for people on the fringes of society in this country’.

This image from the Daily Herald Archive features a Matron speaking to international student nurses from Norway, Jamaica, France, Nigeria, Lebanon, Italy, Syria and Spain at a hospital in London.
This image from the Daily Herald Archive features a Matron speaking to international student nurses from Norway, Jamaica, France, Nigeria, Lebanon, Italy, Syria and Spain at a hospital in London.

During the 1980s, the Royal College of Nursing announce that an estimate of 30,000 nurses a year were leaving the NHS due to low salary levels and intense pressure of work Windrush nurses weren’t being promoted and were left with almost all responsibilities on night shifts without receiving higher pay for their increased workload.

Today, Black nurses still face racism in the NHS. Sharon Uchendu, a nurse from Yorkshire of African descent, noted at the 2023 Royal College of Nursing Conference that: ‘All we ask is to be treated with dignity and respect, just like every other member of the NHS. […] Some of us left families, our jobs, and the comfort of our own homes to be here and the support we receive is sometimes not OK.’

While some Windrush nurses, such as Daphne Steele and Carol Baxter, managed to rise through the NHS hierarchy to make change for better working conditions and opportunities for Black and other ethnic minority nurses in the NHS, there is still more work to be done to support NHS healthcare workers.

Despite all the hardship and systematic oppression Windrush nurses were put under, many still gained satisfaction in caring for patients. We have Windrush nurses to thank for their help in rebuilding Britain and dedicating their working lives to helping patients and improving the working conditions for Black diaspora – and other ethnic minorities – in the NHS.

Thank you to the volunteers from the Crowds and Communities project in Bradford, who worked to curate and digitise photographs from the Daily Herald Archive that represent African-Caribbean heritage. You can find out more about their work here.