Windrush 75 years: Nottingham's nurses - The reality of racism and resilience

A nurse has recalled a patient telling her "don't put your black hands on me" while working for the NHS in the 1960s.

Two weeks after the first settlers arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 - the National Health Service (NHS) was born.

Nursing shortages post war, already extensive, became desperate with 54,000 vacancies to fill.

A recruitment drive by the British government across the Commonwealth saw many from the Caribbean keen to seek employment in the newly-created NHS.

Margaret Hazel was 18 years old when she made the journey from St Kitts in 1956.

She hoped to train as a nurse in Nottingham but it took around four years to begin formal training. 

"People really didn't want black nurses"

Margaret Hazel spent four years waiting to become a trained nurse in Nottingham. Credit: ITV News Central

The NHS, in the early years, was keen for workers to take up the low-paid jobs that local people rejected when better opportunities were available. 

Catherine Ross, Margaret’s younger sister, said it wasn’t easy for black nurses to advance beyond roles such as orderlies and cleaners. 

"There was a reluctance to let Caribbean people go straight into nursing. Being told to wait a while, do a bit more, prove yourself a bit more, which were tactics because people really didn't want black nurses to get on," she said.

A year later there were as many as 5,000 Jamaican women staffing British hospitals. The NHS however, wasn’t an easy place to be for black staff.

'Don't put your black hands on me'

Another Nottingham Windrush nurse, Chelsie Wint was 27 years old and a mother-of-four when her family left Jamaica in 1964.

Chelsie said some patients didn’t accept her as a nurse: "One man, when I was going to do his blood pressure, he said, 'don't put your black hands on me' so I couldn’t do it.

"When I rang the sister, I thought she would come and say, 'No, she's the nurse, she has to do it' but no, she went and did it."

Margaret said some of the relatives of patients didn’t want to see black nurses on the wards: "Black nurses were encouraged to do night shifts when they can continue to care for the patients and do other roles but not be seen."

It took over 20 years for things to improve for many black nurses, with many beginning to move into more senior roles. 

By 1977, overseas recruits represented 12% of the student nurse and midwife population in Britain. Of those, 66% came from the Caribbean. 

Margaret ended her nursing career as a sister midwife. Credit: Handout

Catherine said many younger black nurses were inspired by those who came before.

Speaking to ITV News Central she said: "A lot of people became nurses because the initial batch of nurses stuck.

"My sister ended her nursing career as a sister midwife.

"How she got to that position tells a lot about her resilience. It tells a lot about social history in Britain at that time."

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