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  1. ITV Report

Bristol Infirmary's first black ward sister recollects time on the wards

May became a ward sister in 1966. Photo: Family photo
  • May Tanner faced a lot of discrimination as a black nurse in the 1960s.

May Tanner is the Bristol Royal Infirmary's first black nurse.

The 86-year-old moved to the UK from Barbados after hearing the call to help rebuild the country, and first qualified as a nurse in 1959.

She worked at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1965, becoming a ward sister a year later.

She says she loved caring for others, but despite her many qualifications and good reputation amongst patients, she faced a lot of discrimination and was even passed up for a promotion, all because of the colour of her skin.

Despite the discrimination she faced, May went on to become a ward sister. Credit: Family photo

The white nurses you worked with, they would cross over. If you were coming down Channons Hill they worked with you on the ward, they would cross over to the other side as though you didn't know them.

That used to happen in Bristol here.

In the 50s, it was tough for new immigrants. Black staff were people who cleaned the floors and things like that.

Accommodation was very difficult. Because you would see no black, no Irish, no dogs.

– May Tanner
May Tanner experienced tough times as an immigrant in the 1950s. Credit: Family photo

I mean I had a ward sister once, a white one, and I was in charge of the hospital. She didn't want me there and you knew that. I was a black person, who am I to come and dictate to her what to do. And when I told her, you do as you're told.

At the end of the day, I'm the one who takes the responsibility.

As a black person in those days, it was tough."

– May Tanner
May and Michael Tanner married in 1963. Credit: Family photo

Despite the discrimination she faced, May was adorned with nursing medals and even found love in the wards, marrying Michael, the son of one her patients, in 1963.

Fast forward to the present day, Charlette Graham-Brown, who has been a staff nurse at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for five years, says although things have improved, prejudices still exist.

May Tanner and Charlette Graham-Brown have both worked at the BRI, four decades apart. Credit: ITV West Country

Nowadays we do step back, because we think the stigma is still there.

And you think that if I go in that position, you think that you will be treated just like the old days like the 60s and 70s, which things have changed now - it's not that obvious anymore. But it's still there."

– Charlette Graham-Brown, BRI Staff Nurse

May replies, "But you see now there's more of you, with me I was on my own."

If I had the courage that I got now, I mean I've learnt so much, I could write a book. Looking back, I wish I'd taken notes."

– May Tanner
  • Watch more on May's story below: