The backbone of the NHS: How black nurses in Surrey helped health services thrive after Windrush


Since its launch in July 1948, the National Health Service has relied on the work of thousands of nurses, doctors and health workers from overseas, particularly from the Caribbean and West Africa. .

Surrey hospitals were no exception.

Staffing crises in UK hospitals had been identified long before the creation of the NHS, with staff recruited from Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

READ MORE: Surrey man on the harsh reality his Windrush-era parents faced

After WWII nurses and domestic helpers began to come from overseas: Ireland, Malta, Spain, Italy, Germany, Latvia, British Guiana, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana, Nigeria and Singapore were all nationalities known to report to West Park Hospital, which is part of the Epsom group of mental hospitals.

Some of these workers arrived on the MV Empire Windrush in 1948 and a year later campaigns were launched by the Departments of Health and Labor to recruit hospital staff directly from the Caribbean.

Vacancies were often advertised in local newspapers and in 1949 the Barbados Beacon advertised literate nursing assistants between the ages of 18 and 30, ready to sign up for a three-year contract in hospitals across the country. Britain.

The most severe shortages were in the most unpopular areas of nursing, such as chronically ill hospitals, geriatric nursing and psychiatric hospitals (old asylums), of which Surrey had many.

Netherne Hospital, located between Coulsdon and Reigate, was one of many mental hospitals in the county, some of which today come in similar forms or for different purposes.

Recruitment was crucial for the NHS to thrive, and these black overseas workers proved essential to providing an effective service.

Since student nurses and housekeepers lived in the hospital and provided accommodation, it was possible to get into nursing with very little money or connections.

It was similar to Brookwood Hospital in Woking where in the 1940s and 1950s many of the staff came from Ireland, but by the 1960s they were actively recruited from the Caribbean and Mauritius.

Black nurses at Brookwood Hospital, with Albert Allard as chief attendant, 1950s

In the late 1950s, the majority of nurses came from Ireland, West Africa or the West Indies, and very few from the UK.

By 1955, there were official nurse recruitment programs in sixteen British colonies and former colonies providing a source of manpower to meet NHS staff shortages.

By the end of 1965, as many as 5,000 Jamaican nurses were working in British hospitals, and by 1977 foreign recruits made up 12% of the nursing and midwifery student body in Britain, 66% of whom were from of the Caribbean.

However, there was apparent discrimination when it came to career progression.

Many nurses who arrived from the Caribbean in the 1950s could only take training as a state registered nurse rather than an internationally recognized state registered nurse.

Photos from Netherne Hospital, dated 1954, showed the contributions of black healthcare workers after WWII
Netherne Hospital exhibit for what is believed to be a 1955 recruitment drive

This had significant long-term consequences and limited the options for overseas nurses to return home and obtain employment and promotion.

Jeremy Harte reveals that in 1953, Rev. Basil De Mel arrived from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to be chaplain at The Manor Hospital in Epsom.

He recalled the first group of nurses arriving from Barbados, explaining how they stayed together in their rooms and that at first there was tension between the camps, but everyone quickly came to an agreement .

Not surprisingly, it took a while for them to settle in given the great distance they had to travel and the absence of family and friends in their new life.

The Surrey History Center always encourages more information about Black life in Surrey and would appreciate anyone contacting them with any information or material; they can be contacted at [email protected]

Thanks to the Surrey History Center and for information from their archives.

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