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How black nurses were vital to our health service even before Windrush, a talk by Stephen Bourne

Stephen Bourne, Honorary LSBU graduate and celebrated author, gives an engaging talk at LSBU about the black nurses of the pre-Windrush generation
17 May 2018

Stephen Bourne, Honorary LSBU graduate and celebrated author of many books about the Windrush generation, gave an engaging and informative talk at LSBU on Thursday 10 May about the lives of some of the pioneering African-Caribbean nurses who worked in Britain before the birth of the National Health Service in 1948. 

Stephen’s talk, entitled, ‘Before the NHS: Black Nurses in Britain 1881-1948’ touched on the lives of several figures who have influenced his own thinking as a historian. The subject matter was timely given that 2018 marks the 70-year anniversary of the NHS.

Above all, Stephen spoke fondly about his adopted aunt Esther Bruce, a black seamstress who was born in London in 1912 and raised in the metropolis in the pre-Empire Windrush years. Esther lived in Fulham with her father until he was killed as the result of an accident during the Blitz. In 1941 Esther was adopted by Stephen’s great grandmother, ‘Granny Johnson’. Esther later worked as a ‘fire-watcher’ during the Blitz, checking on fires so that they wouldn’t get out of control. Esther’s account of her life experience had a profound impact on Stephen’s understanding of what it meant to be a black Briton living here throughout the last century.

After speaking about his aunt, Stephen went on to discuss the lives of several influential black nurses who are documented in his new book, ‘War to Windrush’. These include Annie Brewster, who worked at a famous London hospital from 1881-1902; Princess Tsehai, daughter of King Haile Selassi of Ethiopia, who was employed at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children during the London Blitz of 1940/41 but sadly died during childbirth in 1942; and Nigeria’s Nurse Ademola, who trained as a midwife at Guy’s Hospital during the Second World War.

Stephen also touched upon the life story of Nurse Tryphena Anderson, who became the first black person to receive a bursary to train as a health visitor in the UK. Stephen recalled how shocked she was on arriving here, to hear how poor most people’s English was and to learn that her own diction and pronunciation was better than theirs.

Also mentioned was Erena Kydd, who came to work at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and Daphne Steele, a nurse who travelled all the way from Guyana to work here. She eventually became Britain’s first black matron, which, in Stephen’s own words, ‘was not a token appointment’ by any stretch. Daphne said that ‘black nurses brought joy and dedication to the health service’.

As a passionate advocate for the history of black people to be taught in schools, Stephen argued that what is provided in our schools is African American history. This needs to change. He spoke about an apparent inherent fear within British society of books exposing the cultural truth about the treatment of black people in Britain, both positive and negative, hence there being less publicity for their stories.  

Former BBC presenter Alex Pascall, sitting in the audience with his wife said, “The shocking thing is that we frequently welcome American black history with open arms but not British black history for some reason.”

Alluding to the current controversy regarding Windrush, Alex said: “The problem of sending people home started much earlier than people think, directly after World War I and World War II.” Alex had interviewed soldiers about their personal experience in a series he made for BBC Radio 2 in 1997.

Stephen’s latest book 'War to Windrush' – Black Women in Britain 1939-1948 will be published by Jacaranda Books in June 2018.