Despite their service many immigrants from the West Indies and the Commonwealth were greeted with hostility and racism

By Sally Beck – @Beck_Sall
Saturday 19th November 2016

The NHS would have died in its infancy from a lack of staff but for an army of black nurses.
These unsung heroes from the West Indies and Commonwealth nations came to Britain after 1948 to fill the jobs in the then new health service .

But instead of gratitude, many were greeted with suspicion or outright hostility. So much so that some only stayed as they could not afford a plane ticket home.

Laura Serrant, Professor of Nursing at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Without those nurses we wouldn’t have the NHS we have now. They saved it.”

But Allyson Williams, an ex-midwife from Trinidad said: “No one prepared you for how the patients were going to treat you. They’d slap your hand away and say, ‘don’t touch me, your black is going to rub off on me’.”

Now, nearly 70 years old, the NHS is one of Britain’s proudest and most popular institutions but the initial huge demand for free health care nearly sank it.

It was soon 30 per over budget and needing 40,000 nurses so ministers flew to the Caribbean and Africa to recruit staff prepared to work long hours for low pay. Thousands proudly answered Britain’s call.

By 1954 there were more than 3,000 women from the Caribbean training as nurses in British hospitals.

Five years on the number had doubled. And by 1966 there were 16,745 foreign trainees – nearly three quarters from the West Indies. Their experiences feature in a BBC4 documentary.

In 1969 a terrified Beverley Chapman, aged 18, arrived here from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to train at a Leeds hospital and was quickly befriended by a white nurse called Linda Rushworth. The pair have been pals ever since.

Mum-of-three Beverley, 65, of Bradford, West Yorks, trained as a midwife. She had to retire in 2007 after a serious fall but said: “I’ve dedicated my life to caring for British people and have been proud to do it. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.” Many nurses were not so lucky.
District nurse Sislin Hunte, now 75 from Jamaica, said: “I was asked, ‘What kind of houses do you all live in? Is it mud huts or tree houses? Is it true black people have a tail?’. “I’ve always been outspoken but I swallowed my pride as I wanted to achieve.” Many disillusioned nurses wanted to fly home but at £500 in the 60s they could not afford it.

Today more than a quarter of NHS doctors and 11 per cent of all NHS staff were born overseas and health chiefs plan to recruit another 14,000 foreign nurses to ease shortages.
The midwife who delivered Prince George and Princess Charlotte, Professor Jacqui Dunkley-Bent, is the NHS head of maternity, children and young people and black.

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