By Michael Hogan – @michaelhogan
Thursday 24th November 2016
Standing discreetly behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they proudly presented Prince George to the nation three years ago was midwife Jacqui Dunkley-Bent – next to her deputy, Trinidad-born Arona Ahmed. As Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved the NHS (BBC Four) demonstrated, the pair are part of a proud line of African-Caribbean women who have sustained our National Health Service for the past 68 years.
This intelligent film, part of the BBC’s Black and British season, recounted how 40,000 nurses and midwives from around the Commonwealth answered the call from “the Mother Country” to help build Nye Bevan’s nascent National Health Service, which was suffering a staffing crisis.
Many were still teenagers when they arrived, expecting an idealised version of bucolic Blighty but instead finding a grey country where, rather than being welcomed, they were met with hostility. In hindsight, they were phlegmatic rather than angry, baffled why patients refused their care because of skin colour.
There was contemporary resonance in this tale of economic migrants being unfairly vilified for doing jobs that many natives weren’t prepared to do. Lynette Richards-Lorde, now 78, became the first black Director of Nursing in the UK and laughed about how she was once known as “the Bedpan Queen”.
This was a story of courage, commitment and achievement in the face of adversity, engagingly told via archive newsreel and intimate interviews. Avoiding heavy-handed narration, it let the women tell their own stories, meaning it felt personal rather than didactically political.
Dunkley-Bent, recently appointed Head of Maternity at NHS England, struck up such a close rapport with the Duchess of Cambridge, and did such an unflappably fine job, that she was specifically requested to lead the team who safely delivered Princess Charlotte two years later. She was subsequently invited to a Kensington Palace drinks party to say thank you. We all owe thanks to the thousands of women like her.