A new BBC programme honours the work of Britain’s black nurses
Features Dr Jacqui Dunkley-Bent who delivered Prince George
Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved The NHS, Thursday, 9pm, BBC4
By Jenny Johnston – @byJennyJohnston
Monday 21st November 2016
When Prince George made his first public appearance on the steps of the hospital where he was born, his parents weren’t the only ones radiating pride.
Just behind them, looking a little hesitant in the glare of the world’s press, stood the midwife who had led the team bringing him into the world.
Dr Jacqui Dunkley-Bent, who also delivered Princess Charlotte, is a calm and highly skilled midwife.
She also happens to be black, and it’s because of this that she’s the highest-profile heroine of a film that charts the history of Britain’s black nurses and midwives.
Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved The NHS is an unflinching account of a post-war Britain that had struggled to find enough nurses for its new NHS.
A plea went out for women from Commonwealth countries to come over and fill the gap, and thousands heeded the call, many of them from the Caribbean. And what a legacy those ambitious women have left.
The programme makes much of the fact that today a black woman can rise to the top of the profession; Dr Dunkley-Bent is a Professor of Midwifery.
The stories of the women who paved the way for her, however, make her achievement seem all the more remarkable.
For the Britain they thought would embrace them was far from welcoming. They experienced shocking racism and some were attacked in the streets.
Many families refused to be treated by them. ‘They’d say, “Get your dirty black hands off me”,’ says Allyson Williams, who arrived from Trinidad in 1969.
‘I’d hear, “You black bitches are all the same.” We never got any training in how to deal with that. I’d wash my hands and explain I couldn’t wash the blackness off.’
The nurses were unprepared for what they faced. ‘I was a slave,’ one says, noting the low wages and limited career progression. Jean Gay, from Barbados, recalls being attacked by Teddy Boys in a fish and chip shop after her shift. ‘I was pushed and kicked in places I didn’t know I possessed,’ she says. She only escaped by poking a finger in one of her attackers’ eyes.
One heartbreaking aspect of the show is the focus on the nurses who sacrificed their families for their work. One talks of the demands of the job, which led her to send her daughter back to the Caribbean to live with her own parents. She now regrets it, realising too late that her daughter saw her as a stranger.
Allyson, then 21, was all the more distressed because she’d left a ‘comfortable middle-class life’ in Trinidad. ‘We had a nice three-bedroom house and I went to the best school in the Caribbean, where I’d learned about British history. I knew all about the Tudor kings and read Shakespeare. I jumped at the chance to see this country for myself.’
The London that greeted her, however, was ‘grey and dismal’. Her uncle, who already lived there, was housed in what she saw as slum conditions. ‘He didn’t have a bath. In Trinidad we bathed at least once a day, sometimes twice. I said, “But how do you bathe?” He said, “We don’t.” Once a week they went to the public baths. I was shocked.’
The programme charts how the nurses ultimately triumphed, but it also points out that the struggle is not over. Black nurses are still under-represented at the highest management levels.
Like many of her fellow trainees, Allyson – who now has two grandchildren of her own – stayed and dedicated her life to the NHS.
On retirement she was deputy head of midwifery at University College Hospital in London and received an MBE for her services to nursing, a fitting thank you from a nation that wasn’t always as grateful as it should have been.