A new publication celebrates the unsung heroines of the Windrush generation who came to the aid of the NHS. Angela Cobbinah reports

Friday, 8th October 2021

Blossom Jackson at Moorfields 1956

Blossom Jackson at Moorfields in 1956

After being twice delayed, a statue was finally unveiled last month outside the Whittington Hospital commemorating the work of Windrush and Commonwealth nurses and midwives in the UK. The lockdown-induced postponement had a silver lining though, giving organisers time to compile a companion book to put into words what the sculpture seeks to express visually.

Compiled by Jak Beula of Nubian Jak, the organisation behind the memorial, Nursing A Nation is chiefly an anthology of the stories of those who answered the call to work for the NHS as part of the Windrush generation but who have seldom been recognised for their efforts. Their dedication and service not only helped to build a great public institution, it also opened the door for those who have risen to the top of the profession like Karlene Davis, former head of the Royal College of Midwives, and Donna Kinnair, just-retired general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

It is estimated that around 40,000 nurses and midwives from the Commonwealth came to the UK between 1948 and the mid-1970s to work for the NHS, which faced an immediate shortage of staff when it was established after the Second World War. A significant number worked at the Whittington, which is why it was chosen as a site for the statue.

The government recruitment process was often very thorough. When Blossom Jackson arrived at Heathrow Airport from Jamaica in 1954 to find her father not there to meet her due to a mix-up, a British Council official escorted her to his doorstep in Shepherd’s Bush, assuring her that if he were not at home alternative accommodation would be found for her.

Her two years’ training at Moorfields Eye Hospital, where she was among the first batch of Commonwealth recruits, were one of the “happiest periods” of her nursing career. In her entertaining testimonial, one of 32 stories featured, she pays tribute to her “enablers”, formidable women who, she points out, were all white as there were no black senior staff around at the time. She rose through the ranks to become a midwife and ward sister before retraining as a health visitor, working during the 1970s in Camden. She ended her career as a senior member of what is now the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

By contrast, Jamaican-born Grace Scott found herself diverted on to the lower tier “SEN” nurses’ training course at Tilbury Hospital in 1965 after her brother was told over the phone that she had failed the written English test. The trouble was, at the time of the call, she was still in the examination room sitting the test. “I was later told that it was common practice for foreign recruits from the Caribbean to be directed to do [the SEN] course,” she writes. Betty Why had better luck when in 1963, having travelled by steam ship from Guyana, she found herself the only black senior level trainee at University College Hospital in a class of 50. After completing her three-year course she did a further year to obtain the coveted “UCH silver buckle”.

Lola Oni OBE

Jocelyn Bryson recounted the many challenges she met on the wards during her training at a Stockport hospital in 1965, with comments from patients like “did you live in a tree before you came?” It was such behaviour that prompted Lola Oni’s Nigerian mother to try and dissuade her from becoming a nurse – she didn’t think her strong-willed daughter would be able to put up with the racism that she had experienced as one during the 1960s, not only from patients but the NHS hierarchy too. But having been well cared for in hospital as a child, Lola was determined to follow her dreams. She went on have a distinguished career in which she specialised in the treat­ment of sickle cell and thalassaemia, and in 2004 was awarded an OBE for services to the NHS.


James Risien Russell

The book also examines the contribution made by doctors and nurses of the African diaspora long before the word “Windrush” was ever uttered. They include fascinating but little known 19th century figures like Guyana-born James Risien Russell, who carried out groundbreaking neurosurgery at the National Hospital in Bloomsbury, and John Alcindor from Trinidad whose GP surgery in Paddington was open to all comers whether they had money to pay for their treatment or not. Another popular GP was George Busby, father of publisher Margaret Busby, who worked in Walthamstow in the 1920s before setting up shop in Ghana.

Among several pioneering nurses mentioned are two princesses, Tsehai Haile Selassie, a daughter of Haile Selassie, who began her training at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in 1936, and Omo-Oba Adenrele Ademola, scion of a Yoruba royal family whose 30-year nursing career took in the former New End Hospital in Hampstead.

All these and many more are remembered, at last, for their remarkable contribution to our health services.

Nursing A Nation: An Anthology of African and Caribbean Contributions to Britain’s Health Services. Compiled by Jak Beula, Nubian Jak Media, £29, nubianjak.com


Black History Month events 2021


• James Barnor exhibition
Until October 24, a major retrospective of the six-decade career of Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, comprising studio portraiture, fashion shoots and photojournalism. The Serpentine North Gallery, Hyde Park, W2 2AR. 020 7402 6075. Free but book timed slot in advance via ticketing@serpentinegalleries.org
Honour Remember Inspire
Until October 29, the Zari Gallery celebrates the work of selected British and international black artists. 10am-5pm. 73 Newman Street, W1T 3EJ. Free, no booking required. For more info call 020 7580 7759
• Some of Us Are Brave 
October 16-30, Caroline Chinakwe of Camden Black Creatives is among those featured in this exhibition celebrating often overlooked black women artists. Stratford Library, The Grove, London E15 1EL. Tel 0202 373 0826 for opening hours. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk 
• We Were Here 
October 18-November 5. Organised as part of Camden Black History Season, this exhibition celebrates the lives of history-making black individuals over the centuries. Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Road, London NW3 3HA. For library opening times, tel 020 7974 4001

Talks and events 

Friday, October 8

• The Voices of Black Folk: In Unexpected Places
Until October 9, drama bringing to life fascinating figures in history like Roman emperor Septimus Severus and 18th century French composer Joseph Bologne. 7.30-10.15pm. Theatre Peckham, 221 Havil Street, SE5 7SD. Ticket info, call box office on 020 7708 5401
• Proud To Be
Launching Camden Black History season, broadcaster Eddie Nestor hosts an eclectic mix of performances, talks and panel discussion. Refreshments available. 6.30-10pm. Camden House, Lab Tech, Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8AB. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Saturday, October 9

Walk in the footsteps of William Cuffay and Robert Wedderburn
Meet in Kennington Park to learn more about the Chartist leader who helped to organise a huge rally on Kennington Common in 1848, and the radical Methodist who preached in the park on the site of what is now St Mark’s Church. Free. Meet at 2pm outside Prince Consort Lodge, junction of Kennington Rd/Kennington Park Rd, SE11 4BE. Organised by Friends of Kennington Park
• Black statues around Westminster
Join Avril Nanton to see the different statues and monuments representing black Londoners through the ages. 11am-1pm. Meet 15 minutes before start time at Embankment station (Embankment Pier Exit), WC2N 6NS. From £3. For more info, tel 07984 759 506. Book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Sunday, October 10

• Westminster tour
Learn about the black Georgians, anti-slavery campaigners and political trailblazers who lived and worked in the heart of London, including Crimea War nurse Mary Seacole. Her statue in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital (The Queen’s Walk, Westminster Bridge, SE1 7GA), marks the starting point of this Love London Tour. 2-4pm. £12. Book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
Paul Crooks genealogy
In this online talk, ancestry expert Paul Crooks draws on his own personal case study to demonstrate how you can trace your forebears using public records. 6.30-8.30pm. Free but book via paulcrooks.eventbrite.co.uk


Tuesday, October 12

• The Louder I Will Sing
In 1985 when he was 11, Lee Lawrence’s mother Cherry Groce was shot and paralysed by police during a mistaken raid on her Brixton home, sparking two days of rioting. In his book, he looks back at the traumatic event and its aftermath, which led him to embark on a campaign to get the police to recognise their wrongdoing. Join him at 7pm for a discussion at Carnegie Library, 192 Herne Hill Rd, SE24 0AG (020 77926 6050). Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Wednesday, October 13

• Black entrepreneurs
Organised as part of Camden Black History Season, this online panel discussion hosted by Black Pound Day founder Swiss from So Solid Crew will point those interested in starting up their own business in the right direction. Also includes Samira Gomes, founder of EMMSTech, which supports women of colour in the nordic tech industry, and Camden market trader Troy Baptiste. 6pm-8pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
The Girl with the Louding Voice
Join Abi Daré in an online event to discuss her best-selling novel about a Nigerian teenager whose life takes a turn for the worse when she is sold off to become the third wife of an old man. With the help of her “louding voice”, she manages to triumph over her misfortune. Organised by Lambeth Libraries. 7-8pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Thursday, October 14

• Nike ‘Adire Queen’: The power of African art
In this online event organised by City of Westminster Libraries and Archives, Kofo Adeleke discusses his biography of legendary Nigerian batik and adire textile designer Nike Davies-Okundaye. 6:30-7.30pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
In conversation with two black police officers
In this online event, Superintendent Dominic Barnes and Chief Inspector Vincent Peters of Camden and Islington Police share the challenges of their job as well as why they wanted to join the police force. 6-7.30pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
Q&A: Lloyd Bradley and Denis Bovell
An opportunity to quiz Dennis Bovell, record producer and founder of 80s reggae band Matumbi, and journalist Lloyd Bradley, author of Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, at the Central Library, 2 Fieldway Crescent, N5 1PF (020 7527 6900). 6.30-7.30pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Friday, October 15

• The Black History Truth: Argentina
Join traveller and author Pamela Gayle in a discussion about her book, which seeks to uncover Argentina’s hidden black history. 2-4pm. Woolwich Centre Library, 35 Wellington Street, SE18 6HQ. 0208 921 5750. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Wednesday October 20

Black London: History, Art and Culture in over 120 Places
Meet authors Avril Nanton and Jody Burton for their talk about this London tour guide with a difference. 6.30pm entry, 7-9pm. St Pancras Library, 5 St Pancras Square, N1C 4AG. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
In Conversation with Stella Dadzie and Helen Bart
Online event with the author of A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance and the producer of the BBC documentary Uprising. 7.30-8.45pm. For more info: www.haringey.gov.uk/brucecastlemuseum. Or email museum.services@haringey.gov.uk/tel, 0208 489 4250
The Voices of Black Folk: In Unexpected Places
Until October 21, drama bringing to life fascinating figures in history like Roman emperor Septimus Severus and 18th century French composer Joseph Bologne. 7.30-10.15pm. Millfield Theatre, Silver Street, Edmonton, N18 1PJ. Ticket info, call box office on 0208 807 6680

Thursday October 21

Colin Grant
Camden Black History Season event. Join the author of Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey for a discussion about the influential Jamaican political activist who inspired a global mass movement. 5-7pm. Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Road, NW3 3HA. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Culture and myth in young adult fantasy novels
Best-selling authors Yaba Badoe (Wolf Light, Lionheart Girl) and Reni K Amayo (Daughters of Niri, Descendants of the First) discuss their work against the backdrop of the recent popularity of fantasy novels written for teens by black authors. Online event organised by Lambeth Libraries. 7-8pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Just Mercy
Screening of inspirational 2019 docudrama about civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson who defends a man sentenced to death despite evidence proving his innocence. Rated PG. 4-6.30pm. Wood Green Library, Business Lounge, Ground Floor, High Road, N22 6XD. Free, no booking necessary
• White Noise
October 21-November 13, UK premier of Pulitzer Prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks’ play about four liberal friends – two white, two black – whose friendship is shaken by an incident of police brutality. Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, SE1 2SG. Tickets: £15, £25, £35, £45, £55. To book, https://bridgetheatre.co.uk
• The Voices of Black Folk: In Unexpected Places (see October 20 for details)

Friday October 22

• Honouring Unsung Black Heroes
In this evening extravanganza, Camden Black Workers Group celebrate figures from the past and present who have made a difference. Includes justice campaigner Neville Lawrence, lovers rock singer Sandra Cross, comedian Mr Cee, and former Camden Council official Kunle Olulode, director of Voice4Change England. 6.30-10.30pm. London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, NW1 9XB. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk


Saturday October 23

• In Conversation: Being African in Hackney
Workshop hosted by Benjamina Efua Dadzie held in conjunction with ongoing exhibition at Hackney Museum, Being African in Hackney, telling the stories of people living, working, studying and growing up in Hackney, from the 1960s to today. Workshop: 11am-12.30pm/2.30-4pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk  Exhibition runs until January 16, Hackney Museum, 1 Reading Lane, E8 1GQ. For opening times and info on more workshops, museum@hackney.gov.uk

Sunday October 24

• Sam Sharpe and the slaves who abolished slavery
In this online talk organised as part of Haringey Black History Month, historian Paul Crooks shows how the 1831 rebellion in Jamaica led by Sam Sharpe helped to end slavery. 7-8pm. £6 via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Monday October 25

• Jamaica’s Akan Maroon War
In this online talk organised as part of Haringey Black History Month, historian Paul Crooks examines the resistance of the Maroons against British enslavers during the 18th century. 6.30-8pm. £6 via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Tuesday October 26-October 31

• A Time To Breathe
Until October 31, a festival of talks, music, poetry and performance curated and co-produced by Greta Mendez. The Theatre (formerly the Stockwell Playhouse), 208 Wandsworth Road, SW8 2JU. For tickets and times, www.atimetobreathe.co.uk

Thursday October 28

• How We Love
Drama about Regi and Babs, gay friends in London who plan to enter into a marriage of convenience as discrimination against homosexuality mounts back home in Nigeria. 7-8.45pm. Theatre Peckham, 221 Havil Street, SE5 7SD. Tickets, £15, £12 concs, £10 “Peckham Local”. More info, call box office on 020 7708 5401

Saturday October 30

 Coming Together, Growing Together
In response to Nicola Abram’s groundbreaking book, Black British Women’s Theatre – Intersectionality, Archives, Aesthetics, an evening of film, conversation and theatre around the work of the all-female Munirah Theatre Company. 7-9pm. Clapham Library, 91 Clapham High Street, SW4 7DB. Organised by Lambeth Libraries. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk

Sunday October 31

• British Empire Tour
A 2km walk around Westminster, once the beating heart of empire, starting in Parliament Square. Meet at Churchill’s statue. Organised by Manasi of History Speak. 11am-1pm. £12, children free. Book via www.eventbrite.co.uk

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