You Called and We Came: Remembering Nurses of the Windrush Generation

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Contrary to popular belief the increased migration to England post war, was not solely the result of peoples from the Commonwealth countries (former British colonies) wishing to seek a better life for themselves: In the case of Nurses, midwives and other care staff, there was also an active invitation from the British government to come to England and help staff the newly formed National Health Service.  The National Health Service had been formed in July 1948, following the dedicated campaigning, planning and sheer hard work of Aneurin Bevan who envisioned a high quality health service for all citizens in Britain, free at the point of need. However, it became clear very quickly that in the aftermath of WW2, there was a shortage of qualified health care staff to fulfil the ever increasing demands for this neophyte national health service – The answer?  To turn to the British Commonwealth, and its peoples. 

African Caribbean nurses arrived en masse to Britain, alongside other skilled and unskilled workers with the arrival of the HMS Windrush and other ships from July 1948 – and have been major contributors to the British NHS since its inception. The arrival of nurses and new trainees to help bolster the workforce in the UK was crucial. Without their input, it is likely that the NHS would not have survived, failing before it really had time to be established. Britain simply did not have the workforce required to run the service. However, despite being invited by the British Government, no preparation had been made to receive them and the British people themselves were unprepared for the influx of large numbers of migrants. As a result, far from the welcome they expected, these, nurses, midwives and other workers were introduced into a largely hostile social and work environment. There are many stories of the challenges faced by black people of the ‘Windrush generation’ – experiences of racism, isolation and rejection as they tried to fulfil the duties they were assigned. Many found that their qualifications from the Caribbean were not validated in GB and had to work twice as hard to ‘regain’ the recognition and professional levels they arrived with. Sadly, many never did.  

As we move to 2018, we celebrate the 70 year anniversaries of both the founding of the NHS and the landing of Empire Windrush on British soil. 

In October 2017 I wrote a poem to reflect, recognise and celebrate the contributions made by Black Nurses to the health system of England post World War 2. I happened to share it with My son: Musician Rob Green – who in turn shared with the very talented music Director Christella Litras….And last week I sat in awe as my words were transformed into a haunting piece of spoken word, set to music by Christella and danced with perfection by performers from the Phoenix Dance Theatre managed by Sharon Watson. 

But more than my own personal pride, this poem shines a light on the hardships, prejudice and challenges faced by the brave men and women like my parents who responded to the call from England to leave their island nations and rebuild “The motherland” after WW2 – a sense of duty, of pride and responsibility which no only saved the NHS but changed the shape of Britain, themselves and their families forever. 

For those who wanted to hear the whole poem…here it is. 

I dedicate it the ancestors and those like my parents who braved the seas, and answered the call. 

Remember, Britain……you called. 

YOU CALLED ………..AND WE CAME. 

You called…and we came. 

In ships bigger than anything we had seen, 
dwarfing our islands and covering them 
in the shadows of smoke and noise. 
Crowded, excited voices filled the air, 
traveling to the ‘motherland’ 
– over weeks, over oceans that threatened to engulf us. 
Driven by a wish, a call to save, to rebuild 
and support efforts to establish ‘health for all’ 
in the aftermath of war. 
 
You called….and we came. 
Women and men of position in our homelands; 
nurses with a pride in the excellence of our care. 
With experience of management, organisation 
and a sense of duty. 
We appeared. 
Smiling and eager to work on the wards, communities and clinics 
of this England. 
 
You called….and we came. 
Our big hearts, skilful hands and quick minds 
encased in our skins – of a darker hue. 
Which had shimmered and glowed 
in our sunnier climes.. 
But now signified our difference 
– our un-belonging. 
Matrons became assistants 
Nurses became like chambermaids. 
All the while striving to fulfil our promise 
– to succour, to serve, to care. 
 
You called….and we came. 
The blue of the sister’s uniform 
– seemed as far away from us as the moon. 
Unreachable by our dark hands in this cold land. 
But we were made of sterner stuff. 
The hot sun, which once beat down on our ancestors, 
when they too left their lands, 
Shone within us. 
Forging our hearts and minds 
with the resistance of Ebony. 
 
You called….and we came. 
Rising like the Phoenix , 
from the heat of rejection. 
We cared, we worked and we organised. 
Until the quickness of our brains 
and the excellence of our care 
made it hard for you to contain us. 
And slowly, so slowly, 
the blue uniforms had dark and lighter bodies beneath them. 
The professional care in our touch 
was valued despite the strangeness of our speech 
and the kinks in our hair. 
 
You called….and we came. 
A new millennium – new hopes spread across this land. 
New populations, engaging and reflecting 
the varied, diverse and vibrant nature of these shores. 
Challenging and reflecting on leadership for health. 
Moves to melt the ‘snow’ at the peaks of our profession. 
Recognising the richness of our kaleidoscope nation. 
Where compassion, courage and diversity are reflected 
In our presence and our contribution: 
Not only the hopes and dreams of our ancestors. 
– Human values needed to truly lead change…and add value. 

Remember… you called. 
Remember… you called 

YOU. Called. 

Remember, it was us, who came. 

Professor Laura Serrant PhD MA BA RGN PGCE Queens Nurse 

Professor Laura Serrant is Professor of Nursing in the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at Sheffield Hallam University, one of only 6 black Professors of Nursing (out of 265) in the UK.  She was also one of the first to qualify as a nurse with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She has frequently found herself as the sole voice representing nurses and minority communities; a position which she has striven to challenge throughout her career by empowering others to come forward to join her, in a unique call to ‘lift as you climb’. She is one of the 2017 BBC Expert women, Chair of the Chief Nursing Officer for England’s BME Strategic Advisory group and a 2017 Florence Nightingale Scholar. She is an ambassador of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue, Patron of the Jamaica Nurses Association and the Equality Challenge Unit Race Equality Charter for Higher Education. Her work has been recognised with numbers awards and prizes, including Queens Nurse status and Fellowship of the Queens Nursing Institute to those who have shown leadership in community nursing. In 2014, she was named as one of the top 50 leaders in the UK by The Health Services Journal in three separate categories: Inspirational Women in Healthcare, BME Pioneers and Clinical Leader awards. She has been named as the 8th most influential Black person in Britain by the Powerlist 2018. Her family are from The commonwealth of Dominica, WI.

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