Windrush Season, Week One: The Windrush Generation and the NHS

Page from the HMT Empire Windrush, titled 'Names and Descriptions of BRITISH passengers'. The passengers on the list include nurses from Jamaica, scholars from Burma, plumbers from Bermuda and many others. Note that ALL were included in the category of 'British', as subjects of the Empire.
Page from the Empire Windrush passenger lists 1948 (The National Archives, BT 26/237)

Next month, on the 22nd of June, Britain will celebrate Windrush Day. Windrush Day is new:  the British government instituted it only last year, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the demobbed troop ship HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948 — and only partly coincidentally, in the 70th anniversary year of the NHS.

From that ship disembarked some 1,029 passengers, two of whom had stowed away. You may have seen reports that 492 ‘West Indians’ arrived on the Empire Windrush; in fact, a total of 802 passengers came from somewhere in the Caribbean. Photographs reveal that the great diversity of the Caribbean region was well-represented on Windrush: we see amongst the crowds on deck faces reflecting African, Asian, European, South American, and mixed heritage. 539 passengers reported that they previously resided in Jamaica, 139 had previously lived in Bermuda, while others came from Trinidad, British Guiana and other Caribbean islands. 119 listed England as their last country of residence, and 66 passengers on the Empire Windrush were Poles displaced to Mexico during WWII. Dozens of the Caribbean men had served in the RAF. Other Caribbean passengers listed occupations ranging from ‘household domestic’ (96 – the largest group, including many women) to ‘mechanic’ (85, the second largest group), ‘scholar’ (18), ‘civil servant’ and ‘boxer’ (3); the ship transported a single hatter, judge, and potter, and two piano repairers. 274 fell into other smaller occupational categories. A bare majority of the Caribbean passengers who reported a specific destination knew they were heading for London. As British subjects, all entered the country legally, as they were entitled to do by the British Nationality Act of 1948.

The ‘empire’ in Empire Windrush, is important – though it certainly does not feature very often in the official annual celebratory narrative of events! Britain was still a major imperial power in 1948, with colonies around the world but especially in the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific region, and Southeast Asia. India and Pakistan had only become independent in 1947, while Sri Lanka and Myanmar gained their independence just months before the Empire Windrush landed its passengers on English soil. Forty-six formal colonies remained, and the sun still never set on the British empire.

And a rebuilding Britain, with its newly expansive Welfare State, had perhaps never in peace-time needed the people it had colonised more. In particular, the new National Health Service that would open its doors on the 5th of July 1948 depended on migrant workers from its very first day. Doctors, nurses, builders, carpenters, cleaners, cooks, clerical staff and porters from the colonies and Commonwealth were absolutely essential if the State was to fulfil the promise made to the British people: that everyone in Britain, regardless of their ability to pay, would have universal access to all necessary medical care free at the point of need.

It is this significant contribution that we here at the People’s History of the NHS will be celebrating between now and the 22nd of June. Every week, we will post five portraits and life-stories shared as part of Inès Elsa Dalal’s ‘Here to Stay’ exhibition, commissioned by the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust. Every week, we will accompany these amazing images and accounts with a blog addressing the history and heritage of Windrush for the National Health Service. And on the 15th of June, we will open to the public two physical exhibitions celebrating Windrush right here on the University of Warwick campus. Put the date in your diaries, and we will tell you more as we go along!

Sources:

You can read a summary of the passengers’ details here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43808007, or view the original passenger lists yourself in person at the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9152210) or search them on Ancestry.

The National Archives also has a variety of materials on Windrush available digitally: for instance, you can look at Prime Minster Clement Attlee’s response to concerned Parliamentarians  here: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/attlees-britain/empire-windrush-2/

If you are interested in learning more about the Polish passengers, you can start here: https://www.britishfuture.org/articles/windrush-poles/ or here

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/22/the-other-windrush-generation-poles-reunited-after-fleeing-soviet-camps

Edinburgh Roadshow, 8 January 2018

The People’s History of the NHS project joined forces with Edinburgh Central Library and the Lothian Health Archives for our first roadshow in Scotland.  The project brought some of our own objects – historic pamphlets, badges, glasses, stickers, surveys – to jog some memories, and sent out a call for members of the public to bring their own potential contributions to our virtual Museum of the NHS. Despite the unpromising timing (a workday afternoon in January), we had plenty of people through the door and lots of really engaging discussion about the history of the NHS. More evidence of the resonance this history for the wider public across the UK’s four nations.

Particularly noticeable was the high proportion of visitors who had some background working in the National Health Service.  A number of former nurses came and shared memories of the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, whose turreted Nightingale Wards remain a distinctive presence in the city centre. The Lothian Health Archives brought with them original 1879 plans for what was Britain’s largest voluntary hospital, as well as reproductions of plans for the various expansions and adaptations that took place throughout the 20th Century. The eagerness of visitors to share experiences of this institution were a firm reminder of the central role that hospitals have in how we remember and imagine our cities. In nationalising older hospitals, the NHS always took on a civic identity as much as a national one.

Other attendees brought historical materials. These included an NHS procurement professional who brought documentation relating to the buying of wigs in the 1980s.

NHS Wig Catalogue, 1980s

Prior to that decade, the Scottish NHS had bought its wigs on an ad-hoc basis. These documents were evidence of how supplying this huge organisation had only been done systematically relatively late in its history, with personal contacts and historic relationships the dominant theme before then. As new methods of organisation came into being, NHS professionals often had to learn new skills fast, as new career tracks were invented by a constantly changing NHS. With the advance of outsourcing and the internal market differences between Scotland and England emerged, with the NHS north of the border retaining more direct control over these sorts of issues.

Other memories we heard were of a more personal nature. Several women came to tell us about their experiences of strict discipline in Edinburgh’s nursing homes back in the 1970s.

Edinburgh Royal Infirmary badge

Nurses in training lived under authoritarian conditions in the early years of the NHS, with curfews, bans on smoking, male company and room inspection common. Although many hospitals loosened this kind of discipline in the 1960s, not all of them did. Our interviewees told us tales of sneaking boyfriends into the nursing homes past the watchful eyes of their matron. Although the all-powerful matron is often remembering nostalgically in Britain, at the time they could be a controlling presence for young women trying to exert their own autonomy.

Roadshow crowds

The Edinburgh Roadshow brought to life just how central place, in terms of the nurses’ home, hospital, the city and the nation, can be in memories of the NHS.

Nurse training over time – a guest blog by John Beales

This is a guest blog kindly written for us by John Beales.  John is a former nurse, and worked in the NHS from 1983 until 2000.  He is now undertaking a Masters degree in History at the University of Bristol.

These two records of the presentation of certificates for the completion of nurse training and badges awarded upon qualification in 1961 and 1987 are separated by more than just time; they subtly reveal the changing nature of nurse training. At the Royal Northern Hospital in London, where my mother trained as a State Registered Nurse, in order to receive a certificate of training and the coveted hospital badge you had to complete a fourth year of ‘training’ by working as a staff nurse at the hospital for a year after qualifying.  The Chief Physician, Chief Surgeon, Hospital Chairman and the Matron signed her certificate of training.  When I qualified as a Registered General Nurse at University College Hospital in London in 1987 you received a hospital badge when you completed the 3 year training, and my certificate was signed by the Director of Nurse Education and the Chief Nurse Advisor; nursing having freed itself from the dominance of Medicine and having established specialist nurse tutor roles.  The signs of the changes are there in the absence of the Matron as the exemplar of authority within nurse training and their replacement with a Director of Nurse Education.  The differences are also there on the covers of the presentation booklets, the ‘University College Hospital School of Nursing’ being dually identified as the ‘Bloomsbury College of Nurse Education.’

But in reality the focus was still on training rather than education. Whilst changes in the role of nurses, the availability of sterile supplies, changes in service provision and technology meant that I did not have to cook patient’s breakfasts, perform the regular ward and theatre cleaning and manual cleaning and sterilising of equipment that were a feature of my mother’s training, my own training was still predominantly practical, focusing on ‘hands-on’ care and skills acquisition: blocks of shift-based clinical placements lasting roughly 8 weeks being interspersed with weeks of classroom teaching. As a student nurse you were part of the workforce, rather than being supernumerary, and I recall plenty of instances where students were left in charge of wards or other clinical areas, this being part of your ‘management training’, as well as a result of expediency if there were instances of staff sickness or errors in shift rota planning. However, my mother and I both recall that our training gave us realistic expectations of the nature and variety of nursing practice and fostered both an esprit de corp and an allegiance to our training hospital: the award, and wearing, of your training hospital badge when you qualified being something to be proud of.

 

 

Nursing degrees were rare when I qualified and the practice-based nature of nurse training meant that most courses lacked wider academic recognition. Change was inevitable due to both the need to ensure that nurses were prepared for the rapid pace of developments in care delivery and the desire for recognition as a profession. Project 2000, introduced in the 1990s, began the move from hospital to university based nurse education. Many commentators have gone on to bemoan this change, blaming it for a perceived loss of ‘compassion’ in nursing and the fostering of unrealistic career expectations. I think that both of these have been overstated. But, an area that seems to have been overlooked is the way in which hospital based training, and the award of your training hospital badge when you qualified fostered a sense of belonging amongst nurses in the NHS, and how that has been diminished since the move to University based education; clinical placements now normally taking place at a variety of different hospitals. In the absence of the award of qualification badges by universities, and a move away from the wearing of them due to concerns about infection control and patient safety, the most common place you find these badges now is on online auction sites. Now retired after a 48 year long career in the NHS my mother still has her training hospital badge. I left the NHS in 2000. Last year I sold mine on e-bay.