Windrush and the NHS, by the Numbers 2: Where we are today.

Today, the NHS continues to be one of the most diverse workforces in the world as well as one of the largest. In 2018, General Practices in England employed 44,847 doctors, 23,756 nurses, and a further 118,946 other workers. The percentage of overseas-qualified GPs employed varied from a low of 2.3% in the Vale of York to a high of 66.1% in Thurrock, just east of Greater London. Across the UK, 17.86% of GPs were educated outside of the UK and EEA, and 4.08 were trained elsewhere in Europe. (Look at the NHS Digital, General Practice Dashboard for even more) Meanwhile in the hospital and community health services, of 1.2 million staff, 12.7% (144,000 workers) reported a foreign nationality. Some 63,000 of these came from the EU, while another 49,000 were Asian nationals. Looking at London alone, 11.3% of staff were from the EU.

This diversity intensifies when we look into the hospital. Across our project, we have found that hospitals are the sites most strongly associated with the NHS in cultural terms (even though most NHS funded medical care is delivered elsewhere). When we asked people to tell us about ‘their NHS’ the stories we heard were, by and large, hospital stories, and in our ‘Big Draw’ at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, we found that this association was true even for young children (kids do also like an ambulance and air ambulance!). Since the 1960s, theatrical, cinematic, and televisual representations of the NHS have also focused mainly on hospital medicine, at least until the recent advent of shows like ‘GPs beyond Closed Doors’.  And newspapers tend to illustrate their articles about the NHS with… you guessed it: pictures of NHS hospitals and those who work in them!

So what SHOULD we be seeing in all these pictures of NHS hospitals? Well, in 2018, 37% of hospital doctors gained their primary medical qualification outside the UK, 20% in Asia and 9% in the EU. Approximately 7% of nurses reported an EU nationality, while 6% reported Asian nationalities and 2.4% were of African nationalities. This is equally true for clinical support staff. While a large majority of workers in this group are British, 4.9% are of Asian or African nationality, and 4.1% come from the EU. Today, the numbers tell us that 0.15% of nurses in the NHS are Jamaican nationals – they represent a new generation of Caribbean men and women supporting our health and our NHS. (Have a look at the excellent House of Commons Library Briefing Paper 7783 for more details!)

And alongside these new Jamaican health workers, the effects of the Windrush Generation still endure and still powerfully shape the NHS workforce, as ‘Here to Stay’ demonstrates! Men and women of Jamaican and other Caribbean heritage, and from BAME communities still contribute disproportionately to the nursing workforce of the NHS. When you read their stories (all here in our ‘Here to Stay’ gallery), you can see how many of them come from families with rich and deep NHS connections.

But we don’t see this super-diversity in all the ways that we should. While images of the NHS have become much more inclusive than they were in the past, those ‘powerful portraits’ that I talked about earlier in our Windrush Season are still going to be White for some time to come. At its very top levels, the NHS is still a white man’s world, despite efforts to change. Among non-medical staff (and remember, 9 out of 10 people working for the NHS fit into this broad category, while only 1 in 10 perform medical roles) 93.6% of the top brass are White. The non-medical workforce of the NHS is 82.5% White, but the figures still show us a level of distortion. In the medical workforce, which is almost equally distributed between White and other ethnicities (57.1% White, 38.7% BAME, 4.1% other and 0.1% unknown) the distinction is stark and a bit shocking: White doctors dominate the consultant posts, holding 61.4% of them, while doctors from non-Asian ethnic minority communities are over-represented in the most junior grades and under-represented at senior ones. (You can look into all these figures and many more here!)

Interestingly, there is no equivalent breakdown for nurses and midwives, but the Royal College of Nursing in London did some very revealing research of its own in 2018. In London, the majority of all nursing staff in London NHS Trusts have BAME background ( 27,982 nurses reported a BAME background compared to 24,847 nurses identifying as White). Yet despite being the only UK region with a majority BAME nursing workforce, London performed worst in terms of meeting race equality targets. And its most elite hospitals were also its least diverse, suggesting that the BAME nurses who are the backbone of nursing care across the capital faced barriers to employment in its flagship services. The Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) team have also studied the nursing workforce. Across the UK some 1 in every 5 nurses and midwives are from BAME backgrounds — 23.1% of all nurses in the NHS! But they are underrepresented across all the upper pay bands, and only 8 Directors of Nursing in the UK are from BAME backgrounds (only 3.4%), despite this group’s disproportional contribution to the workforce).

Changing the faces on NHS (and gallery!) walls won’t solve the complex structural issues that underpin the slow rise of BAME workers to the most senior leadership roles in the NHS. But celebrating the long and continuing history of BAME contributions to the National Health Service  — before, during, and after the Windrush years –may help us to think more, and more productively about what we should be doing next to ensure that the NHS we see and benefit from is also the NHS we imagine, represent and remember.

The Windrush Generation and the NHS: By the Numbers

The National Health Service is one of the largest employers in the world, and is the largest employer in Britain itself. It relies on a very wide range of professions and occupations to keep its doors open – from the highly visible doctors and nurses to the often-forgotten or undervalued porters, cleaners, cooks, carpenters, electricians, and managers, among many others. As my colleague Jack Saunders discovered, the figures can be surprising: in 1963, for example, the NHS employed more construction and maintenance staff than hospital doctors (19,552 vs 18,095). And as we know, the NHS has long had a voracious appetite for workers from abroad. This has made it, almost since its inception, one of the most diverse workplaces in the UK. These blogs have reiterated what has become a well-known claim: that migrant workers saved the NHS (and that they still keep it afloat today). But how exactly did they do it, and in what numbers?

Let’s start with a ‘numerical snapshot’ of inward migration to Britain in the early years of the NHS. This was the era of ‘Open Door’ Britain, framed by the British Nationality Act of 1948 which made all ‘British subjects’ into ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’. It is worth noting that this comprised, at least in theory, millions of people: virtually every man, and a much-increased majority of women then alive who had been born or naturalised in the British Isles, Britain’s remaining colonies, protectorates, and the former Dominions of Australia, Canada, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Newfoundland, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and the Union of South Africa. Under the 1948 Act, all of them (and the subsequent children of fathers covered by the Act) were entitled to come to the United Kingdom freely, and to take up residence there. However, legislators at the time apparently anticipated little change in established migration patterns, in which there was extensive migration from the British Isles out to the Empire; a free inward flow from the Republic of Ireland and of British subjects from the ‘Old Commonwealth’ (mainly Australia, Canada, and New Zealand); and relatively limited, largely elite, temporary migration to the UK of everyone else.

They were wrong: new transport and communications technologies, lower costs, and the global economic and political turmoil that followed World War Two and decolonization, as well as Europe’s enormous demand for labour both during reconstruction, and with the rise of service-intensive welfare states, prompted significant increases in migration, not least to the UK. The newcomers had no difficulties finding work: of the 233 men who disembarked from the Windrush on 22 June 1948 and travelled on to London, 148 were already in jobs by the 1st of July, with 11 more anticipating immediate placements. By 1958, approximately 125,000 West Indians had come to the UK to work. In the same period, 55,000 migrants arrived from India and Pakistan, many displaced by Partition. These unanticipatedly high numbers would, by 1961, prompt ever tighter immigration restrictions – but notably, such legislation always turned a wary eye towards the needs of the NHS.

As Emma Jones and Stephanie Snow have shown, the new National Health Service was especially greedy for workers to take up the low-paid jobs that local populations rejected once better opportunities were available: porters, cooks, cleaners, and ancillary workers were all in short supply. Nursing shortages, already extensive before 1945, became desperate as the NHS struggled to cope with the enormous backlog of unmet health needs. By 1948, there were 54,000 nursing vacancies, and by 1949 the Ministries of Health and Labour were working actively with the Colonial Office, the Royal College of Nursing and the General Nursing Council to actively recruit Caribbean women. They would fill the yawning gaps in the Service’s nursing, auxiliary and domestic workforces. Their numbers climbed steadily – by late 1965, there were as many as 5000 Jamaican women staffing British hospitals, and by 1977, 12% of all student nurses and midwives in Britain were recruited overseas, with 66% of those from the Caribbean.[1] Numbers for auxiliary and domestic workers are harder to come by, but pictures and stories of NHS hospitals in this period show us that they made essential contributions across the Service, as so many of their descendants do today.

Doctors too were imported from Britain’s diminishing empire and former colonies in large numbers. By 1960, almost 40% of junior doctors in the NHS came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—countries that, because of the ties of empire, already taught their medical students in English, and indeed, had a significant medical presence in Britain even before the NHS opened its doors. These doctors, like their fellow recruits into nursing, were essential to the survival of the NHS in its first decades. By the 1960s, this was routinely recognised in British politics and culture: ‘without them, the Health Service would have collapsed’ became a truism of the immigration restriction debates of the 1960s and early 1970s. Figures from 1971 suggested that 31% of all NHS doctors in England were born and educated abroad.

Britain’s dependence on a global clinical workforce was reflected in British immigration law. Even Enoch Powell, during his tenure as Health Minister from 1960-1963, actively recruited Caribbean nurses, though their automatic right of entry was removed by the 1971 Immigration Act, and work permits for training nurses were abolished in 1983. These restrictive changes proved to be short-sighted. Strategies to end the UK’s dependence on overseas nurses persistently fell short between the 1970s and 1990s, not least because domestic recruitment was crippled by poor pay and often appalling working condition. New Labour renewed international recruitment in 1998. By 2003, over half of all new nurse recruits had trained abroad. Doctors’ freedom of mobility, meanwhile, continued uninterrupted and almost entirely unrestricted – though so too did the limitations formally and informally placed on them in terms of their access to the most desirable or high-status training posts, specialities, and other professional opportunities.

Next week, in our final Windrush Season blog, we will look at the diversity of the NHS workforce today! And don’t forget to have a look at our beautiful and ever-growing Here to Stay gallery. If you are in the area, you can register HERE to join us at the free Opening event on 15 June 2019, at the University of Warwick campus.

[1] Emma L. Jones and Stephanie J. Snow, Against the Odds: Black and Minority Ethnic Clinicians and Manchester 1948-2009 (Manchester: Manchester NHS Primary Care Trust in association with the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine, 2010), pp.6-19. Do read this lovely book if you have a chance — it has great pictures too! And if you would like to record your NHS story for posterity, try the NHS at 70 Oral History project.

A Word from our Commissioner

In 2018, inspired by the 70th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of the Empire Windrush, Donna Mighty, Assistant Primary Care Liaison Manager and Chair of the BME Staff Network at the Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, commissioned a series of formal portraits of past, present and future NHS nurses with connections to the Windrush Generation. These portraits are at the heart of the paired ‘Here to Stay’ exhibitions that will open here at the University of Warwick on 15th June (you can register to join us at the opening event here!) Donna tells us a little more about this process in her blog below.

In 2018 we celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury docks on 22 June 1948 carrying passengers from the Caribbean.

Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust and specifically their BME Staff Network, were very keen to celebrate this occasion and as such set about organising a Windrush Tea Party in partnership with the University of Birmingham’s Black, Asian, Minority & Ethnic (BAME) Staff Network and Recognize Black Heritage & Culture to recognise and celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation in shaping and building our wonderful NHS.

Our tea party took place on Saturday 16th June at University of Birmingham School. We had a wonderful afternoon of learning, entertainment, music and food.

We were keen to create a lasting legacy and capture portraits and stories of nurses (retired and current) who attended our event. We commissioned photographer Inès Elsa Dalal and the first photo shoot for what was to become our “Here to Stay” exhibition took place on 16th June. We held two further photo shoots in July and August.

In 2018 we had the opportunity to take the exhibition to London in August, Medicine Gallery in September, Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust in October and the University of Birmingham’s School of Medicine in November. (You can see pictures of these events here, here, and here, and learn a little more about Donna’s amazing work for the NHS here!)

We are delighted to be working with Professor Roberta Bivins and the Cultural History of the NHS team to bring “Here to Stay” to a new audience. Do join us!

Portraits and Power

Portraits and Power

What do you see, in your mind’s eye, when you hear the word ‘doctor’? And ‘nurse’? Until very recently indeed, the most common answer to these questions would have been ‘An older white man’ and ‘a white woman’. Even today, research suggests that we commonly expect the members of many high status professions — including doctors, surgeons, and scientists, as well as university professors — to be both male and white. In professions like nursing and teaching, which are socially valued and associated with virtues like care and compassion (but often not well paid), Europeans and North Americans still often picture and represent white faces, though this time those faces are female.

If you look at our galleries here on the People’s History of the NHS, you will start to see why these impressions and stereotypes have lingered. Until very recently, despite the efforts of innovative shows like Emergency Ward 10 (which included a Black nurse by 1959, and a Black female surgeon — AND an interracial kiss — as early as 1964), mainstream sources of information have often whitewashed our images of the NHS. Until the 1980s and 1990s, representations of NHS staff (and even patients) produced by NHS and government institutions for public consumption most often showed individuals of European heritage. Whether explaining mass miniature radiography, depicting nurse training, or illustrating ultrasound scanning), the ‘humans of the NHS’ were portrayed unthinkingly as White.

Coverage in British newspapers was no different; a survey of major papers from across the political spectrum (the Times, The Guardian/Observer, and the Daily Mail) showed that photographs of nurses and images of nursing almost always featured only White women, even though BAME nurses were at the heart of NHS hospital care from the 1950s onwards. Only in articles that specifically discussed ‘race relations’ or ‘immigration’ were BAME nurses and doctors routinely visible. This is not because photos of Black, Asian and Mixed heritage nurses were not readily available. These lovely photos (from 1958 and 1967) kindly shared with the People’s History of the NHS by the Friends of Savernake Hospital, celebrate the diversity of their NHS workforce as well as the Christmas holidays. And by the 1970s and 1980s, photos of union meetings too routinely portray an NHS workforce made up of workers from all nations and ethnic backgrounds.

And still today, if you walk down the hallways and through the boardrooms of British hospitals, medical schools, universities, and professional associations, you will be strolling beneath the gaze of a seemingly endless series of old white men in impressive suits and formal postures. The ‘great and the good’ loom large –often literally – in these settings, and prominently if silently tell a story about the institution’s identity and history. Here at Warwick, for example, a quick look at institutional portraits in the wonderful University art collection reveals a sea of white Vice Chancellors, honorees and benefactors. They look down at us, and sometimes even each other. The only portrait that includes a Black man figures him in the background, literally in the shadow of the portrait’s subject, Lord Scarman (author of the Scarman Report on the 1981 Brixton uprising). They represent a matter of fact about the University: like most, if not all British universities, its appointed leaders have thus far come primarily from one demographic group. Only one portrait, that of Sir Shridath Ramphal, a former Commonwealth Secretary General who held the ceremonial role of Chancellor at Warwick from 1989-2002, challenges this monochromatic vision.

But when an institution’s visual history –its own celebrations of its past — only includes one kind of face, what does it say to those who are not shown? Are their contributions, perhaps, not seen? And what does it say in particular about an institution like the NHS that so obviously includes and absolutely relies on people from every background? The staff of the NHS, like its patients, have never been monolithically White. In fact, both in the past and today, the NHS has long been one of Britain’s most diverse organisations. The portraits in the Here to Stay exhibition coming to Warwick’s brand-new Oculus building from June 15th 2019 – large, formal, and beautifully composed by the artist – begin to bridge this gap between NHS image and NHS realities. They also hang permanently at Sandwell Hospital, and remind us that here in the Midlands, as well as across the NHS, leadership, compassion and inspiration come from BAME NHS staff at every level. This is the National Health Service’s rich Windrush heritage. In a linked exhibition at the Modern Records Centre, we have also curated a display of documents showing the heritage that Windrush and Britain’s BAME communities have built for all of us, at home, at work, and in the arts.

Read more: If you want to know more about the visual stereotypes that shape our expectations about doctors, nurses and other professional groups, here are a few places to start:

Roberta Bivins, Picturing Race in the British National Health Service, 1948-1988, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 28, Issue 1, March 2017, Pages 83–109,

Marci D. Cottingham, Austin H. Johnson, and Rebecca J. Erickson. “‘I Can Never Be Too Comfortable’: Race, Gender, and Emotion at the Hospital Bedside.” Qualitative Health Research 28, no. 1 (January 2018): 145–58. doi:10.1177/1049732317737980.

Jane Turner, Vivienne Tippett, and Beverley Raphael. “Women in Medicine — Socialization, Stereotypes and Self Perceptions.” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 28, no. 1 (March 1994): 129–35. doi:10.3109/00048679409075854.

And for an antidote to monochromatic visions of medical professionals, see:

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!


You can read a summary of the passengers’ details here:, or view the original passenger lists yourself in person at the National Archives ( 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:

If you are interested in learning more about the Polish passengers, you can start here: or here