With its economy destroyed by World War II, the United Kingdom was desperate to restore its place among the world’s elite nations in the aftermath of that conflict which ended in 1945.
One of the sectors the Government gave priority to was health, and it looked to the Caribbean for help.
Trained and prospective nurses were recruited through the ministries of health and labour, the Colonial Office, Royal College of Nursing, and the General Nursing Council. While the first batch of Caribbean nurses arrived in June 1948 on the Empire Windrush, their greatest influx was during the 1950s and 1960s.
Significantly, two weeks before the Windrush arrived at Tilbury Dock in Essex, the British Government instituted the National Health Service (NHS), a system that provided affordable healthcare to citizens.
Many Caribbean women were employed to hospitals affiliated with the NHS. In fact, by the late 1970s, surveys showed they accounted for most of the overseas nurses recruited by agencies to work in the UK health sector.
The recruitment of nurses from outside the UK was critical. According to the kingsfund.org.uk website, not many British women seemed interested in nursing as a career, which resulted in the establishment of 16 agencies across the Caribbean.
That website reports that, “The recruitment campaign was a success; 5,000 Jamaican women were working in British hospitals by 1965 and by 1977 – 66 per cent of overseas student nurses and midwives originated from the Caribbean. To this day, the NHS is still reliant on overseas workers to staff the health service with 16.5 per cent of staff reporting a non-British nationality and recent nursing recruitment efforts have been focused on Jamaica.”
Karen Bonner, whose parents are from Jamaica and Barbados, became a nurse at age 18 in 1995. Three years ago she was appointed chief nurse of the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust.
Bonner is among only four per cent of minority nurses in an executive position at the NHS. Writing on her blog for the organisation’s website three years ago, she saluted its trailblazers.
“It has often been said that the NHS could not function without its black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) staff, and this is undoubtedly true. Today, the NHS is the biggest employer of people from a BAME background in Europe — 20.7 per cent of the NHS workforce which represent over 200 nationalities. Many are doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, domestic, catering and porters. Our thanks and gratitude to all of them,” Bonner wrote. “The Windrush generation helped to build the National Health Services and I stand on the shoulders of those nurses who came before me — your legacy is my history. I celebrate and thank you.”
The Caribbean nurses’ pivotal contribution to the UK health sector has been documented in books and numerous newspaper articles and columns. In 2018, Leonie Elliott, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, debuted in Call The Midwife, a hit BBC drama series based on a diverse group of midwives working in the East End of London during the 1950s.