Beginning in the late 1940s and accelerating during the 1950s, Britain advertised in the Caribbean for nurses. Not only was the UK still recovering from war, the new National Health Service had begun in 1948 and immediately the need for additional nursing staff to help provide the free health care service was obvious. Many British wartime nurses had gone back to old (and generally less stressful) jobs or gotten married and given up work altogether. Senior nursing staff were sent to the Caribbean to set up training courses and recruit nurses; the British government took out advertisements in local island newspapers. According to Stephanie Snow and Emma Jones, researchers at the Wellcome Trust, by the end of 1965 there were 3000-5000 nurses from Jamaica alone working in British hospitals (http://www.subcultz.com/2015/08/uk-immigration-and-the-national-health-service/).
The recruitment of Caribbean nurses to the NHS was highly visible. Nurses were needed in all parts of the country, and for many people (especially outside of London or some of the other big urban centres) seeing a Caribbean nurse at their local NHS hospital was their first contact with Black British people. The changing face of British nursing was so evident that it found its way into children’s picture books at a time when it was highly unusual to see any Black characters sensitively depicted—and even when they were present, they were often shown as foreigners or people living outside Britain. But even that bastion of middle-class white British childhood, the Ladybird books, recognized the presence of Caribbean nurses. The 1963 title from the “People at Work” series, The Nurse, included an illustration of a Black nurse in a children’s ward; the children are all sitting on the same bed watching television while the nurse stands behind them looking mildly bored. The text, however, tells the reader that “No one is lonely in the children’s ward . . . The nurses are kind and smiling” (40). By the 1983 edition of the same title, the Black nurse has a little more to do; this time it is the child who is mildly bored-looking while the nurse checks her patient’s pulse.While the recruitment of Caribbean nurses gave these women (they were almost exclusively women) a chance at a professional job that otherwise eluded most Caribbean migrants of the 1950s and 1960s (teachers from the Caribbean, for example, were often forced to retrain, and many were asked to “learn English”), it also stereotyped them. If a children’s book wanted to depict a Black British adult subject positively, it was almost always as a nurse. In the rhyming counting book, One to Ten and Down Again (1980) by David Lloyd, the only non-white character is Nurse Feeling-Fine. Like her Ladybird counterparts, she is cheerful, even when taken up by a stray balloon into the sky.
The connection between nursing and the Caribbean goes back much further than the postwar Windrush migration, however. It can in fact be traced to the beginning of professional nursing in the 19th century during Britain’s Crimean War. This is the war that made Florence Nightingale famous, but it also made the career of Jamaican-born Mary Seacole. Seacole learned to be a “doctress” (as it was called in the Caribbean at the time) from her mother, who taught her how to prepare herbal remedies and set broken bones. Seacole helped nurse British soldiers through yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the Caribbean before going to England to offer her services to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale refused her help, and when Seacole later set up her own “British Hotel” close to the front to provide nursing as well as home comforts, Nightingale wrote privately about her distaste for Seacole’s efforts (she commented that Seacole made “many men drunk” in a letter she requested the receiver to burn after reading).
After the war, Nightingale went on to British fame and thousands of children’s biographies. Seacole nearly disappeared from the historical record (there is one chapter in a 1906 book of biographies of Brave and Good Women for girls; other than that, I know of nothing until 1982). Black British librarians, such as Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, rescued her reputation, and eventually, Seacole became part of the National Curriculum. But like the nurses in today’s NHS, Seacole hasn’t had an easy time as part of a national institution. Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, tried to have her removed from the National Curriculum in 2013. Although he didn’t succeed, she is now an “and/or” part of the history curriculum; students are expected to learn about Mary Seacole and/or Florence Nightingale, comparing one or both nurses with World War I nurse Edith Cavell. The new biographies of Seacole show her in this context, rather than giving her entire biographies of her own.
For over a hundred years, Britons have relied on the help of Caribbean nurses to heal their sick (and remain “kind and smiling” while they do it). But they have seldom had the respect they deserve. Children’s literature, however, is one space where the nurse (whether from the Caribbean or born in Britain) is valued. Perhaps the top brass in the NHS should spend their weekend doing a little reading.