Time & Place
Time and Place was an oral history project which aimed to record the experiences of nurses who were recruited by the NHS from the former colonies during the1950s and 1960s.
All the nurses interviewed for this project came from the Caribbean (including Guyana), and trained at Brighton General Hospital in the 1950s 1960s.
The project is being run by Brighton and Hove Black History, a local community history project which aims to uncover the hidden histories of Brighton and Hove focusing in particular on multi-cultural histories in the city.
The importance of Time and Place to our organisation is that it is recording a part of Brighton and Hove’s history that is not well known, at a time when a great number of Black and Minority Ethnic people came to live and work here and contribute to the town (as it was then). Last but not least, it is our way of honouring these nurses who contributed greatly to British society, not least through help the British Health Service at a time when there was an acute skills shortage.
Ten nurses are being interviewed altogether for Time and Place including 6 who still live in Brighton Hove and West Sussex and one who now lives in Barbados! Once the interviews have taken place the oral histories will be turned into an mobile exhibition, website and booklet and will be used as a educational resource for Brighton libraries and schools. This was launched during Black History month (October 2009).
The islands’ society was intensely stratified by class and colour in an economy 90% dependent on agriculture. With few employment opportunities in the West Indies, social mobility was mainly attained by emigration, initially to the USA and Central America, but after World War II increasingly to the UK.
Many West Indians served in the war, and returned to a depressed economy with nearly a third of the population unemployed. Their experience of Britain had created ambitions difficult to satisfy in Caribbean society and many returned to the UK starting off a wave of emigration that intensified after 1952 when the USA closed its borders to West Indian immigrants.
Most of the nurses came from professional families, and had been educated to see the UK as the mother country. They tended to have had a strict upbringing within an extended family – all of whom wanted to take part in the decision to send these young teenagers to Britain for training. The nurses we interviewed came from Trinidad, British Guyana and Jamaica, which became independent countries in the 1960s.
Despite the official recruitment drive, most of the nurses came through word of mouth, and their travel to the UK was paid for by their families. Sometimes the families made the decision to leave their home country for them; in other cases they did not tell their families until very late. Most of the nurses knew nothing of Brighton and the trip was their first time away from home. It’s not surprising that one nurse said she cried all the way to the UK!
A common complaint among the nurses was the blandness of the food, but often they would escape this by going to one of the two Indian restaurants in Brighton where they received a discount. Going out involved trips to the Regency cinema and dance hall, or attending parties in people’s houses. If the curfew was missed it meant either a dressing down from Matron, or sneaking back into the hostel through a window.
Fashions and especially hair styles were important to the young women, one of whom experimented with a ‘Twiggy’ haircut. If they couldn’t get to an Afro- Caribbean hairdresser in London, the nurses would try straightening their hair themselves on the stove.
Everyone dressed smartly, especially around Christmas which was a big party season. Miniskirts were just coming into fashion, and some nurses tried to shorten their uniforms by tucking a fold under their belt – much to Matron’s disapproval.
Most of the nurses found the UK hospitable, but they did encounter some prejudice including doing more menial work than their white counterparts. There was little ethnic diversity in Brighton and Hove at the time – one nurse said they were the only Black family in Hove. Most did well in their exams, and some went on to do additional training in midwifery and psychiatric nursing.
Most of the nurses found their training in the UK a positive experience, and many say they would do it again. Despite some criticism of the current state of the NHS – cleanliness and caring are not such priorities as they were then – most of the nurses are still working in nursing.
Almost all stayed in the UK, some marrying English men not always with the approval of the white family. As one of the nurse’s daughters says, her mother was very brave to leave home at such a young age, and come to a country so far away where she did not know anybody.