African nurses

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Medicine through time

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these sources reveal about the role played by African nurses in the NHS?

Potential activities: Research the story of Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, the first black nurse in the NHS and a pioneer of nursing in post-independence Nigeria. Read blog about Dzagbele Matilda Asante from Gold Coast (Ghana) nursing in Britain in the lesson links.

Download: Lesson pack

What part did they play in British health services?

The recruitment of African women into the National Health Service from British colonies began in the period after the Second World War. However, nurses, doctors and other medical professionals had trained in Britain before this, as the colonial power did not provide the full facilities for medical training in the colonies.

Despite their long history of work within health services in Britain, the role of African women is rarely highlighted in discussions of the history of the NHS or of health work more generally. Current narratives on Black women in the British health service tend to focus on the ‘Windrush generation’ and Caribbean contributions. 

Use this lesson to find original documents which explore the role of African nurses in the health services of Britain.

Please note that some sources contain offensive language that was used at the time and is unacceptable today.


Tasks

Source 1

Passenger list showing Princess Ademola’s return to Britain in 1937. Catalogue ref: BT 26/1118/32 

Omo-Oba Adenrele Ademola was the daughter of an important African Chief in Northern Nigeria. Princess Ademola trained as a nurse in London at Guy’s hospital where she finished her training in 1941. 

  • What is the date of this document? 
  • Can you find Miss A. Ademola? 
  • How old is she? 
  • What is her profession?  
  • Where in Britain are these passengers travelling to? 
  • How are they getting there? 
  • Can you find their countries of origin on the list? 
  • What are the professions of the individuals shown?  
  • What can we infer about the social class of the passengers from this list? 

Source 2

This shows Princess Ademola on the 1939 Register, Catalogue ref: RG 101/1268G  

The 1939 register was an emergency step taken at the start of the Second World War to help the government set up the rationing system and identity cards. Later on it was used to track the movement of the civilian population and to help create the National Health Service Register in 1948.  

The 1939 register thus provides the most complete survey of the population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951 as the 1931 census was destroyed during the Second World War and no census was carried out in 1941 during wartime. 

  • How does her occupation differ from Source 1?  
  • Can suggest reasons why her occupation differs from Source 1? 
  • Why is the 1939 Register useful for historians and researchers on this topic? 

Source 3 

Extract from Nigerian Government Gazette which features both Nigerian and British medical practitioners, women and men, 1940, Catalogue ref: CO 658/44

  • Can you find 5 different cities where the individuals on this list trained?  
  • Can you suggest why Nigerian citizens trained overseas?  
  • Why were British citizens practicing medicine in Nigeria?  
  • For what reasons do you think there are more men than women on this list? 

Source 4

This leaflet was produced at a time when many hospitals needed more nurses in Britain after the Second World War. This is an example of a leaflet aimed at recruiting nurses at Saint Catherine’s Hospital, Birkenhead, 1952, Catalogue ref: MH 55/944 

  • Who is this leaflet aimed at? 
  • How does it try to get attention? 
  • Why was there a shortage of nurses at this time do you think? 

Source 5 

Note sent to Mr Morley at the Commonwealth Relations Office from W. Clark representing the C.R.O. on a Home Office Committee, 1st February, 1954, DO 35/5216

[Please note that this source contains offensive language used at the time, which is unacceptable today].

  • Why, according to this source, does the Home Secretary consider that legislation to control immigration is not justified?  
  • Why do you think the Home Office drew that conclusion? 
  • Can you explain why it was important that the Commonwealth Relations Office was represented at this Home Office Committee on employment in the UK?

Source 6

Extract from a document concerning the recruitment of students and staff from Commonwealth countries at the time of the Common Immigrants Bill, 1962, Catalogue ref:  MH 55/2789 

Recruitment from the Commonwealth and colonies in the 1950s and 1960s was important to deal with the shortage of nurses and hospital domestics to work in the new National Health Service. Each colony or member of the Commonwealth assessed candidates from the educational and health perspectives and then reported to a panel which included the Colonial Office (Commonwealth Office in 1966) and the Ministry of Health.

  • What evidence is there in this document that British hospitals are depending on the employment of Commonwealth workers? 
  • What type of jobs are these workers performing in British hospitals? 
  • How could the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill affect hospitals? 
  • Can you explain any links between this source and source 5? 
  • Can you list other jobs/industries that might have shortages at this time? 

Source 7

Extract from Daily Telegraph, 29 June, 1964, Catalogue ref: HGL 39/32/9 

This newspaper clipping was included in a file concerning discussion of housing issues affecting Commonwealth immigrants, including the ‘colour bar’ as practised by landlords, overcrowding in tenement blocks and the resultant fire hazard and effect on public health.  

[Please note that this source contains offensive language used at the time, which is unacceptable today].

  • What is this news story about? 
  • What does the story reveal about the discrimination experienced by immigrants living in the London Borough of Middlesex? 
  • What do you think Albert Cooney meant by saying some immigrants in his housing association were ‘handpicked’? 
  • Can you explain the term ‘colour bar’? 

Finally, what additional sources do you think could be used to find out more about:

  1. The role of African nurses in Britain after the Second World War?
  2. Their experiences of living and working in Britain?

Background

Before the Second World War, African men and women came to train in Britain to work in British healthcare services. These individuals usually came from affluent backgrounds – or, less commonly, were the children of one African parent and one British parent – and chose to pursue careers in healthcare.  

During the Second World War, the Colonial Film Unit made a film titled ‘Nurse Ademola’ about the life and career of Princess Ademola. The film was created as propaganda for West Africa in order to showcase the role of the British colonies and gain their support for the war effort. However, the film also signifies the importance of Princess Ademola herself as a nursing role model, not only for Africans but also for the British Empire. The film has been lost; however, there are some stills from the film in the Imperial War Museum photographic archive. 

After the Second World War, increased numbers of Africans from Nigeria and the Gold Coast (Ghana), and West Indian citizens as part of the Windrush Caribbean migration, came to Britain to assist with the growing staffing crisis across the healthcare professions. Many experienced discrimination and racism, not only from British people but also within the services they worked. It was often difficult for these immigrants to find decent housing and many women, especially those training as nurses, were pushed to apply for courses for which they were overqualified.  

Indeed, there were a growing number of government reports and research into the experience of those who migrated to Britain in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that reflect racist attitudes towards those who chose to settle and show the difficulties of finding decent accommodation, employment and treatment as British citizens. There were serious race riots in 1958 in London and Nottingham attacking Black communities. 

In 1962, the Immigration Act created stricter guidelines for migration into Britain for all Commonwealth citizens, including citizens of the UK and its colonies. Migration was only possible if a person was a Commonwealth citizen born in the UK, a Commonwealth citizen with a passport issued by the UK government in UK or Ireland, or a Citizen of the UK and Colonies with a passport from the UK Government. 

Further legislation followed with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 and 1971, which put greater restrictions on who could be granted British citizenship and added to a climate of hostility. 

Many of the underlying issues of racism, poor housing and education facing immigrant communities remain today. 


Teachers' notes

At the start of the lesson, students study a passenger list showing Princess Ademola’s return to Britain in 1937. She was the daughter of an important African Chief in Northern Nigeria and trained as a nurse in London at Guy’s Hospital. After this, there is an opportunity to examine the 1939 register, which lists Princess Ademola. The 1939 register was an emergency step taken at the start of the Second World War to help the government set up the rationing system and identity cards. Thus, both documents indicate her presence in Britain and her employment details. 

An extract from Nigerian Government Gazette, which features both Nigerian and British medical practitioners, recaps on the learning provided by the earlier sources of evidence of African medical professionals training in Britain. 

Next, students look at a recruitment leaflet from after the Second World War when many hospitals needed more nurses.  This is followed by a short summary sent to the Commonwealth Relations Office about a Home Office Committee, which discussed ‘Employment of Coloured People in U.K’ in 1954 and reveals lack of appetite for controls in immigration at that time. The next source is an extract from a document concerning the recruitment of students and staff from Commonwealth countries at the time of the Common Immigrants Bill 1962, which infers a change in policy and a move towards tighter controls. The final source is a short newspaper clipping from the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1964, which touches on the racial discrimination experienced by those who migrated to Britain in this period and raises the issue of a ‘colour bar’. 

  • The lesson could be used as an introduction to the role played by African women in the National Health Service, how nurses from Commonwealth countries were recruited and the early implementation of the Commonwealth Immigration Bill 1962. 
  • Students could work in pairs or small groups to discuss the questions and report back to the class, or they could work individually. Teachers should bear in mind the vocabulary used in some documents at the time, and care should be taken to make this point to students and to stress the appropriate language to use. 
  • Students could discuss present-day issues of racism faced by immigrants – the news story from 1964 (Source 7) could prompt discussion. Are there similar issues in society today? What needs to be done to overcome these inequalities? 
  • The lesson could be used in a study of time on the theme of migration or multi-cultural Britain.  
  • This lesson was produced in collaboration with the Young Historians Project and an essential activity for students exploring this lesson would be to consult their blog post on Princess Ademola, also listed in the external links below.

Sources

  1. Banner image: ‘Nigerian Princess Adenrele Ademola returns home from London after her training as a nurse’ © IWM D 16165
  2. Passenger list showing Princess Ademola’s return to Britain in 1937, Catalogue ref: BT 26/1118/32 
  3. Princess Ademola on the 1939 Register, Catalogue ref: RG 101/1268G  
  4. Extract from Nigerian Government Gazette which features both Nigerian and British medical practitioners, women and men, 1940, Catalogue ref: CO 658/44  
  5. Leaflet aimed at recruiting more nurses at Saint Catherine’s Hospital in Birkenhead, 1952, Catalogue ref: MH 55/944 
  6. Note sent to the Commonwealth Relations Office from W. Clark representing the C.R.O. on a Home Office Committee, 1 February, 1954, Catalogue ref: DO 35/5216 
  7. Extract from a document concerning the recruitment of students & staff from Commonwealth countries at the time of the Common Immigrants Bill, 1962, Catalogue ref: MH 55/2789 
  8. Extract from Daily Telegraph, 29 June, 1964, Catalogue ref: HGL 39/32/9 

Connections to Curriculum

Key stage 3 

Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day: The Welfare State; Social, cultural and technological change in post-war British society 

Key stage 4 

Courses on the history of medicine through time exploring the development of the National Health Service; costs, choices and the issues of healthcare in the 21st century. 

AQA GCSE History 

Britain: Power and the people: c1170 to the present day  

Part 4: Race & Equality: Minority rights: the development of multi-racial society since the Second World War; discrimination, protest and reform; the Brixton Riots including Scarman Report 1981. 

Edexcel GCSE History: Migrants in Britain, c800-present  

OCR GCE History: Migration to Britain c.1000 to c.2010 

Key stage 5  

Edexcel GCE A level History 

Britain transformed, 1918–97: Race and immigration: Racial controversy and the impact of government policy on race relations and immigration 1958-79.  


External links

Heart of the Nation 

https://heartofthenation.migrationmuseum.org  

Research guide for records relating to doctors and nurses at The National Archives 

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/doctors-and-nurses/ 

Young Historians Project 

 https://www.younghistoriansproject.org/ 

Dzagbele Matilda Asante: nursing In the UK pre Windrush and the NHS 

https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/bhm-firsts/dzagbele-matilda-asante-i-was-nursing-in-the-uk-before-windrush-and-the-nhs/ 

Adenrele Ademola’s nursing story 

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/african-princess-in-guys-the-story-of-princess-adenrele-ademola/ 

Kofoworola Abeni Pratt worked in the NHS and a pioneer of nursing in post-independence Nigeria.  

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/kofoworola-abeni-pratt 

Medics, migration and the NHS, with two videos on nursing training 

https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/WyjPPScAALyZnoX7

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Medicine through time

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these sources reveal about the role played by African nurses in the NHS?

Potential activities: Research the story of Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, the first black nurse in the NHS and a pioneer of nursing in post-independence Nigeria. Read blog about Dzagbele Matilda Asante from Gold Coast (Ghana) nursing in Britain in the lesson links.

Download: Lesson pack

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