The Windrush Generation (and their descendants...)

We look at the great contribution nurses and social care workers from the Caribbean have made to the NHS and social services, often in the face of prejudice.


We look at the great contribution nurses and social care workers from the Caribbean have made to the NHS and social services, often in the face of prejudice.

Seventy years ago, on 22nd June 1948, a ship called “M V Empire Windrush” docked at Tilbury in Essex with 492 West Indian passengers. My understanding is that the main purpose of the voyage was to transport British soldiers from Australia to England, following the ending of the Second World War. There were a lot of vacant berths on the ship and these were advertised in the Caribbean at £28 each. This was only three years after the end of the war, and returning servicemen had made the employment situation in the Caribbean very difficult. Most of the West Indian passengers on the “Empire Windrush” were former servicemen.  The British Nationality Act 1948 created a new status of “citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”. When the Second World War ended there was a lot of rebuilding to be done in England, and the peoples from the Commonwealth were encouraged to move to England. The Jamaican poet Louise Bennett deals with this in a clever poem called “Colonizin Englan in Reverse”.

The term “Windrush Generation” is used to cover the period from 1948 to 1971. The term is associated mainly with people from the West Indies, but is not limited to them. The 1948 British Nationality Act opened the door for people from the Commonwealth to enter the UK, and help rebuild a country which had been battered by war.

1948 was also the year the National Health Service (NHS) was established, and the new service needed a lot of nurses and other medical staff. Nurses in the Commonwealth were invited to join the new NHS, and some 40,000 nurses and midwives from abroad moved to the UK. The government had greatly underestimated the cost of setting up the NHS, and there was not much money left to pay the doctors and nurses.

In 2016, BBC 4 broadcasted a programme on the contribution black nurses made to the NHS. The young women from the Caribbean who came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s did so for a variety of reasons. Some of them simply wanted to become nurses, some wanted to get away from the social restrictions of their small islands and others were proud to contribute something to Great Britain. The first migrant nurses and trainee nurses came from British colonies, and they saw England as their “Mother Country”. About 10,000 West Indian men had fought for the “Mother Country” during the Second World War, and after the war, thousands of West Indian women moved to Great Britain to support the NHS. It was a case of British colonies supporting Britain in its hour of need.

The NHS did not treat the nurses from the Caribbean as they treated their own nurses. Most of the Caribbean nurses were pushed down the State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) route, rather than being trained as State Registered Nurses (SRN). They were made to feel inferior. Some of the student nurses were appalled to find out that Caribbean people were living in houses without a bathroom and had to use the public baths. They were made to feel that they were in the country to work, and that the authorities took no interest in how they lived.

Some of the patients did not give the black nurses the respect they were entitled to. They treated them as inferior because of their colour. One former midwife said that she was refused entry to a house because of her colour. They were intimidated by Teddy Boys. Right wing groups claimed that the influx of black people was a threat to the racial purity of the indigenous people.

Some of the nurses saw midwifery as a good career path to take, as a midwife was recognized as a practitioner in her own right. Although the nurses became generally liked and accepted by their patients, very few of them were appointed to senior posts in the NHS. That situation has improved during the 70 years of the NHS, but it still has some way to go. The black nurses worked hard and made sacrifices to survive. Their family lives were affected by the unsocial hours they had to work.

It was never explained to the great British public that the immigrants were invited to Great Britain because there was a labour shortage. Some people resented them being in the country. Even members of the government apparently expected the immigrants to stay for a few years, and then return “home”. Some of the immigrants would have returned to their Caribbean islands, but they could not afford to do so, as they could save very little of their low wages.

The people from the Caribbean have been very much involved in health care and social services. They have worked in hospitals as receptionists, porters, cleaners, building maintenance workers and electricians. They have worked as Social Workers, and have found employment in Care Homes and Nursing Homes. They have also worked with people with learning issues and mobility problems. It is claimed that 15% of UK’s population have a black, minority or ethnic (BME) background, but 20% of the NHS workforce is supplied by the BME community.

In the 2016 BBC 4 programme, it is claimed that black nurses saved the NHS. Many nurses from the Caribbean feel they have been treated badly by the NHS, and their children have been reluctant to follow them into the profession.