Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas explained at a screening in London: “We now are at 1963, which was the year when a great wave of Caribbean young women arrived in this country to nurse at a time when nurses were hugely needed, and they did not always get the welcome they deserved.”
And while Lucille is welcomed with open arms by her colleagues and by most of the local community, the show also portrays the more uncomfortable truths of life as a black midwife in 1960s Britain.
Lucille’s story reflects the real experiences of many thousands of women. So who were they? When (and why) did they arrive, and what happened when they joined the NHS?
Why did so many Caribbean women join the NHS as nurses?
In 1948, the National Health Service was born, a revolutionary new way to provide healthcare to the nation. But the NHS immediately faced a staffing crisis, with a shortage of 54,000 nurses. The post-war labour shortage was particularly severe as the women who’d stepped up to do nursing work as national service went home to their families and left the workforce.
The British government encouraged mass migration from the Commonwealth as a solution. The Ministries of Health and Labour teamed up with the Colonial Office, the General Nursing Council and the Royal College of Nursing to recruit hospital staff from the Caribbean, advertising in local papers. They targeted young women looking for a new life and new opportunities.
Smoothing the way for this influx of immigrants, the 1948 Nationality Act granted British citizenship to people from British colonies and former British colonies, making it easy for them to settle in Britain so long as they could afford the passage. Over the next 15 years, many more young West Indians arrived on British shores. By the end of 1965, there were between 3,000 and 5,000 Jamaican nurses working in British hospitals – mostly based in London and the Midlands, according to Wellcome Research Associates Stephanie Snow and Emma Jones.
The government restricted freedom of movement in 1962 as immigration came under attack, with a new law limiting the admission of Commonwealth settlers to those with “employment vouchers” – but the NHS was still in desperate need of essential staff, so both nurses and doctors were exempt from the new immigration controls. In fact, it was ironically Enoch Powell (who later made that inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech) who, as Tory Health Minister from 1960 to 1963, specifically invited women from the Caribbean to Britain to train as nurses.
Did West Indian midwives face racism in the UK?
In Call the Midwife we see Nurse Lucille Anderson quietly standing up to racial abuse, keeping her head high despite the horrible words she hears.
“Lucille does face a bit of hostility from some patients,” Leonie Elliott told Radio Times. The actress’s own family moved to Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s.
“Filming those scenes was quite difficult at times,” she said. “It’s not the nicest thing to do, especially when you know your family may possibly have faced some of these prejudices, because that makes it more personal.”
The TV drama shows the midwives and sisters of Nonnatus House welcoming Lucille and helping her settle in, but also the prejudice she faces: the rumours that she’s unqualified, the mothers saying she can’t touch their daughters, the assumptions that she is to blame for anything that goes wrong. Lucille herself talks movingly about her experiences as a black midwife and her desire to keep her cool and never give in or accept patients’ prejudices.
McDowell records the testimony of 58 West Indian nurses who worked in the NHS in those early days, and it paints a picture of tricky interactions with patients:
Brie: “They can be nasty, call you names and stuff like that, but, as I say, you’ve just got to let it go. You get mad, I come come and have a moan at my husband, and that’s it, it’s finished and done with. You know, that’s part of life.”
Georgina: “When I first started coming in the country and was nursing, the older patient was not used to Black people so they were very nasty, they will take their poo and throw it at you or call you Black and whatever and things like that, but you look beyond that because you know what you want out of your life eventually.”
Jasmine: “Like some patients, because you’re Black, they don’t think you are as qualified or have the same experience, so when you go to do something they doubt you.”
These women also emphasised the support and fulfilment they had found in the workplace from colleagues and patients, and talked about their strong sense of professionalism and pride.