I left Caribbean sun to nurse in Essex

A new exhibition honours folk who travelled halfway round the world to treat Britain's sick in the early days of the NHS.

Steven Russell

A new exhibition honours folk who travelled halfway round the world to treat Britain's sick in the early days of the NHS. Back in Colchester for the first time in more than 45 years, an ex-nurse tells Steven Russell what it was like swapping the Caribbean for the Colne - and how close she came to quitting

IT was approaching midnight by the time the taxi arrived at the nurses' home. Not surprisingly, Shirla Allen found the iron gates locked. “We rattled the chains and eventually somebody came and let me in. I made such a commotion,” she recalls, with a laugh. “This lady came down. She had a pigtail and a nightcap on, like Wee Willie Winkie. She greeted me by saying 'Nurse, you know you shouldn't come to the front entrance of the nurses' home; you should go to the front entrance of the hospital to be let in.' Well, I didn't know that - and nobody had ever called me 'Nurse' before.”

Not surprising, really, for Shirla had arrived in England only that morning - a cold and grey Sunday in March, 1958 - after forsaking her Caribbean island village to start a new life in the “mother country”. Britain had launched its National Health Service a decade earlier and needed staff to keep it going. It saw the Commonwealth as a fertile recruiting ground. So an invitation went out for folk to come and train as nurses. Shirla answered the call.

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She travelled on the cruise ship SS Antilles and landed on the south coast at 8am, to be greeted by a representative of the British Council who saw the new arrival onto a train to Paddington.

In London a lady whisked her by car to Liverpool Street to catch the train to Essex. “It was the 9.18pm train. I'll never forget that,” says Shirla.

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There was no-one to meet her at Colchester, but the stationmaster helped by arranging a taxi. “He said 'This lady's for the County' and I said 'No, I'm not for the County; I'm for Essex County Hospital.' And the driver said 'I know, Duckie.' It was the first time anyone had ever called me Duckie.”

Thus was Shirla's late-night arrival. The roused lady left her standing in the lobby with her suitcase. “Eventually the night sister came and I slept in what she called the sick bay.”

Nursing training began the very next day: three months of basic classroom-based tuition to start with, with one day a week spent on a ward. The intake was 13-strong, with two trainees from Jamaica and Shirla. The rest were white.

The course had already been running for a fortnight, so there was a bit of catching-up to do, as well as a different culture to get to grips with.

Welcome to your new life.

Decades later, in 2000, Shirla would receive the OBE for services to nursing, but it would be wrong to think everything went swimmingly in those early days.

She admits finding nursing hard at the beginning. And then, nearly 18 months in, she nearly quit and went home. Shirla and two other trainees from her cohort - English people - were working on a ward. She claims the other learners were shown techniques and procedures “and I was relegated to the sluice with the bedpans”.

Early one morning she decided she'd had enough. Off duty at 9am, she went to the post office and sent a telegram to St Vincent, requesting money be sent for her passage home. Shirla packed her clothes and belongings, and even stripped the bed, and resolved not to return to the ward at 1pm.

In the bustle of visiting time she wasn't missed until later that afternoon, when “somebody had the temerity to die and then it was 'Where's Nurse Allen?' and I wasn't there.

“They rang the home sister, who came to disturb my equilibrium,” she chuckles, “and was quite harsh at first. I said 'Well, I'm going home. There's my uniform; and my bag is packed.' She probably thought I'd gone a bit nuts! So she toned it down.”

Anyway, Shirla did return to lay out this unfortunate dead patient. The return telegram came from St Vincent, confirming money would be sent, and the hospital authorities realised this trainee nurse was serious.

The night sister rounded up as many of the black nurses as she could to try to talk her out of it, says Shirla. “I remember one of them saying 'Shirla, if you want to get on in this place you've got to stoop to conquer.' I said 'Stoop? Tell me, how low?'”

Matron sent for her the following morning and wisely advised her to think about it for a fortnight. “I don't know if she told the sisters in the hospital, but from then on I earned the right to be treated equally with the other nurses,” feels Shirla, who in the event wouldn't make a trip back to St Vincent until 1966.

Generally, she says she was treated well by patients and staff. “The English nurses were kind and helpful. I spent my first Christmas with one of them and their family in Braintree.” There was no sense of resentment - of migrants taking jobs - “because we were seen as helping. The NHS was just 10 years old and wanted nurses so it could develop”.

There were hardly any other black people in Colchester. “Apart from the nurses - there were people from Jamaica and Trinidad, but I think I was the first from one of the smaller islands - I don't remember seeing any others.”

Some people were wont to lump together all black folk as “darkies from Africa”, though not in a racist way. Such descriptions were mostly underpinned by ignorance.

“I remember spending a weekend with one of the nurses in a village,” says Shirla. “There was a fete and I was standing there, and a child came and touched me, and when I moved she ran screaming! And the older people, who'd never left the village, I think . . .” She pulls the kind of quizzical sideways glance they'd given her.

Shirla knew “absolutely nothing” of Colchester before she set sail - hadn't even pinpointed it on a map - but knew much about the history of her new land. Her posting had been arranged between the Methodist deaconess in St Vincent, who happened to have come from Maldon in Essex, and the British Council.

“It was the 'empire in colonial days',” says Shirla. St Vincent had come under British rule in the late 18th Century. “The headmistress of the school I went to was always English. The Governor was always English. So you had this idea of England's green and pleasant land. We did Chaucer and one of the teachers came back from England and brought us some daffodils to show us what they were like. So you had this idea of the mother country: welcoming . . . a nice place . . . nice people.”

The deputy head's daughter had trained as a nurse in Britain and had talked to the girls about it. “In a small island you didn't have many prospects apart from the civil service or teaching. Lots of us who were at school together came over at various times,” explains Shirla.

Her volcanic island home, only 18 miles long and 11 wide, was the largest island of the chain known as St Vincent & the Grenadines. The pace of life was slow in Colonarie, where she grew up, the village wedged between the Red Cliffs and the sea, so what was it like to arrive as a teenager in 1950s London?

“After the excitement of the ship, it didn't occur to me until I actually landed that I was alone. Standing there on the platform at Paddington for almost an hour, it really came home to me.”

It was enlightening what English folk did and didn't know. “We did the history of England and the empire, so we knew a lot about you, and we assumed you knew a lot about us! Then you realised that wasn't the case. People asked you odd questions: 'Did you learn to speak English once you were here?' And they spoke to you in this exaggerated, s-l-o-w way, because they assumed you didn't understand.”

After gaining her state registration in 1961, Shirla spent six months as a theatre nurse before moving on the following year. Older nurses had told her midwifery was a fast track, as British nurses didn't seem too keen on the role. Come to Scotland, they suggested; but Shirla didn't relish the cold. “They said 'If you don't go to Scotland, go to East London, because they drop babies like flies down there and you get a lot of experience!'”

After six months in Hackney she went to Kent, before returning to London. Next was a switch to health visiting - “that was where I felt I had found my niche” - followed by a management role with the health visiting and community services in Hampstead.

In the early 1980s Shirla joined the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association to manage its community activities in places such as Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The final port of call before retiring in the mid-1990s was the Department of Health, where she helped develop policy.

Shirla met her husband-to-be after moving to London - she's now Shirla Philogène - and has a son.

Nowadays she lives in the East Finchley/Hampstead Garden Suburb area. “When people are being a bit difficult [making assumptions] and say 'North London? Do you live in Tottenham?'” - known for its sizeable black population - “I say 'No, I live just off The Bishop's Avenue . . .' And they go 'Oh!'” Britain is, though, a tolerant place and generally welcoming, she says.

Must be odd to spend your formative years in one place and then your adult life halfway across the globe . . .

“Yes. There's home, which is here, and my native land, where I belong.”

Shirla has recently self-published her autobiography. Between Two Worlds - A Narrative tells how she “left a world of simple pleasures, where the pace of life was slow and time almost stood still, and arrived in a place where my every movement was to be governed by the ticking of the clock.

“In this new world I had no time to stand and stare, nor to sit amongst the flowers or to count the bees rather than the hours, and I've lived between these two worlds ever since.”

Looking back, she notices how that traditional style of life on St Vincent has been replaced “by twenty-four-hour television and gadgets imported from abroad. The old-fashioned, friendly buses that carried the people with their produce to the market have been replaced by vans that drive at great speed along narrow winding roads.

“To pay for these new pleasures, the islanders have exported their brightest, youngest and most talented people.”

Britain, meanwhile, has lost the British Council's representatives' reassuring smiles of welcome at the ports, and back-to-back houses with their friendly neighbourhoods.

“Acres of land and fields have been given over to long, hypnotic stretches of motorways. Elegant Georgian and Victorian homes have been replaced by large estates, and the skyline is interrupted by high-rise blocks of metal and concrete.

“But there are many remaining joys that I cherish. These include the stoicism of the people and their humour, the easy access to places of culture, and the deep and lasting friendships I have made.”

Shirla pauses, a twinkle in her eye. “When I read the book, I thought 'You sound like a cantankerous old bag!'” And are you? “I think I'm rather nice!”

Shirla's book costs £7.90 in paperback (ISBN 9781438911557) and £11.50 with hardcover (9781438911564).

IT'S strange how things come about. The Empire of Care exhibition was sparked by an unexpected message and put together in just a few hectic months.

Ciara Canning, curator of community history for Colchester and Ipswich Museums, explains: “The idea actually came from an email I received. It was very, very random! It came from someone in London who I didn't know - a heritage officer in one of the London boroughs. He'd been contacted by Shirla, who was publishing her autobiography and, with the connection with Colchester, he thought it would be a contact I'd like to have.

“Half of my job is to do projects that work with human histories: any group that is under-represented in the museum. We'd not done anything with black history before, so it was something I wanted to do this year.”

She met Shirla, was put in touch with a white nurse from Coggeshall who started training in 1948, and one contact led to another. Ciara spoke, for instance, to a lady involved with a scheme started by St Botolph's Church in 1969, where families befriended the newcomers to help them feel more at home.

Nursing was “sold” to potential trainees as a good profession, says Ciara, “but they didn't really know what they were coming to. All Shirla really got was this little pamphlet from Essex County Hospital. There's a photograph in there of nurses playing table-tennis in the nurses' home, but Shirla says 'I never saw that!'”

Empire of Care runs at Hollytrees Museum, High Street, Colchester, until March 1, 2009. Hollytrees is open 10am-5pm, Monday to Saturday, and 11am-5pm on Sundays. Entry to the museum is free.

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