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African Women and the
British Health Service




20th Century

In the early to mid-20th century, the frequent racism which confronted black people in Britain was referred to as the ‘colour-bar’. It was a discriminatory practice enacted by landlords, employers and institutions which prohibited black people in Britain from taking up employment, finding affordable housing and entering certain public premises. The term ‘coloured’ was commonly used, including by government agencies, when referring to non-white persons.

This form of discrimination faced resistance from various individuals and groups such as the League of Coloured People (LCP) as well as West African Students Union (WASU) who campaigned against the colour-bar. With access to housing and lodgings affected by an informal colour tax [AF1] which saw many paying inflated rent prices, this called for groups like WASU to establish their own accommodation, the most prominent example being the establishment of Africa house, the name given to a hostel for West Africans in London in 1933. Medical professionals like Olive Johnson were one of the several beneficiaries of initiatives set up by such organisations.  

Black medical professionals in the British Health Service were evidently not except from the colour bar. By the 1930s black women who wanted to become nurses were not welcome in British hospitals. As a result, Jamaican Poet Una Marson led a campaign to enable black nurses to train in British hospitals in one of many campaigns waged by the LCP against the notion of the ‘colour bar’. A 1932 LCP Annual report (1932) referred to a Jamaican nurse, Eva Lowe, who been rejected from British hospitals several times despite being well qualified. 

In 1937, LCP’s quarterly journal The Keys published a letter sent from the matron of Manchester Royal Infirmary regarding the admission of coloured people to their training program. It read: ‘there was a definite rule that nobody of negroid extraction can be considered’.

With the influx of African and Caribbean migrants in the mid-20th Century, more black nurses were recruited to support the National Health Service after the Second World War. However, sentiments of the colour bar were still reflected within hospitals. In 1948 the matron at St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, imposed a ban on coloured guests attending the nurses’ dance. Clara Brown, an assistant nurse working, presumed to be of Jamaican descent, was the only ‘coloured’ nurse at the hospital; this policy was explicitly targeting her. Racism also affected the promotion prospects of black nurses. 

Possessing only a State Enrolled qualification (SEN) as opposed to the State registered nurse (SRN) qualification meant that black nurses found it more difficult to return to their home countries and work in nursing profession as they had intended. Nurse Olive Johnson, who had secured the role of matron at a London hospital, was refused a similar position at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana despite being qualified. WASU took the issue to parliament as evidence that a discriminatory policy was still being pursued by the colonial authorities. She eventually became the first African lady to be appointed a nursing matron of a government hospital in an African country.

The 1950s were no different. In a House of Commons debate in 1951, Mr. Sorensen admitted that ‘in some hospitals we find African nursing sisters while in others there are no African sisters, and that also may lead us to the conclusion that the colour prejudice operates in that respect.’ In the same decade, another personal account recalled: ‘the general feeling is that the surgeons were surprised that a coloured girl should have competence to hold a responsible position’. The Race Relations Act of 1965 made racial discrimination in public places unlawful in a direct response to the colour bar. This was the first legislation put in place to end this form of discrimination, but this legislation on its own was not enough to implement de facto change in the prospects of black people in Britain. 

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