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African Women and the
British Health Service


Margaret Williams

Margaret Williams was born in 1938 in Sierra Leone. She moved to the UK in 1960 and settled in South London. We interviewed her daughter, Joanna, who speaks about how Margaret trained to be a nurse with the NHS and worked as a nurse until the end of her life. She also discusses the positive relationships Margaret had with her colleagues and patients, Margaret’s experience with Sickle-cell anaemia, and Joanna’s own relationship with her mother.


"So my mother's name was Margaret Iyatunde Williams. When she married she became Margaret Iyatunde Child. She was born in 1938, in Freetown Sierra Leone. My mother travelled to the UK in 1960. I believe she travelled on her own. She was just 22 years old. And I discovered quite recently that she came here on a ship called the Accra, which stopped at Liverpool, and from there, she travelled to South London where she made her home."


"When she grew up, she had said that initially she had wanted to be a teacher. [Then] her grandmother fell ill, and my mother took on a role in looking after her and caring for her, and she said that it was during that process and during that time that she realised that perhaps what she wanted to really do was to become a nurse. So after finishing her studies at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, she travelled to England and she trained to be a nurse with the NHS here, and she worked as a nurse up until the end of her life, pretty much. She had to give up work early due to her illness,  but nursing was very much a profession, a lifelong profession for her."


"Documentation I've managed to find shows that she qualified or registered at Langthorne Hospital in East London, which I think perhaps was part of the Wicks Cross Trust. She worked in several trusts in her lifetime, but for the longest time, she worked at the Whittington and the Royal Northern Hospital in North London. So by the time she met my father, who was an Englishman from East London, they moved to North London together, which is where I was born. And so yeah, most of her working life, she worked at the Whittington Hospital, in Archway, which has kind of been the hospital of my life, if you see what I mean - it's the hospital where I was born, it's the hospital where my children were born. So yes, once she sort of arrived there in Archway, that became very much the kind of centre of the health of our life, as it were."

"She loved being a nurse, she had a really kind of positive experience of being a nurse. She was extremely proud to work in that profession. She took it very, very seriously, and she worked very, very hard. She worked night duty a lot of the time, which is a very particular way of working. It means that you have to sacrifice on other levels. For example, I spent most of my weekends actually, at friend's houses being looked after by friends and friends of the family, because both my parents work night duty." 


"She spent a lot of her time working, and felt very close to her work and colleagues, who really were her community of friends. And also felt very close to her patients, but a very strong sense of commitment to that patient. I'm sure this is a very common experience. There's a level on which you're working as a nurse, and you have that sort of pride in your own work, the uniform and the kudos that carries with it, but that's one side of it and I think there are lots of people who understand that that's a profession that should be respected. But on the other hand, working in Britain as an African nurse, inevitably, you're also going to have experiences of racism as well."


"She certainly encountered those kind of individual experiences of people, insulting her or not wanting to be touched by her. It's something I felt she kind of sort of brushed off to be honest, I think she was just quite dismissive of those kinds of experiences, because in her mind, her duty was to all of her patients. I get the impression from the ways in which she talks about those experiences that she somehow found a way of cutting through that kind of prejudice and dismissing it to the extent that she could still treat those people with [as much] intention and commitment and care as anybody else, which is interesting, I think."


"I think my mum was such a sort of strong character, a big character, a big personality, and I think that always throughout my life, I kind of wanted to be like her in so many ways. The main things I've really taken away from my mum in terms of my own attitude to life are around trying to find a sort of balance of strength, and compassion, and capacity for joy. I think these are things that sort of carry us through. So I think that it's important to be strong, but to balance that with kindness, always kindness, and to find ways of enjoying life, celebrating life or celebrating what we can."

"I'm very, very conscious of the difference between the opportunities that I've been able to access and the opportunities that were available to her. But everything that I've been able to do with my life, I know that I wouldn't have been able to do without the graft and the support of my mum and I feel like it's really important for me to say that."

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