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  • Alex Douglas Bailey

Part I: The Impact of the Media and Imperialism on our Understanding of the NHS

When I was invited to speak at the University of Bristol’s History Society event for Black History Month on the 21st October as a representative for YHP, two things came to my mind. Firstly, how historical events or institutions are often viewed in isolation to the contexts in which they exist, and secondly, how this then impacts minoritised peoples. I decided to frame my talk, which centred on our project about African Women and the Health Service, around these two talking points – to discuss how we came to look at this topic, and provide a brief insight into some of the research we’ve conducted on the historical recruitment of African women by the NHS. The University of Bristol’s History Society were very open to the work of the Young Historians Project. They were particularly interested in what it meant to be a member, and as a Bristolian I was excited to share my experiences with them:

“We want to build on the work of our elders and continue to share and uncover important knowledge of our history, our struggle and our triumphs. A space to develop our skills, our knowledge and tell our own stories. To investigate the parts of our history we would like to know more about. Organisations like ours are integral to filling in the gaps in the “official record” and I think challenging the narratives that develop from situations such as Windrush - with our current project called, African Women and the Health Service, it challenges how Windrush has framed black history and the contributions of Black people in Britain. Black history in modern Britain didn’t begin with Windrush, it extends beyond those of Caribbean heritage and deserves nuance and depth in the narratives.”

I went on to describe my origin story with Young Historians and how coincidental it was that I had previously worked with our project coordinator in Chatham on an exhibition telling the Untold Stories of Black people in Kent in collaboration with the Medway African and Caribbean Association. Since then I’ve been part of the YHP team, and it’s completely enhanced my life post-degree. I spent some time introducing our current project and the work we’ve carried out:

“The NHS has recently celebrated 72 years since its creation in post-war Britain. It’s been a huge topic of discussion in regards to leaving the European Union and immigration. Then the Windrush Scandal cast a spotlight on how Britons understand Black history, Black immigration and the contributions of African individuals to rebuilding said post-war Britain. We’ve been utilising oral histories by interviewing women who have worked or trained in the health service in Britain, and in some cases, whose parents did so. These interviews cover the decision and structure of coming to Britain, their training and work here, relationship with their home nations, experiences of racism, etc. In addition to this we spent time setting research questions and topics for us to explore through archival and research material to produce a timeline of key events and individuals, write ups on recurring narratives, material for schools and teachers to use, and we’re currently working on producing a documentary that brings all of this work together into a story."

“Team members have been conducting research at the National Archives, the Royal College of Nursing, the Black Cultural Archives, the British Library, the BFI Archives and the British Newspaper Archives. We’ve conducted and taken part in workshops to elevate the knowledge and skillsets we hold - our motto is ‘each one, teach one’. By uncovering this ‘hidden history’, we aim to encourage more research in the area and influence the public memorialisation of black women’s work in the healthcare sector.”
Princess Tsehai, 1938
Princess Tsehai, 1938


We’ve had a number of our incredible members speak at events over the last two years, as part of panel discussions, to present our project and methodologies on African Women and the Health Service, and other times to put forward our viewpoint as a African and Caribbean History organisation. For my talk I was presented with an opportunity to emphasise the excellent work we as an organisation were doing, and explore our research in relation to the constant scrutiny on the NHS, and the ongoing Windrush scandal. The NHS has been a major area of conversation in Britain since its creation, but it has been the political embodiment of Uno’s ‘draw 4’ in the last couple decades - controversial, managed and altered by the rules of whomever is dishing out the cards, resulting in something uniquely difficult to analyse.

If you think about how difficult the discussions were to have about Edward Colston and the slave money that so benefitted the city of Bristol, imagine trying to critically discuss the longevity of the NHS to the detriment of African and Caribbean nations’ medical systems. These are not topics or outcomes that can be discussed in sociopolitical and historical isolation, however I won’t spend much time detailing the influence of the United Kingdom in instability of other nations but I’d highly recommend critically thinking about the role the Western bloc continues to play in the international community (see criticisms of World Bank and IMF).

Nurses School at Sekondi, Gold Coast (Ghana) 1956
Nurses School at Sekondi, Gold Coast (Ghana) 1956

A part of our job as historians is to tell stories unheard, to counter false claims, and to critically analyse the who, what, when, how. History is often rewritten and this can influence the collective memory, I’d argue that the collective memory of the United Kingdom swings like a pendulum between celebrating its glory and remembering its crimes. Once it swings one way history again is rewritten as the momentum changes, and as information is uncovered and digested in the mainstream, we as historians must set the record straight or more often regurgitate the same points from the last time around. Especially historians of ethnically minoritised individuals in Western nations, we see our existence and histories rediscovered and dropped at whim.

When the Windrush scandal really took form in the media I often wondered why it was that they picked this arbitrary event to draw a line in the sand for the beginning of black modern experiences in the UK. The scandal itself was the institutional and vicious attack on Caribbean individuals rights as British citizens, the intentional destruction of documents to that accord - a hostile environment enacted by the British government. The black British experience is not collective but we can collectively agree that it has been in existence for centuries prior. The unfolding of the Windrush Scandal created public outcry at the inhumane actions by the hands of the government, rightly so. But what followed, I’d argue, was an intentional utilisation of this particular issue held up to the spotlight to cast a shadow over the repeated wrongdoings and historical racism of the British government. The fallout created activities that could be characterised as positive with potentially negative outcomes on the collective memory in the mainstream. The voices of the Windrush scandal victims were elevated, as they should, the history of Caribbean migration and contributions to the British nation was told and explored in the media, but it also created a generic term that characterised the modern black British experience and compounded the behaviour of the government.

As the 70th anniversary of the NHS came around at the height of Windrush discussions, the two came together quite well as an opportunity to publicise the role and influence of Caribbean women in the NHS. These women deserve to be celebrated and uplifted. Our role as Young Historians was to uncover the history that wasn’t being told, to look at the African women who also played an integral role in the Health Service in the UK, both prior and post the creation of the NHS but were lost in the archives and oral histories not yet captured...

[This is part I of an extended blog piece. Part II can be read here]


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