The National Health Service came into being on 5th July 1948. It was the vision of Aneurin Bevan who was the Minister for Health in post-war Britain from 1945-1951. The NHS was a lofty ideal and its aim was to provide ‘free’ healthcare at the point of service for every single citizen, paid for by taxation and National Insurance contributions.
The main problem with the NHS when it first started (and now) was the unprecedented demand for its services. I think it’s fair to say that even Mr Bevan could not have envisioned just how much strain the NHS would come under.
In order to meet the demands of the population, additional resources were needed, especially staff. Pay and conditions in the NHS were not of a high standard so the white British population did not want jobs as nurses, porters or cooks and that is when the Government turned to the colonies, specifically the English-speaking Caribbean.
A recruitment drive began with senior NHS staff from Britain travelling to the Caribbean to convince people to come to the UK to train and vacancies were published in local papers. By 1955 there were official nursing recruitment programmes across 16 British colonies and former colonies.
Thousands of Caribbean people answered the call and made the journey by boat or plane from their islands including Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, over to the UK.
A lot of people who came to England to work in the NHS did not know what to expect because they had never left their islands before. They were taught about the so-called ‘mother land’ in schools but few were aware of the social and economic problems England was facing after the war, let alone the racism and discrimination that awaited them.
But these pioneers were determined to make a difference, gain new skills and contribute to the growth of the fledgling service.
Over the years the number of men and women from the Caribbean entering Britain to work in the NHS grew steadily until the early 1970s. It has been estimated that by 1977 overseas recruits represented 12% of the student nurse and midwife population in Britain, of which 66% came from the Caribbean.
They were to make a lasting contribution to the NHS and undoubtedly are part of the reason why it still exists today.
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