Dzagbele Matilda Asante – I Was Nursing In The UK Before Windrush And The NHS

The prevalent Windrush narrative belies the fact that there were African nurses born in Britain or from Africa in the health service before and during the fledgling years of the NHS. History consultant Kwaku provides one such story with a familial connection.

Mrs Asante with 1948 BandW portrait

The prevalent Windrush narrative belies the fact that there were African nurses born in Britain or from Africa in the health service before and during the fledgling years of the NHS. History consultant Kwaku provides one such story with a familial connection.

 

A few days shy of her 93rd birthday, Dzagbele Matilda Asante, who was born in 1927 at La, Accra in the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) is upset that she can’t remember much of her history. But she obviously provided enough memories both for a video and a Q&A session I organised, for many of the attendees who affectionately referred to her as Mummy. Incidentally, that’s what I call her, on account of her being my mother-in-law.

Dzagbele with siblings left Peter (lawyer) and right Christian (doctor)

Born into a well to do family – her father worked in the Treasury department of the then British colony of Gold Coast, where his position was that normally reserved for Europeans. Such positions were referred to as “European appointment”. Oh yes, even though it’s not spoken about much, there was colour bar and class bar within the British colonies.

Whilst it was unusual at the time for most girls to have secondary education, Mummy did not only complete her secondary schooling with a School Certificate (equivalent to GCSE), but went on to teach at Accra High School, which was founded by a Sierra Leonean named Rev. JT Roberts. He was one of a number of Sierra Leoneans to establish schools in the Gold Coast.

Teaching however was a temporary job, whilst she waited for arrangements to be made by her father for her to travel to the UK to study nursing. The profession was decided by her father, who also got one son to study medicine at Leeds University and another son to study law at Oxford University.

Incidentally, although she was a privately-funded student, she still had to go to the Castle, the seat of the colonial government in Accra, to sign a bond confirming that she would return upon completion of her training.

Mummy recalls arriving at Dover in August 1947. Although it was supposed to be summer, she found the weather cold. Her boat trip started from Ghana, but because of some unexplained post-war difficulties, she had to travel to Gambia to board the ship that brought her to the UK. She was put in the charge of the Ghanaian barrister and later the first Speaker of the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly Sir Emmanuel Quist and his wife Lady Quist.

On arrival in London, Mummy was taken by a British Council officer to the Colonial Hostel in Collingham Gardens, near Earl’s Court – the British Council in those days was very particular about which part of London it housed its colonial guests. In less than a fortnight, she moved to Barnet Hospital in north London, where she began her nursing training.

Unfortunately this hospital was rather small, without training facilities. So after several weeks of daily bussing to a bigger hospital for training, Mummy and a Sierra Leone fellow training nurse, made private arrangements to continue their training in bigger hospitals.

Mummy was accepted at Central Middlesex Hospital in Harlesden, north-west London, where after the preliminary 3 month “observation” period, she was accepted for State Registered Nurse training, which she successfully completed in 3 years.

Although it’s often been said that Africans, particularly those from the Caribbean, were routinely funnelled into State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) courses, which was not recognised outside Britain, Mummy does not recall meeting any SEN students during her training.

With her SRN qualification, Mummy says “I could have stayed there forever. But I knew I was to return home sometime, and I wanted to do something else in nursing.” So she moved to South London Hospital For Women And Children to study midwifery, which was covered in two parts – one was mainly theory and the other practicals. She completed the latter at Kingsbury Hospital in north London, whereupon she qualified as a State Certified Midwife.

A smile cuts across her face as she recalls a mischievous ambition of a fellow trainee. The sign of the hospital’s name had the “o” in Women missing. So Mummy recalls “the greatest ambition” of this trainee midwife was to climb up and remove the “W” in Women, to have the sign read South London Hospital For Men And Children, and stand back and watch the pandemonium that was likely to ensue.

Mummy went on to study Health Visiting at Battersea Polytechnic, which is where that she met a Sierra Leonean fellow trainee, Adeline Lee, who was to become a long-life friend until her death.

So what does she recall of the Empire Windrush’s arrival from the Caribbean in 1948? It would surprise readers of this magazine, who no doubt are aware of the ubiquitous coverage of that ship’s one trip from the Caribbean, that it passed Mummy by. She doesn’t even recall the Caribbean nurses mentioning it at the time.

“It was interesting when,” decades later “people told me about this ship… We never really heard anything. I was surprised to hear such a thing, and none of us knew about it.”

Mr and-Mrs Asante-wedding day 1958 in London

Following the Windrush, there’s supposed to have been an “influx” of African Caribbean people coming to train as nurses. What does she recall? “I wouldn’t say ‘influx’. There were girls coming to do nursing,” she says. But adds: “Interestingly enough, either they didn’t like it, or, after the preliminary period of three months, they just left. They were not there any more.”

One of the things she particularly remembers from engaging with girls from the Caribbean was that after years of maintaining a natural hair style, they introduced her to straightening her hair “to make it easy to comb, and easy to keep.”

There is one more hirsute story Mummy recalls. It was a time when she was with a group of African Caribbean nurses having their hair done in someone’s house, as there were no African specialist hair salon then. These nurses were talking disparagingly about the non-chemicalised hairstyles of some of the continental African nurses.

So Mummy asked them why they were talking about their fellow nurses in that way? Their response was why was she bothered. It was then that she told them that she was from Africa. Perhaps she speculates, because of her fair complexion, she says: “They hadn’t realised all this time that I wasn’t a West Indian, I mean, a Caribbean girl.”

Mummy was training at Central Middlesex Hospital when the NHS (National Health Service) was launched in July 1948. She says the doctors were initially not keen on this development, and so to get them on side, they were allowed to have some private patients treated within the NHS. Also, unlike before, when the doctors wielded a lot of power, after the introduction of the NHS, the hospital management had increased powers over their affairs.

Unsurprisingly, she experienced racism within the health service. There were some patients who refused to be attended to by African nurses. Mummy recalls an incident where a patient would not allow her to prepare him for theatre. When she reported the matter to the nursing sister in charge, she supported Mummy by phoning the surgeon to say his patient was being brought to the theatre unprepared, because he refused prepared by an African nurse. The surgeon had to sort out the preparation himself.

Recreation was often going to the cinema, which one could stay in for hours, if one chose to watch repetition of the same film. She remembers coming out of the cinema one day, and everywhere was covered by smog. Visibility was so bad that the bus conductor had to go on foot using a torchlight to direct the bus driver!

Another form of recreation was window shopping. She recalls one incident that has a lasting memory. One day she and a group of girls from west Africa and the Caribbean went window shopping in Oxford Street. They ended up taking photos in a photographic studio. The following week when they went to collect their photos, she was so surprised to see her photo displayed in the shop window. The enlarged version is displayed in her house at La, and that’s the portrait she’s holding in the accompanying photograph.

Mummy was a bit of an activist in her youth. She would challenge the negative spin on Africa portrayed in talks or films provided by the Colonial Office or British Council. The crisis in Kenya at the time was one of the colonial issues she and her friends expressed solidarity with by supporting the few Kenyan students around.

It was no doubt her ability to speak up and to get her nursing friends to attend political type meetings that led to her being elected secretary of the Gold Coast Students Union. The one elected President was a socialist-leaning statistics and mathematics student, KB Asante, who had come to London from Durham University.

They would end up marrying in 1958, and having two sons and two daughters. Mummy went on to have a long career as a senior public health practitioner in Ghana. Her husband had a distinguished career as an aide to President Kwame Nkrumah and his diplomatic service included becoming Ghana’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. Their marriage lasted 60 years, until the death of her husband in 2018.

Dzagbele Matilda Asante is still somewhat involved in the health service – her compound is used for the local weekly health meetings for mothers with young children.

Comments

Wonderful to hear stories like this as when we talk about Windrush we don’t talk about the many Africans that arrive by plane my mum was also one of them nurses in 1961


    Hi Joyce, we would love to publish a story about your mum. I will email you.


Very inspiring to read this, and all the hard work other African nurses put in to nurse here in the UK.
I completed my Paediatric nursing in 2008 in London. I am from East Africa Somaliland. I honestly can’t imagine the challenges Dzagbele must have endured, during her training in 1948. Dzagbele is a great role model for all the BAEM nurses who trained after her including the Windrush generation.
We could learn so much from her skills, knowledge and experiences.
Wishing Dzagbele all the best and thank you for telling her story
Stay blessed


What an enlightening story. African play a major role in UK, particularly England’s Health and Social care.
I only wish that our contributions are more appropriated and valued.
Aye koo Mummy for being one of the first to pave the way for us to follow.


such a nice story. very touching. long leave mummy!


Amazing story. Thanks ma’am
I am on a nursing journey. I love this career.


Such a heart warming story about a strong minded lady. So pleased you shared this with us. So many people whos stories we havn’t read

Kathleen D.


Are you interested in stories of others who came to Britain before the Windrush? If so, who do I contact?


Oh what an inspiration story


fantastic story ! bless her so much!! glad her experience s as a nurse in the uk were not 100% horrible like we are told !!!! happens now in the NHS London ??


Apparently, I don’t remember, I was delivered by an African nurse and she continued to look after Mum and myself for 2 weeks. Mum had influenza and was very poorly but I was fighting fit. For those 2 weeks I caused no end of trouble because I refused to feed (eventually they had no option but to try cow’s milk, which I loved). This could only have added to my poor Mum’s anxiety and this wonderful nurse/midwife kept us both sane. Mum has passed now but our grateful thanks to a young African nurse in 1955 have never been less than enormous. My mum never, ever forgot her calmness, assuredness, kindness and love at an extremely stressful time.


This is wonderful, it puts smile on my face as an african nurse in uk now, bless God for keeping mama Matilda , inspiring to know she is still involved in healthcare even now in a different role, a nurse is always a nurse, that spirit of helping will always be there.


That is beautiful to endure nursing with all the issues she came up against
Beautiful story of her and fellow colleagues socialising and her determination to go back to her county of birth and to still have a hand in health services
God bless her

Beautiful story ❤


Wonderful to hear about these African girls who stood together and support one another.Thank you you created a way for us .


Yes , wonderful to hear stories like this. My dad was also in the uk as well. It will be nice for his story to be published. My father came to the uk by plane and I know a lot of people will enjoy his story


Wonderful story about her am too proud of her to work in the uk as a nurse .to God be the Glory.


What a beautiful, fascinating, amazing lady.


Fascinating story, I am from Guyana , and was one of very few female black teachers in the NE in 1968. I studied English at King’s college, Durham ,later to become Newcastle university.


Beautiful and inspiring story. She has been a pioneer. God bless and keep her.


I am from Guyana, as well, what a awesome story, so very proud to have fathomed the footsteps left by yours truly, and others. Thank you kindly, for paving the way for us
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. Have a great day. SHALOM!!
You are a GREAT HERO to the BAEM nurses,
GOD RICHLY BLESS YOU♥️♥️♥️


What a beautiful story! Thanks Kwaku for documenting such an inspiring story and in her lifetime too.


Wonderful article and an amazing woman. My father came from Africa in the late 1950’s to train as a doctor and I would like to think that people like her helped make this possible.
God bless


Inspirating story.. Thank you mummy. I was a NHS nurse from the caribbean but is now living in New York City.. I still keep in touch with all my colleagues. Last week one of the top female gastroenterologist consultant from Nigeria WhatsApp me, a white patient refused to be pre-assesed by herself, her Asian registrar and 2 black medical students . She of course handled it professionally but to think in 2020 black essential workers have to face this..


Fantastic life story – thank you so much for sharing. There are lots more nurses’ stories to be explored. Ancestry now has copies of the General Nursing Council Register available online (you can often get free access through your local library). This has over 1.6 million nurse entries to search from 1922. Names like ‘Abeni’ or ‘Olufunmilayo’ can be found, so there are definitely black nursing stories that can now be found. There’s a guide for researching nurses’ for family historians here: https://www.rcn.org.uk/library/archives/family-history I’d be really interested to hear more of these stories – not enough research has been carried out or shared, so family stories and research are really important.


Thank you for sharing with us this esteemed Elder’s journey. It underscores the important point that ‘the Windrush’ does not define the experience of African people in Britain in the second half of the 20th century, or before and after for that matter. That is why, although it was undoubtedly a historical moment in post-war British social history, we must thwart all attempts to make it embody our life experience in Britain, whether we are Africans from the Motherland or from the African Diaspora in the Caribbean. Most Caribbean nurses belonging to the latter were, like Mummy, totally disconnected from and even unaware of the Windrush story. Thus is the history of a people distorted and falsified.


This is the framework of the upcoming (auto) biography. Too many of our wonderful Elders life journeys are missing from our lives… this one is too inspirational to be kept from us.


Fantastic story


Wow, can’t believe the number of comments!

Thanks to all of you who made time to comment. I’m saddened by Sophie’s reminder that crass, overt racism is practised by European patients in 2020!

Thanks Teresa for the information. I suspect the Ancestry data might be more useful, compared to the RCN’s.

Prof Gus, thanks for comments. Just like the demographics of the African heritage population in Britain is changing, so too will there be an increase in the continental African stories that form part of British African history. We’ve already seen the shift in music and film stars. As a pan-Africanist, I’m interested in British African history, whether the antecedents are immediately connected to Africa, Britain, the Caribbean or the Americas and beyond. But it is time to redress the balance and hear more about Africans both from the continent and British born. The latter were in nursing, the military, home guard, etc during the war years, but we seldom hear of them.

Thankfully, the likes of the publishers of BHM365 are trying to increase the continental African representation within its history packs.


Oh by the way, Mummy marked her 93rd birthday yesterday! Social distancing was observed as best as possible among the well-wishers who came to visit her 🙂


Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.. The Health minister of Uk ,The foreign Secretary etc must learn of this piece of history. Please post it to their respective offices


Loved reading this story. Wow! What a fabulous read and the added photos somehow projects you back in time!

It is also true that I like reading stories that capture pre and post Windrush stories from across the African continent and captured in our history books and become part of the national curriculum, a historical narrative that brings to life the lived experiences of all of our ancestors for current and future generations to learn from hearing a rounded history of our past.


Beautiful pictures great story. More stories like this need to be shared.


Wow. I wish we could read and hear more of these stories from the past. Right back into history. So inspiring.


A captive story of coming to the UK which resonates with me as my late father also came to the UK in 1958 from Ghana Winneba on a boat which took 3 weeks he still had his ticket to board the boat until he died. He studied nursing also. He has told me many fascinating stories of starting life in the UK.


This is such a welcomed story. My grandparents arrived separately from Sierra Leone in 1943, a surgeon and a nurse, but met and married in the UK. Our Black British history is rich far beyond the Windrush narrative! Articles like this have encouraged me to start recording my own family history, so that we can keep our stories alive for future generations.


02 Oct 2020

What a wonderful story, why is there not much mention about these icons? I believe we celebrate Florence Nightingale recently, cant remember a celebration for the great Mary Secole the nurse from Jamaica who care for the sick during the war. What a shame?


Wonderful and inspirational. Shared.


Fantastic piece of history indeed. Thank you for sharing it. Blessings to the amazing lady who paved the way for black people and especially black women from everywhere in the world who serviced health care systems in the UK before and during the NHS. Like most of us commenting here, I just cannot even imagine what it must have been like to work in those services at that time. Make sure you get a full story of her amazing life and get a book out!!


Happy belated Birthday Mummy!

Thank you Kwaku for sharing this uplifting account of your Mother-in-Laws early nursing life here in the UK.


Mrs Asante’s story is truly inspirational and a great read. My mum was one of those nurses who were invited to this country to train as a nurse from Barbados in 1957. She too experienced racism from patients who did not want to be handled by a black nurse. Unfortunately, she passed earlier this year. She would have been able to recall her experience as a trainee SEN at Winchester Hospital during those early years. Please lets have more stories in print before they are lost forever.


This testimony should be inspirational to eurapeans, it should inspire them to right the wrongs they’ve inflicted and still inflict on African peoples today. Despite the British empire being our forefathers enslavers and never once attempting to pay us compensation we still strive to be accepted by them and will care for their sick, even if we are hated and betrayed doing so.

David lammy spoke up in parliament about the lack of compensation for those effected by the windrush scandal and he recently done a documentary about the Africans who gave their lives during the world wars, but no surprises, the Africans who contributed to the British war efforts were never commemorated as a matter of British policy, which has carried on throughout history and up until today.

African and African diaspora reparation compensation is the only way forward, until then Europeans will never accept us as worthy humans and they’ll always treat us as the lowest form of human, never attributing the right credit for our contributions to society.


Rise up mummy dzagbele Matilda asante and all the pioneers who came to this country to rebuild it!

This testimony should be inspirational to eurapeans, it should inspire them to right the wrongs they’ve inflicted and still inflict on African peoples today. Despite the British empire being our forefathers enslavers and never once attempting to pay us compensation we still strive to be accepted by them and will care for their sick, even if we are hated and betrayed doing so.

David lammy spoke up in parliament about the lack of compensation for those effected by the windrush scandal and he recently done a documentary about the Africans who gave their lives during the world wars, but no surprises, the Africans who contributed to the British war efforts were never commemorated as a matter of British policy, which has carried on throughout history and up until today.

African and African diaspora reparation compensation is the only way forward, until then Europeans will never accept us as worthy humans and they’ll always treat us as the lowest form of human, never attributing the right credit for our contributions to society.


Mummy’s maiden name was Anteson. Her paternal grandfather Rev. Peter Anteson was the first Presbyterian priest in La.


This is an inspiring story. But it is a story of privilege, and how privilege can afford you access to opportunities that are not available to the rank and file in your community.

This access to privilege is still being lived out today.

I was interested by the comment in the article about the Caribbean nurses, ‘girls coming to do nursing,” … “Interestingly enough, either they didn’t like it, or, after the preliminary period of three months, they just left. They were not there any more.”
The West African and West Indian experience is radically different. The roots of the these stories are radically different. Failure to understand why people would wilfully choose not to be in work circumstances of servitude after a legacy of centuries of chattel slavery is not paying proper regard to that large diaspora population.

We all look the same, but the histories are very different.
This is another history which showed the opportunities possible when you have allies and sponsors with the will and ability to help support you on a journey where the barriers and doors are closed to most people.


Nursing is a vocation. Kate could you please explain what you mean by “servitude” in the context of nursing training? Are you suggesting that the preliminary observation period of three months or the training itself was servitude? All the best


What a wonderful life story!! I’m so glad we had a chance to know her story – living history for sure!


I came in 1971 Last of the recruiters hoping to study nursing but instead we spent more time working on the ward than in the nursi g school taking abused from patients.


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