Kyle Cameron-Symes

People of colour have lived in Britain for centuries. David Olusoga’s recent BBC2 documentary Black and British: a forgotten history powerfully documented the long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. The NHS has a particular place in the more recent history of this complex relationship. On 22nd June 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury bringing many migrants from the West Indies. Britain’s post-war reconstruction needed their labour, and the newly-formed NHS actively recruited doctors and nurses from the Commonwealth over the following years.

Immigration was, and remains, essential to the development of the NHS. One of the most compelling first-hand accounts of immigration to Britain comes from Nurse Shirla Philogène, whose first job in Britain was at Essex County.

You can find Shirla’s story in her book Between Two Worlds: A Narrative, which gives us an insight into the experience of a West Indian migrant coming to the UK, with all the trials and triumphs that it brought. Shirla reflects on how people of Britain viewed her:

‘In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, most people appeared to be intrigued by the presence of West Indian nurses within the hospital. We were viewed as being partly mysterious and exotic.’[1]

She also recounts her time working at Essex County Hospital; one of her most vivid memories is of her arrival at the Nurses Home of the ECH:

‘We arrived at the nurses’ home. The high iron gates were locked and chained. There was a dim light in one of the rooms on the upper floor. We rang the bell and rattled the chain, but there was no response. We continued in our efforts and were eventually rewarded by the spectacle of a figure dressed in a long white robe, wearing a night cap over a pig tail, and who, in a tone as frosty as night said, “Nurse, you know that you should not come to the front entrance of the nurses’ home after 9.00pm You should have gone to Night Sister’s office in the main hospital, and she would have let you in.”’[2]

The biography makes for an engaging read, describing Shirla’s experience “between two worlds” of Saint Vincent and the United Kingdom, and also giving us access to an important story of life at Essex County Hospital. I would highly recommend this book – it is an inspiring read.

People still come from around the world come to Britain to work in the NHS; the contributions that migrants make to our healthcare system are invaluable – it wouldn’t work without them.

2018 marks Essex County Hospital’s 200th anniversary but also 70 years since the foundation of the NHS and the arrival of the Windrush. There must be many more stories of people who, like Shirla, migrated to Britain and came to work at ECH – and we would like to be able to hear and share them. Over time, we hope to build up a record of people’s recollections as a lasting legacy of the hospital so please do send us a message on our contact form if you do have anything you would like to contribute.

[1] Shirla Philogène, Between Two Worlds – a Narrative (Author House: Milton Keynes, 2011) p.51
[2] Shirla Philogène, Between Two Worlds, p.42

One thought on “Migration stories

  1. Great story of a locally-trained nurse who reached the very top of her profession. On the fiftieth anniversary of the NHS, she was named in a list of 50 women who had made a “significant contribution to the NHS”. Moreover, in 2000, she was awarded the OBE for her services to nursing leadership. Another piece of “hidden history” to emerge from Essex County Hospital.


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