Memories of a Caribbean midwife, by Ursilla Camella Sullivan

Date: 16 July 2018


Ursilla came to England from Trinidad in 1954 and trained as a nurse, working at Chatham’s All Saints Hospital. Now living in Gravesend, she looks back on the changes she experienced working in the NHS.

The end of Second World War saw my uncle remaining in England after serving in the forces. His letters to us in Trinidad were very interesting, so when he invited me to join him and my aunt in England, I jumped at the chance.  I set sail for England on the French ship SS Antilles on 16 November 1954, my passage costing £67.00, (over £1500 in today’s money). Gosh, I remembered how cold it was when we arrived and there was my uncle waiting for me with a coat when I landed.

I can’t tell you why I wanted to be a nurse, but caring was something instinctive I got from my family. I loved to look after children. It was my ambition to be a midwife. One of my mother’s favourite sayings was ‘start on the first rung of the ladder and go up rung by rung until you get to the top’. I was ready to start at the bottom.

I went to the Commonwealth Nursing Association to register. This was not easy! There were so many obstacles and there were moments when I just wanted to give up.  Anyhow, I persisted. I eventually was interviewed, I remember standing in front of the Matron, she just looked me up and down and she said, ‘Nursing is hard work and if you can’t do hard work, don’t become nurse’, but I wasn’t put off. Her comments made me more determined to succeed.

It was hard and there were lots of rules. One day my aunt and uncle turned up unexpectedly, I met them in the visitors room, however as I didn’t have permission for the visit I got into severe trouble. In those days, a sister didn’t speak to a student nurse, they communicated with you through the staff nurses. If you tried to speak directly to her your question was met with, ‘Have you read the rule book?’

Trainee nurses lived in the hospital, the entrance of which was guarded by porters.  Doors were locked at 10pm and if you wanted to get back in after the curfew you would need a pass from the sister.  You were allowed one late night per month however we had ways to get around that. We climbed over high walls and devised other ways to get out. We would watch out for each other and our friends would let us back in after our nights out.

At first it was terrible working in the hospital wards. White patients didn’t want me to touch them as they thought my black skin colour would rub off onto them. There was ignorance and prejudice towards Caribbean nurses. What helped was the team spirit, the unexpected, people, lots of laughter, helping each other and most of all job satisfaction. There was lots of job satisfaction in nursing. Patients spent far longer in hospital than they do now, so nurses could establish a rapport with them. It was great seeing very ill people getting fit and going home. I qualified as a State Enrolled Nurse in 1959 and State Registered Nurse in 1962. Becoming a sister was a great moment for me. 

As a midwife I saw the beginning of life and the experience of happiness. I appreciated the joy, the love, the life and also the sadness.

My memories of working nights at All Saints Hospital started with the train journey. The journey could be lively as in those days some train stations didn’t have platforms, just grass verges and trains just slowed down allowing you to jump off. Imagine something like that happening these days!   

Our shifts were from 8pm to 8am, looking after 24 women on long wards. It was so busy and because it was so busy we all had to have something to eat before we started.  Approaches to care and treatment were very different then. We had basis trumpets to listen to foetal heartbeat. Ultrasound scans came in the early 1970s. Before that pregnant women were x-rayed to determine the size of the foetus. Women were admitted with conditions that you wouldn’t necessarily be today. Women were sent to the seaside for convalescence after having a caesarean.

Family planning was only available to married women. Termination of pregnancies only happened following psychiatric and medical assessments. Unmarried pregnant women were sent away to mother and baby homes. Many women were damaged because of ‘do it yourself’ abortions. The introduction of the pill in 1963 was a saviour. This changed so many lives.

When the NHS was launched 1948, it was a great service that you didn’t have to pay for. Over the years medicine has galloped away and there has been so much advancement in health. It is still the best service in the world. 

  • Summary:

    Ursilla came to England from Trinidad in 1954 and trained as a nurse, working at Chatham’s All Saints Hospital. Now living in Gravesend, she looks back on the changes she experienced working in the NHS.