The Hidden History of African Women in the British Health Service

On Wednesday 21st October around 25 University of Bristol students joined Alex Douglas Bailey from the Young Historians Project for a Zoom talk and Q&A about this innovative non-profit's work. The discussion particularly focussed on their most recent research project: highlighting the contributions of African women to the British Health Service in the mid-twentieth century.

The Young Historians Project is a non-profit organisation led by young people (ages 16-25) who seek to encourage more people of African and Caribbean descent to become history students and teachers. YHP was founded in 2016 as a result of the annual ‘History Matters’ conference uncovering staggering statistics about the lack of representation of people of African and Caribbean descent in History in Britain; in 2016, for example, only three Black students were admitted to train as History teachers in England, and it was estimated that there were less than ten Black PhD students studying across the country. 

The event was hosted by the University of Bristol History Society as part of their Black History Month calendar. 

Alex Douglas Bailey happens to be a Bristolian, so even though the event was on Zoom the people taking part in the discussion were only actually few kilometers apart. Alex graduated a couple of years ago from the University of Kent and now volunteers with YHP on top of her full-time job.  Bristol Uk harbourside bristol harbour water boats M shed Photo by Aldrich from Pexels

The waterfront in Bristol. The Harbour is a key part of Bristol's Black history as it was a slave port for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


YHP advocates for more diversity in History in a number of ways, from raising awareness to sharing their research. They also give workshops in secondary schools across the country introducing students to Black British history that is so often missing from the national curriculum. The main focus of our discussion with Alex, however, was on YHP’s most recent research project: uncovering the largely unknown history of African women in the British Health Service. 

This project has been going on for nearly two years now and is close to being finished. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and carried out in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives, the Ghana Nurses Association and the Nigerian Nurses Charitable Association. 

The project refers to British Health Services, not just the NHS, because this research incorporates experiences from the years before the founding of the NHS as well as jobs that African women held in health service providers other than the NHS. 


Why this project? 

Alex explained that there were a number of reasons why the non-profit chose to focus on this particular research project. First and foremost, she explained, the team decided that it was important to challenge cultural memory of Black British mid-twentieth century history. At the moment, Alex explained, a dichotomy persists in so many historical narratives that presents Black Britons as simply either ‘pre-Windrush’ or ‘post-Windrush’. YHP wanted to take on this project to highlight the many contributions of people of African and Caribbean heritage to British history throughout the twentieth century. 


How has the Young Historians Project carried out their research? 

This project has included lots of archival work, especially in the Royal College of Nursing Archives. Much of this research luckily took place before coronavirus threw a spanner in the works, but for the last few months all final bits and pieces of research have had to take place online. 

It has also largely been an exercise in oral history as the main primary sources that the historians sought out were interviews with over 30 African and Caribbean nurses who worked for the British Health Services in the twentieth century. Fantastic images of some of the young Historians interviewing ex-nurses are available on the Young Historians Project website. 

The final outcomes of the project are set to include an eBook, a documentary, a memorial to be uncovered at Charing Cross Hospital in London, an online exhibition and a podcast series. YHP have done a tremendous amount of work in bringing this all together and raising invaluable awareness of the contributions of African women to modern British history. What is more, the vast majority of the team – including Alex – are volunteers who fit in the work around their full-time jobs.


Twentieth-century British history is often characterised in living memory as the era of World Wars, Cold War and international decolonisation with the collapse of the British Empire, but it is time to recall unsung narratives of Black Britons - starting with the women who contributed to our health services. 

Visit the YHP website to find out more about the non-profit's fantastic work: 


This article is part of a themed content week celebrating Black History Month.