Myrtle’s appeal after the Jamaica hardship was the NHS in London

My grandmother's first stop after Jamaica, despite racism, was an NHS hospital in London, let's commemorate Windrush nurse Josh Layton

Myrtle Mae Lewar’s first job after Jamaica was an NHS hospital in London when she answered the call for nurses (Image: Josh Layton / File Image)

Myrtle Mae Lewars was not sentimental about possessions, but would be with her for the rest of her life.

A handbook for Auxiliary Nurses was part of her passport to a better life as she joined thousands of Caribbean women who were responding to a call to join the NHS.

My maternal grandmother had endured the crushing hardship and lack of opportunity in 1950s Jamaica with an unflagging determination to improve her lot by teaching herself from textbooks.

One such resource, which she likely bought second-hand, was titled Bailliere: A Handbook for the Assistant Nurse.

So Myrtle must have been thrilled when the British government sent out an invitation to people in the Caribbean to fill vacancies after the war, including in the newly formed National Health Service.

On June 15, 1955, she changed into her Sunday dress, pinned a white rose to the lapel of her ironed suit jacket, and made her way to Kingston Harbor where HMS Ortega was waiting to take her and other Jamaicans across the Atlantic. With this journey, the common worker was on his way to becoming one of those whose contributions would be remembered during Black History Month.

Myrtle Lewars in another picture taken before she left Jamaica on the Ortega in June 1955 (Image: Josh Layton)

Myrtle Mae Lewars in a photograph taken before she left Jamaica on the Ortega in June 1955 (Photo: Josh Layton)

Her immaculate outward appearance belied the fact that she had no family and next to no money in Britain, having settled into a tiny rented room on Effra Road, Brixton.

Myrtle, however, was gifted with a remarkable inner faith and a smile that never faltered.

Born in Kingston in 1909, she became an orphan in a life marked by tragedy from the start.

Her mother died of an aneurysm a year after she was born – her daughter is believed to have been lying beside her as her body lay on a dusty road between two parishes – and her father had abandoned her.

The young woman missed out on formal education and moved between rented rooms in Kingston, a decent pair of shoes costing more than she could earn in months.

A high point, if you can call it that, came when Myrtle and my mother had enough belongings to cart between casual addresses.

Usually it was a single cloth bag.

Mrytle Lewars received a letter which served as formal proof of her British citizenship (Image: Josh Layton)

Mrytle Lewars received a letter which served as formal proof of her British citizenship (Image: Josh Layton)

Myrtle still scraped together enough money for a typing and shorthand course — a skill she never stopped practicing — and poured through every word in her cherished nursing book. She tenaciously worked up to three odd jobs, studying alone at night when she could, and her efforts were rewarded with a nursing job at Kingston Public Hospital.

The sense of pride she felt as she donned her starched white uniform each day as she entered the wards of St Thomas’ Hospital in central London is a lasting memory in my family to this day.

Even after a few months, when the hospital management realized that her Jamaican degree was not good enough for a British nursing job and demoted her to the rank of nurse, she stuck to her job.

“Myrtle woke up every day not only happy to be a nurse, but happy to be working,” my mother recalls.

Myrtle Lewars had high ambitions and a belief that hard work could improve her place in the world (Image: Josh Layton)

Myrtle Lewars had high ambitions and a belief that hard work could improve her place in the world (Image: Josh Layton)

She loved the discipline of the wards and being so close to Buckingham Palace and Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth.

The loyal theme embodied the dedication of nurses from the Windrush generation – people from the Caribbean who came to Britain between 1948 and 1971 – whose enduring contributions to British society are honored during Black History Month.

After the Second World War, the early NHS faced shortages of nurses, midwives and other care staff as it faced increased demand.

Professor Laura Serrant OBE believes that the Windrush nurses not only filled gaps but were crucial in the formation of universal service, founded in July 1948 by the indefatigable Aneurin Bevan.

Professor Laura Serrant points out Windrush nurses are crucial to the formation of the NHS (Image: Laura Serrant/lauraserrant.com)

Professor Laura Serrant points out Windrush nurses are crucial to the formation of the NHS (Image: Laura Serrant/lauraserrant.com)

“The arrival of nurses and new trainees to strengthen the UK workforce has been crucial,” the nurse and academic told me.

“Without their input, the NHS probably would not have survived and failed before it really had time to take root.”

A paramedic named Nicole, whose grandmothers were nurses in the Windrush era, is a living embodiment of these values.

Speaking to the Black History Month website, she said all four of her grandparents had experienced racism but faced it with a “determination to live a better life” and paved the way for her to enter the nursing profession from a young age to target.

Empire Windrush brought to Britain one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants.

British liner Empire Windrush photographed March 28, 1954 (Image: Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

In 2022, the NHS is facing what is said to be crisis-level nurses shortages, at a time when the number of people making the dangerous crossing of the English Channel and North Sea continues to set records.

My grandmother’s story underscores the contribution that newcomers can make when they’re allowed to hit the ground running.

But when I speak to asylum seekers in my job as a reporter, many are listless as they spend months, if not years, in shelters while awaiting the right to work in the UK.

Ukrainians fleeing the invasion of Russia to their homeland have also reported difficulties with bureaucracy when attempting to enter our labor market. Like Myrtle, many bring their work schedules and ongoing education.

The Windrush nurses’ contribution is also a reminder of why the NHS should never be taken for granted, particularly at a time when universal service is creaking under the weight of the pandemic, staff shortages and heavy demands on frontline services.

Never forgetting the nursing skills she learned in her textbook published in 1949, Myrtle took up the profession in New York, spending two decades traveling between the city and London before settling back in Brixton.

At the end of her life, my grandmother had fewer belongings than she carried in the suitcase she took on the Ortega.

But the manual never left her side.

Do you have a story you would like to share? Contact josh.layton@metro.co.uk

For more stories like this, Visit our news page.


Black History Month

October marks Black History Month which reflects the achievements, cultures and contributions of black people in Britain and around the world, and educates others about the diverse histories of people of African and Caribbean descent.

For more information on the events and celebrations taking place this year, visit the Black History Month official website.

https://metro.co.uk/2022/10/02/myrtles-calling-after-the-hardship-of-jamaica-was-the-nhs-in-london-17464374/ Myrtle's appeal after the Jamaica hardship was the NHS in London

Justin Scacco

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