Britain’s forgotten black nurses

Discovering the largely unknown generation of nurses who served the country pre Windrush

PIONEERING: Princess Ademola circa 1943 (left)

STEPHEN BOURNE, author of the acclaimed Black Poppies and several other books on black British history has discovered the forgotten grave of a black nurse who worked at a well-known London hospital in the late Victorian era.

Bourne was researching the life of Caribbean-born Annie Brewster when he managed to locate her grave in the City of London cemetery in Newham, east London.

She was buried there in 1902 and when the historian and author went in search of it he was told by the cemetery authorities not to expect to find a headstone.

He was told that if there had been a headstone it is unlikely it would have survived after 117 years.

However, when Bourne located the burial plot, he discovered a stone memorial in fairly good condition, bearing Brewster’s name, although the large cross had fallen over.

It was an emotional discovery for Bourne who began his writing career in the 1980s contributing to The Voice.

And his discovery has shed light on a generation of black nurses from Africa and the Caribbean who were working in Britain and helping patients before nurses from the Windrush Generation arrived in 1948.

Annie Catherine Brewster was born on the island of St Vincent in 1858.

Bourne said: “Her father, Pharour Chaderton Brewster, was a wealthy merchant who originated from Barbados. He settled in Britain with his family, including Annie and her younger sister Laura, in the 1860s.

“In 1879 Pharour was a widower and a successful businessman, living with his daughters in Grove Vale, East Dulwich, south London, when he married an Englishwoman, Angelina Impey, at St Giles’ Church in Camberwell Church Street. According to the 1881 census, the family were still at the address in Grove Vale.”

Further research by Bourne revealed that Pharour moved to America in 1893 and settled in New York where he died in 1920 at the age of 85.

Bourne added: “On May 14 1881, Mary Seacole, the famous “doctress” of the Crimean war, died in London at the age of 75. Is it possible that Annie was aware of Mary’s achievements and was inspired by her to join the nursing profession. That same year Annie was recruited as a nurse by the London Hospital situated in Whitechapel in the East End of London. There she remained until her death in 1902. The hospital served a poor, ethnically diverse community.”

On a visit to the archives of the London Hospital, Bourne uncovered a small treasure trove about Annie’s nursing career.

He said: “With assistance from the hospital’s archivist Jonathan Evans, I accessed several records relating to Annie. The first, dated December 16 1881, described her as a thoroughly satisfactory probationer. She was a favourite with all the sisters under whom she worked. And she was considered gentle and kind to her patients.”

Evans explained that Brewster was recruited by Eva Luckes who was appointed matron of the London Hospital in 1880.

Luckes was a forward-thinking pioneer who, says Evans, “devoted the greater part of her life to raising standards of the care of patients, nationally and internationally, through the influence of her writings and of those whom she trained.”

Evans said: “Luckes reported that Brewster was known to all her colleagues as ‘Nurse Ophthalmic’ because of her painstaking work with elderly patients who were going blind.”

In 1902 Brewster died at the age of 43 following an emergency operation.

Luckes and the rest of the nursing staff were reportedly devastated.

The matron reported at the time of Brewster’s death: “She had spent the best and happiest years of her life at the London Hospital. She was with us for just over 20 years, nearly 14 of which had been spent as the nurse in charge of the Ophthalmic Wards. With her quick intelligence she became very skilful in the treatment of ‘eyes’ and her kindness to the poor old people who passed through her hands during this period was unwearied. Hospital friends mourn her loss and keep her in affectionate remembrance.”

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1 Comment

  1. | Trevor sterling

    Amazing story – thank you . No doubt Mary Seacole will have indeed inspired many . Her statue at St Thomas’s hospital is historic and a symbol for all our nurses/midwives.
    Trevor Sterling
    Mary Seacole Trust


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