The Covid pandemic in the UK brought to light the extraordinary and courageous work of hospital staff across the National Health Service (NHS), a large number of whom are of African or Caribbean origin. History consultant Kwaku recounts the story of his mother-in-law, the remarkable Dzagbele Matilda Asante, who was working in Britain as a nurse at the time the NHS was founded in 1948.
A few days shy of her 93rd birthday, Dzagbele Matilda Asante is holding court for a video and a Q&A session I organised for her. Several people who have also turned up to hear her memories affectionately refer to her as ‘Mummy’ which is also what I call her as she is my mother-in-law.
Dzagbele Matilda Asante (nee Anteson), was born in 1927 at La, Accra, in the then British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana). It was a well-to-do family – her father worked in the Treasury department. His position was referred to as ‘European appointment’ – i.e. normally reserved for Europeans. Though it’s not spoken about much, there was indeed a colour and class bar within the British colonies.
It was unusual at the time for most girls to have secondary education, but Mummy not only completed her secondary schooling with a School Certificate (equivalent to GCSE), but went on to teach at Accra High School, which was founded by Sierra Leonean Rev. JT Roberts. He was one of a number of Sierra Leoneans to establish schools in the Gold Coast.
The teaching however was only to fill in time whilst she waited for arrangements to be made by her father for her to travel to the UK to study nursing. The profession had been decided on by her father; he had also sent one son to study medicine at Leeds University and another son to study law at Oxford University.
Although she was a privately-funded student, she still had to go to the Castle, the seat of the colonial government in Accra, to sign a bond confirming that she would return upon completion of her training.
Arrival in the UK
Mummy recalls arriving at Dover in August 1947 and although it was summer, she found the weather cold.
She was put in the charge of the Ghanaian barrister, and later the first Speaker of the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly, Sir Emmanuel Quist, and his wife Lady Quist.
On arrival in London, Mummy was taken by a British Council officer to the Colonial Hostel in Collingham Gardens, near Earl’s Court – the British Council in those days was very particular about which part of London it housed its colonial guests.
Mummy was accepted at Central Middlesex Hospital in Harlesden, north-west London, where after the preliminary three-month ‘observation’ period, she was accepted for State Registered Nurse (SRN) training, which she successfully completed in three years.
Although it’s often been said that Africans, particularly those from the Caribbean, were routinely funnelled into State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) courses, which were not recognised outside Britain, Mummy does not recall meeting any SEN students during her training.
With her SRN qualification, Mummy says “I could have stayed there forever. But I knew I was to return home sometime, and I wanted to do something else in nursing.” So she moved to South London Hospital for Women and Children to study midwifery, which was covered in two parts – one was mainly theory and the other practicals. She completed the latter at Kingsbury Hospital in north London, whereupon she qualified as a State Certified Midwife.
A smile cuts across her face as she recalls the mischievous designs of a fellow trainee. The letter ‘o’ in the sign of the hospital’s name, South London Hospital For Women and Children, was missing. Her friend was obsessed with the idea of climbing up and removing the letter ‘W’ from Women so that the sign would read: the South London Hospital For Men And Children, and then stand back and wait for the pandemonium that was likely to ensue.
Mummy went on to study Health Visiting at Battersea Polytechnic.
Arrival of the Empire Windrush
The arrival of the Empire Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, carrying hundreds of immigrants who had been promised jobs and prosperity by the Colonial Office, is regarded as the start of the post-war immigration boom that was to change the UK in many ways. Does she recall the arrival of the ship?
Perhaps surprisingly, given the coverage that that ship’s one trip from the Caribbean generated, it passed Mummy by. She doesn’t even recall the Caribbean nurses mentioning it at the time.
“It was interesting when decades later people told me about this ship… We never really heard anything. I was surprised to hear such a thing, and none of us knew about it,” she recalls.
One of the things she particularly remembers from engaging with girls from the Caribbean was that after years of maintaining a natural hair style, they introduced her to straightening her hair “to make it easy to comb, and easy to keep.”
Launching of the NHS
Mummy was training at Central Middlesex Hospital when the NHS (National Health Service) was launched in July 1948. She says the doctors were initially not keen on this development, and so to get them on side, they were allowed to have some private patients treated within the NHS. Also, unlike before, when the doctors wielded a lot of power, after the introduction of the NHS, the hospital management had increased powers over their affairs.
Not surprisingly, she experienced racism within the health service. There were some patients who refused to be attended to by African nurses. Mummy recalls an incident where a patient would not allow her to prepare him for the operating theatre. When she reported the matter to the nursing sister in charge, she supported Mummy by phoning the surgeon to say his patient was being brought to the theatre unprepared, because he had refused to be prepared by an African nurse. The surgeon had to sort out the preparation himself.
Recreation meant often going to the cinema, where one could stay in for hours, if one chose to watch repetition of the same film. She remembers coming out of the cinema one day, and everywhere was covered by smog. Visibility was so bad that the bus conductor had to go on foot using a torchlight to direct the bus driver!
Another form of recreation was window shopping. She recalls one incident that has a lasting memory. One day she and a group of girls from West Africa and the Caribbean went window shopping in Oxford Street. They ended up having their photos taken in a photographic studio.
The following week when they went to collect their photos, she was surprised to see her picture displayed in the shop window. The enlarged version is displayed in her house at La, and that’s the portrait she’s holding in the photograph below.
Life as an activist
Mummy was a bit of an activist in her youth. She would challenge the negative spin on Africa portrayed in talks or films provided by the Colonial Office or British Council. The crisis in Kenya at the time was one of the colonial issues she and her friends expressed solidarity with by supporting the few Kenyan students around.
It was no doubt her ability to speak up and to get her nursing friends to attend political type meetings that led to her being elected secretary of the Gold Coast Students Union. The one elected president was a socialist-leaning statistics and mathematics student, KB Asante, who had come to London from Durham University.
They would end up marrying in 1958, and having two sons and two daughters. Mummy went on to have a long career as a senior public health practitioner in Ghana. Her husband had a distinguished career as an aide to President Kwame Nkrumah and his diplomatic service included becoming Ghana’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. Their marriage lasted 60 years, until the death of her husband in 2018.
Dzagbele Matilda Asante is still somewhat involved in the health service – her compound is used for the local weekly health meetings for mothers with young children. What a life of service to two countries on two continents. It is no wonder she is a heroine to many, myself included.
This is an edited version of the article that first appeared in Black History Month 2020 magazine under the title “Dzagbele Matilda Asante – I Was Nursing In The UK Before Windrush And The NHS”