Interview with Shirla Philogene OBE, 2008
Level: Category
Sound Archive
Level: Fonds
Level: Series
Empire of Care oral histories
Scope and Content:
Shirla Philogene interviewed about coming to England in 1959, aged 18, to train as a nurse in Colchester. Describes her experiences of working as a student nurse and living in Colchester.

[00:00:00] Shirla comments that she came from a small village. Did not want to be a teacher and was rejected by the civil service. Decided to become a deaconess, but parents thought too young. Started applying to hospitals in England; a familiar 'green and pleasant land'. Got a place at Essex County Hospital through a Methodist deaconess from Maldon. Left for England on a boat, the SS Antilles. Did not see land for nine days. Anxious during the journey. Shared a cabin with two women from Guyana.

[00:05:30] Arrived in Plymouth and met by a woman from British Council. Helped to catch a train to Liverpool Street and then from Liverpool Street to Colchester. Arrived late at hospital by taxi.

[00:09:17] Let into the nursing home by a stern Night Sister and shown her room by a porter. Woken early for breakfast; no one spoke to her. Thirteen nurses in her group.

[00:13:11] Documents checked by Matron. Measured for uniform. Had laced up black shoes. Preliminary Training School (PTS) across the road from hospital. Introduced to a local family through deaconess in Colchester. Visited small villages and had tea. Host showed her their air raid shelter, where she kept jam.

[00:17:56] Compares sun in St Lucia to darkness in England. Had to work fast to finish chores before getting to classroom at 8am; exhausting. Had to queue for different meal courses. In St Lucia, not bound to time. Had her own watch and pair of scissors.

[00:20:31] Had planned to go home after training. After 12 weeks, went to work in a ward at Myland Hospital. Got on OK with nurses but did not talk much outside work. Had a brush with the Night Sister when a steriliser left on caused flooding.

[00:24:36] Met a young black doctor on the ward, who was married to her cousin Barbara Allen. Did not have to see Matron. Went to Methodist church on Sunday, but no one spoke to her. Then met a lady who had worked in Africa. Had a letter of introduction from her Superintendent from home. Started going to church again.

[00:29:32] Got on well with English nurses. Went home with them at Christmas and attended weddings. People asked black nurses where they had learned to speak; did not realise English was their first language.

[00:33:41] Comments on bland English food; tasteless chicken, soggy cabbage. Given cold chicken salad on Sundays. Much nicer food at the American air base. Missed her family and the island. Sometimes didn't see anyone outside work. Went to the Regal cinema.

[00:37:10] First wage £8 12 shillings and sixpence. Had to buy own black stockings; expensive. Laundry done by hospital, but washed personal items herself. Recalls first coffee shop in Colchester opening. Not much to do. Strange to see women drinking in pubs. English nurses usually married at 21.

[00:42:45] Recalls two Jamaican nurses going to work in London. Comments that Jamaican nurses looked down on her for coming from a small island. Black senior nurses were kind and did socialise. Overall, few black nurses in hospital. Had to leave hospital for her first holiday; stayed at Methodist International House. On way back to hospital, two admin staff declined to share a taxi. Was embarrassed.

[00:48:15] Faced prejudice on ward. Shouted at by Sister. Given menial jobs and not taught anything. Decided to go home. Sent telegram home for her fare home. Sister found her in her room and persuaded her to return to duty.

[00:53:09] Told the Night Sister she wasn't being taught anything. Senior nurse talked her out from leaving. Matron did not want it to reflect badly on hospital. No problems after this. No money from home; told to stand on her own feet.

[00:56:07] Did not write negatively in letters home. Passed all exams and got her badge. Comments that black nurses did not get good jobs. Caribbean nurses told to do midwifery to be useful back home. Expected to use forceps and do stiches. Told to go to Scotland or East End of London for good midwifery training.

[01:00:17] Interviewed in London and offered a place. Worked for three months on paediatric ward. Recalls that vegetarian Indian parents brought their own cutlery. A culture shock for her. Treated children with nits.

[01:04:53] Colchester very insular. Most patients were English. Only one Irish nurse, from Cork. Bought wool to knit a blue polo neck sweater. Recalls getting fish and chips on Fridays and the opening of the first Chinese restaurant.
Dates of Creation:
1 hour 8 minutes 2 seconds
Creator Name:
Colchester Museums
Admin History:
Shirla Philogene came to England in 1959 from St Vincent to train as a nurse in Colchester. In 1962 she left to train as a midwife in London.

See Shirla's autobiography, 'Between Two Worlds - A Narrative' (2006).
Archivist Note:
Physical Characteristics:
1 MP3 file created from original WAV file
Dates of Description:
28 April 2008
Not Available:
Digital item(s). For access please email ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk