Life of Mauritians in the Health Service

By mid-1970s many fellow Mauritians had already settled into their respective jobs or nurse training in hospitals around Britain.

Some of the older ones had arrived since 1968 and others were still arriving in the late 1970s to fill vacancies. Since the early 1970s, many had already completed their nurse training and became qualified nurses in either General, Psychiatry and Mentally Subnormal as it was called then. Some of them worked as a Qualified Nurse known as Staff Nurse or Enrolled Nurse depending on which training they did. It was imperative to gain experience in order to get promotion as Charge Nurse/Ward Sister (Ward Manager) which was the next step for promotion. However, at that time, many of the Staff Nurses used to be in charge of the wards and the Enrolled Nurses could deputise or be in charge if there was no Staff Nurse. For that time, it was acceptable to have third year students or Enrolled Nurses take charge of the wards.

Former Fairfield Hospital (Stotfold, Bedfordshire) main block

 The buildings were majestic and large with purpose built departments

Almost every district in Britain had a large psychiatric hospital but none like Epsom in Surrey. This small town had a general hospital and a staggering five psychiatric hospitals on its outskirts. The psychiatric hospitals were called Long Grove, West Park Horton, Manor and Saint Ebbas. It was once said that it was the largest concentration of mental hospitals in Europe. “Epsom must have been the most diverse town in the world,” said Beryl Aguiar Galan, one of the cleaners from Epsom. This was due to the large number of foreign nurses from many different countries. If you passed by some of the houses in Epsom, you were more likely to hear Indian songs or some conversation in Creole. Many towns around Britain were enriched with a diversity of cultures and languages, not forgetting the smell of Indian food. One of the deputy directors from Long Grove Hospital in Epsom said: “I had staff from at least a dozen countries including China, Malaysia, Iran, Mauritius, Barbados and the Philippines. A brilliant group of staff.”

Part of the former Long Grove Hospital (Epsom, Surrey) building now turned into apartments

Nursing duties in the hospitals were based on a rota system which consisted of morning, afternoon and night shifts. These three shift systems would be a norm for every hospital to provide 24-hour patients’ care. The times varied slightly but all nurses would work a 40-hour week on average. There were also chances to do overtime even as a student, and this meant that some nurses would work a double shifts from 7.00am up until 9.15pm with a lunch break. The overtimes were welcome by many nurses who needed the extra money to repay their loans. Some had to send money to help their relatives back home. Almost all of them stayed in the UK, some marrying English partners or those from other religions, not always with the approval of the white family or the Mauritian family.

Leavesden Hospital in 1970s, Watford, Hertfordshire

The front of the former Leavesden hospital, now made into apartments

It was something to be proud of for Mauritius was the only country which offered a loan to nursing students for the air fare which their parents could ill afford. This good gesture was done by Mauritius Commercial Bank in Port Louis. The bank gave a loan, with a guarantor, to nursing applicants before they left Mauritius. The fare at that time was around Rs2000 when an average secondary school teacher’s average salary was R200 per month. Some of the nursing students came from poor background, while others already had a fairly good job or their families were better off when they left for the UK.

When the nurses had started to earn a salary in the UK, they were able to pay back their loan by traveller’s cheque or cash through the post office. The Commercial Bank would promptly reply, stating the balance left to pay. The electronic system had not started yet and very soon some banks would have started a cash machine. Most of the nurses worked very hard and took their training seriously. The majority (99%) passed and became qualified within two to three years, depending on which training they took. The small minority failed the nursing course or left nursing prematurely and went back home.

In terms of racial harmony, most of the English staff welcomed the diversity, but some elderly patients were resistant to being nursed by people of different nationalities. This was partly due to language barrier and understanding the needs of the patients. Despite the facilities offered for nurse training and improving the lives of many, the black and Asian nurses suffered prejudice at work. One Mauritian nurse who was on her first ward placement and started giving an English patient a bed bath had a surprising response. She had to check the temperature of the water for safety by actually placing her hand in it. This patient despite being mentally ill uttered to the new nurse: “Quickly take your hand off because the water is getting dark”. The nurse and others nearby just laughed it off. However, this was also a blatant racist comment that would not be acceptable nowadays, what with the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

However, these patients were mentally ill and it was difficult to use the law against them apart from telling them it was rude. These were also patients who were either bed-ridden, or fated to end their lives in the hospitals. Many of them would be having their first experience of dark-skinned nurses. The ability of foreign nurses was often underestimated, perhaps more due to ignorance than to racism. They performed vital work shunned by the local white workforce. Mental health nursing, perhaps more than any other type of work, showed that we had more in common than differences.

A picture of the administrative block of Banstead Hospital

The bus in the picture used to take passengers to Morden. The Pools (Vernon) advertisement is a nostalgia of 1970s

During their main nursing career, some Mauritians and others too took up further studies during evenings in fields such as Accountancy, Sociology, Economics and Science in Further Education Colleges. These ambitious people went on to complete a first degree in their subjects and also Master’s and PhD degrees in their chosen fields. Many Mauritians, Nigerians, Malaysians, Irish English, Turkish and Afro-Caribbean became Nurse Tutors, hence they were employed in the hospitals. Others specialised in certain fields of their own in Alcoholism and Drug as part of their jobs. Many nurses also did Community Nursing; others became advisors with a supervisory capacity.

After settling in the UK for a few years, there was a great opportunity to learn to drive also and own a car. Driving lessons became a good business for some who had many clients from the hospitals. Almost every male Mauritian became a driver and bought old bangers for a start. During a winter morning, one could hear several cars that failed to start and needed a push. Some of them used to deliberately park their cars on a hilly side to make it easier for the cars to start without a push. When they were better off, the Mauritians like others went for more expensive cars until some of them started to move out of the Nurses Home to live in either rented houses or their own places.

Many Mauritians and other foreign nurses started to buy their own homes. There were facilities from Building Societies for loans and it was the best investment. It became clear that the majority of the Mauritians were home owners compared to the whites in the UK. Since their arrival in the UK Mauritians were wiser and invested in their children’s future also. They were close to their families and kept a strong link with their close relatives in Mauritius and also France. They had started to invite their parents and siblings for a holiday in Britain.

The psychiatric hospitals in Britain were earmarked for closure in 1980s. The first one to close was Banstead hospital in 1986. Gradually, all the psychiatric hospitals closed down by the end by late twentieth century. As a result, nurses who reached 50+ years were made redundant with a substantial lump sum. Those who were Nurse Tutors either retired when the hospitals closed down or they had to take on further studies in order to convert their Nurse Tutor qualifications into university degrees. Many Mauritians bravely did first and even second degrees in Nursing and related courses. Some did a doctorate degree in Nursing and they took up posts in some universities to teach and became advisory figures in their fields.

One of the wards building in Banstead Hospital closed down and boarded up

These wards were once quite busy with many geriatric patients and caring nurses

 

A former Nursing Student (1970s), Kishore Teelena is currently Course Leader in Applied Science & Industry Placement Coordinator

 


* Published in print edition on 12 October 2018

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