Mary Nelson has lived an eventful life. She came to Leeds from the West Indies in the late 1950s and has been here ever since. She was kind enough to welcome us into her home for a wide-ranging conversation about her life working in the NHS.
I’m from St Kitts. A Kittitian. Growing up – it was fun. Everybody shared. Nobody goes to bed hungry. If you had a problem, your neighbour would chip in. I always remember my mother saying to us, “If you run out of matches to light the stove, if there is no money there: do not borrow or beg. Suck salt and drink water!” You are not to borrow and you are not to beg. I grew up with that attitude.
Everyone had their chores to do. You have your work to do before you went to school. I had to feed the pigs. I used to curse those pigs! My parents went to work and my grandmother used to see to us. Made sure we had our breakfast and combed our hair. She made our lunch. By the time we got home from school our parents were at home. They wanted the best for us.
I’m the 4th of 8 siblings. One of them died, one that followed me. I was 7, he was 3-and-a-half. One day, I was playing with him. He said, “I’m feeling something strange.” He got worse and they took him to the doctor the following day. He fell ill on the Wednesday and died on the Saturday morning. I don’t know why he died. He was so clever. Goodness me! I remember my brothers and sisters teaching us, before I went to school. Counting from 1 to 50, your times tables, writing your name – and spelling it. My sister says to me, “How do you do this sum?” And I can’t remember. My brother says, “I can do it – and you’re bigger than me!” He used to shout out the answers. So clever.
I love medicine.
I love to see
patients come in
and get better
When I was 14, I was so ill. I ached all over my body. At that time you don’t complain about feeling ill. You have a pain: it’s growing pains. I came home from school and went to the doctors. I was off school for 5 months. It was rheumatoid arthritis. I was hospitalised for 3 weeks. The pain was awful. You can’t walk. I was off from September to February. And there was an exam in June – I was expected to pass that exam! Well, I didn’t. In my time, you fail one subject, you fail the lot. I had to re-sit it the following year. I was so lonely – but some of my friends did come to visit me.
I came here in 1958. It was 3 of us from St Kitts. I was 23 when I came over. They booked me with this couple – they were to keep an eye on me. I was seasick for 8 days! The crossing was 14 days. I thought I was going to die! It was horrible. But I survived. What I was most surprised about was Dover. I had learned so much about Dover and its White Cliffs. “Is that Dover? It could do with a bit of painting!” It looked beautiful but a bit mucky.
I came here as a British subject. When the Immigration Act came out – 1st January 1983 – I was given automatic citizenship. St Kitts was still ruled by Britain. The Queen employs a Governor that reports back to her.
I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I would have liked to go and do design. But it wasn’t easy back then, to get into the colleges. So I worked in a factory that made pleated skirts. We made the patterns for the skirts.
I had a brother living in Leeds. He was married. They had just bought a house. So that made things easier for me. There were a lot of problems back then. That was the time where you’d go looking for a job and it would say, “Vacancy – no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs.” And it was the same thing finding a room. “Room to let: no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs.” I remember this Irish colleague saying this to me. She said, “Since you lot came, they got off our back a bit!” Those that lived in a back-to-back house, they had it hard. I remember a friend said to me, “We were posh – only 2 families had to share a toilet!” But you survive all those things. At the weekend we lit the fire. I thought, “Why not light it every day?” It cost money.
The worst thing was, within 6 weeks, I had my appendix out. I wanted to go home! I knew I had a grumbly appendix. One night I put my hand on my tummy. The heat that was coming off it! I went to the doctor. He sent me to the LGI. My brother used to work on the buses and someone in the house was a bus conductor. He took me. I wouldn’t have been able to find it otherwise. I was so cold there. My sister-in-law brought me a woolly bed-jacket. Everyone was opening the windows, but I was too frightened to open my mouth!
Mary with one of the many babies she has helped deliver over the years
I went into nursing in 1959. I did my enrolled nurse training at Ilkley. It was lovely up there. It was fantastic. In the morning, you’d have your own sink, you’d get washed and go to work. Wonderful.
I didn’t train at LGI. At that time, in the 50s and 60s, to train at the LGI, your father had to be a professional – a teacher, a headteacher or a lawyer. It went on your father’s occupation and there were no black people there.
When I finished my training, I went on to a convalescent ward. I worked there for a long time. The matron who was there – she had retired and came back part-time as a sister on the ward. I worked with her. And there was a patient who had multiple sclerosis – she was a matron too, in a nursing home. One day the sister sat me down in the cubicle with the patient and said, “We’ve been thinking about you. What is your plan?” I said, “My plan is to go on and do my General Nurse Training. Because if I intend to go home to St Kitts, I won’t get a job as an enrolled nurse.” She said, “As much as I would like you on my ward, you are wasting your time here. You need to go and further your training.”
I trained in Carlisle, in Cumbria. I was the only black student! There were Indian doctors and one black African doctor. But I was the only black student. I was very happy there. Wherever my “set” went, I went! At that time you didn’t have central heating – it was all coke fires. It was cold. One of the girls, her mother, used to say, “Mary, get a hot water bottle in your bed.” At that time you had to be back by 11 o’clock. Of course, you’d get back at 12 or 1 in the morning. We used to get in with the night cook. The way the hospital was built, everything was there. You’d come in through the main doors, go up the stairs, turn right – my bedroom was there. You’d go up another flight of stairs, there were the tutors. As a first-year student you could not sit at the table , with a second-year student. The third-years were like Sergeant Majors! If you were a third-year, you wore a blue dress and you could sit with the staff nurses. That was what it was like. If you saw a sister coming through the door, you’d stand up and hold the door for her.
Mary in the1960s
After general nurse training, Mary decided to become a midwife and trained in 1967. However, at this point in her career, she was unsure what to do. For a time she wanted to work in America. “I couldn’t make my mind up!” she says. But soon things changed.
When I qualified as a midwife, you had to work a year – then you could apply for a sister’s post. But I didn’t. I’d only been there 9 months. The matron sent for me. I thought, “Oh God!” When the matron sends for you, you get worried. At that time, you’re taught that people in authority, when you go to see them, you don’t speak until you are spoken to. And you do not sit down until you are told. That was drummed into us at school and in the classroom. She said, “Good Morning. Sit down nurse. What I called you for is that I’d like to offer you the sister’s post.” I said, “I was hoping to go to America!” Then I changed my mind. This was in Bradford. I was there 30 years.
Mary in 2021
Mary worked in the Special Care unit for premature and unwell babies. Some of the babies were tiny. Some of them were “only 800 grams,” she tells us.
Over the years, Mary has seen the NHS change hugely. “There are a lot of changes,” she says. “The sisters, they sit down and write reports - and don’t even come in the ward to see the patients! They are the modern sisters.” Mary has had her own fair share of health problems over the years and can observe first-hand the differences. “It’s slipped!” she exclaims. “The health care workers – who are not trained –
are doing the nurses’ jobs.” Mary also doesn’t like the habit for some health workers to be seen in the supermarket wearing their uniforms. “In my day, they would never allow it!” Despite the changes, Mary still recalls her years working in hospitals with much fondness.
I love medicine. I love to see patients come in and get better. They’d come in with a heart attack. They were laid flat and you nursed them flat for a week. Then you start sitting them up, they can start to do things, use the commode. And then, the 4th week, they’re ready for home. Two months later they come back for a check- up. They walk through the ward; they’re looking forward to going back to work. And you think, “A job well done!” So my specialties were medicine.
Mary retired in 1997, after 30 years working in Bradford hospitals – St. Luke’s and the Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI). Mary describes it as “the end of an era”. Though retired, she has kept herself incredibly busy.
I have 2 children. A boy and a girl. And 3 grandchildren. 2 boys and a girl. I go back to St Kitts regularly. The last time I was there was 2018. I have a sister living there; my nieces and nephews. And two school friends. I wouldn’t live there now, though. My children and my grandchildren are here. And my friends. And I don’t like what I see there. Politics, politics. Always the same. I have got a Kittitian passport.
I’m very proud of the things I have achieved. I was a patient governor. I was a volunteer at Home Start. I was a mentor in a high school for 10 years. It’s surprising the number of children who leave school with a reading ability of 7. How can they learn? I was on the appeal panel at the school. I was on the Bereavement Support Group for many years. I cannot sit down! Now everybody is saying to me, “you have to sit down!” But how can I sit down?
I’m 86. All the neighbours call me “the little old woman”. They all do my shopping. “Mary, do you want anything?” But I’ve always remembered what my mother said, and lived by it: “You are not to borrow and you are not to beg.”
Mary was talking to Maureen Kershaw.
More Shine a Light Stories.
Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.