From Barbados to Bristol, May Tanner’s journey with the NHS

To mark the 75th anniversary of the NHS and of Windrush, UHBW NHS Foundation Trust and Super Culture are delighted to have commissioned an additional story to join Luke Jerram’s installation artwork Crossings, presented in collaboration with BBC Radio producer and documentary maker Julian May. 

Marking the 75th anniversary year of the NHS and of Windrush, this is the story of May Tanner who became the first black ward sister at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Hear how May, now 91, set sail to England from Barbados in 1956, responding to the call to help re-build a country whose ‘mother’ language, traditions and songs had filled her school days. Arriving in Bristol, May recalls feelings of familiarity crash away as ‘you couldn’t get any rice, you couldn’t even get your hair done… it was very, very strange.” Worse still was the outright hostility she faced in a city struck by racial tension. Drawing on her innate strength and dignity, May dedicated herself to caring for others and found her feet in the NHS, progressing through mental health nursing, general practice and midwifery to become the Bristol Royal Infirmary’s first black sister in Ward 12 where she stayed for a happy ’20-odd’ years. Through nursing she also found love with her ‘darling husband’ Michael who still sits by her side (and pours tea) as May recounts the story of her life.

May’s fare from Barbados to London. Thanks to Glenside Hospital Museum

We would like to thank Glenside Hospital Museum for putting us in touch with May Tanner. You can discover more stories of the NHS and Commonwealth Nurses through Bristol’s Glenside Hospital Museum’s project and exhibition ‘Answering the Call’, funded by Historic England. After the Second World War, Glenside Hospital became one of the many hospitals embraced by the NHS. An analysis of 320 trainee nurses from 1956 to 1966 shows 22% were from the Commonwealth, with 17% from the Caribbean islands. At that time, the ethnic minority population of the UK was 1.6%.

Glenside Hospital Museum is located in Bristol’s 1881 asylum church. It houses a unique collection that illustrates the history of mental health care, destigmatizes mental illness, and promotes understanding of personal well-being.

May Tanner with co-workers. Thanks to Glenside Hospital Museum

Take to a rowing boat on Weston’s Marine Lake and lap up the amazing stories within artist Luke Jerram’s thought-provoking and immersive artwork, Crossings in this stunning, seaside setting. Sunday 1 October, 11am-5pm. Boats from £3, please book HERE!