Gemma's posts

Who do you think you are? Irish nurses encountering ethnicity and constructing identity in Britain- Louise Ryan

This article is written based on interviews with Irish nurses in Britain, who mostly migrated in the 1950s–1970s and demonstrates the ways in which Irish migrants were insiders in terms of being white and European but outsiders with regards to culture, identity and their position in society.

Ryan highlights how the Irish migrant had already by this period been characterised by stereotypes of bestiality and racial inferiority and regularly related with images of ‘Mick’ and ‘Paddy’, hard drinking and angry labourers. However, despite the prominent image of such male, working-class stereotypes, it is noted that women make up the majority of the Irish population in Britain, with a significant amount of them being in skilled jobs. In the article, Ryan therefore observes some of the ways in which a group of skilled migrant women encountered and actively altered their Irish ethnic identity in the 1950s-1970s in order to be successful in British society.

For the article, the author interviewed 26 Irish nurses and their responses were analysed and put into five categories; The ‘Irish community abroad’ and the Holloway Road, ‘Irish people don’t do that’: Constructing Irishness in a hospital environment, Bombs and the bloody Irish: Negotiating hostility, Religion and otherness and Englishness, whiteness and otherness.

In the first section the author describes how some nurses in London in the late 1950s attended the dance halls of the Holloway Road that were often described to them as being rough social spaces. Ryan highlights that these were not social areas where Irishness was expressed and constructed but these spaces became constructed as specific kinds of ethnic spaces and were viewed by some people as too rough and in some cases too Irish. It then goes on to describe how some Irish nurses would want to avoid these areas and Ryan notes that this could be associated with new migrants in London wanting to construct their self-definition of ethnicity by avoiding what they see as ‘ghettoised collective formations of Irishness’. For some of the migrants the expression of Irish identity could be seen as ‘excessive’, particularly for those who wanted to become part of a middle-class identity in the host society.

The article goes on to describe how for many of these women their relationship to Irish ethnic identity was reconciled through their gender and professional status. For instance, it is noted that Irish nurses had a ‘positive stereotype in strong contrast to almost all other Irish people’ in Britain particularly in the 1950s-1970s. However, although nurses were seen in this sense in a positive light and as hard-working professionals in a caring role, Ryan demonstrates how this positive image was centred around these women playing highly gendered roles and avoiding rough expressions of Irishness such as ‘down the Holloway Road’. Moreover, it is shown that even nurses in a hospital setting could not always avoid negative stereotyping and discrimination, as by examining many of the women’s narratives Ryan notes that there were blatant forms of stereotyping and prejudice. She suggests that the fact that most of the women did not perceive any of it as anti-Irish racism indicates that as Irish migrants in Britain, they had accepted that this type of behaviour from British people was normal. For instance, ‘The racialisation of the Irish is so ingrained in British culture as to be barely recognisable for what it is’ and in the British popular press the Irish were frequently characterised as being dirty with a ‘notorious apathy to soap and water’. As well as this, Irish migrants were characterised as poor, ignorant and backward, with Irish women lacking domestic skills. Ryan therefore highlights that in some hospitals Irish nurses had to construct their identities and prove their professionalism whilst dealing with negative gender, class and ethnic stereotypes.

The third point looks at how the Irish had historically been stereotyped as irrational, hot-tempered and violent and such stereotypes were re-used in the 1970s-80s to explain the IRA campaign and also to describe Irish people generally as being viewed as a suspicious community. Ryan highlights that in the context of IRA bombings, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and anti-Irish hostility and stereotypes in the popular press, many Irish people may have practised a form of self-censorship in Britain. For instance, it is described how one of the nurses decided not to wear a shamrock on St Patricks Day as a way of almost concealing her identity and avoiding confrontation.

The fourth part looks at Religion and how many of the nurses were seen as an inconvenience due to requesting that they were granted permission to attend church. Many were refused authorisation and Ryan explains that this shows while features of ethnic identity may be internally defined, the extent to which they were allowed to make their own choices were restricted and were affected by external forces. For example, the hostile environment that many of the nurses encountered did not allow them to express aspects of their Irish identity.

Lastly, the need to recruit a significant amount of overseas care workers to the National Health Service illustrates the fact that many British women at the time saw nursing as a poorly paid and unattractive occupation. However, Ryan argues that it is also possible that some English nurses felt resentful of Irish nurses taking over particular hospitals and turning them into Irish working environments. To summarise, the author explains how Irish migrant nurses occupied an ambiguous position in Britain as white insiders but as cultural outsiders.

Ryan concludes by emphasising that while the Irish in Britain historically have been represented as stupid, backward, lazy, violent and drunken, Irish women were depicted as unreliable, unkempt, sloppy and undomesticated. Being workers in a skilled profession that required cleanliness, accuracy and attention to detail, Irish nurses had to deal with these stereotypes in a variety of ways in order to avoid confrontation and also be successful in their jobs. Taking everything into account, the author demonstrates how the twenty-six Irish nurses who were interviewed portrayed the uncertain positioning of Irish migrants in Britain as white, European insiders as well as foreigners, outsiders and migrant workers.

Justin's posts

Gavin Schaffer, ‘Till Death Us Do Part and the BBC: Racial Politics and the British Working Classes 1965–75’.

‘Till Death Us Do Part and the BBC: Racial Politics and the British Working Classes 1965–75’ was written by Gavin Schaffer. This article begins by arguing how Labour adopted the ideas of restrictive immigration policies through the 1960s to match the public opinion of the time. The defeat of Labour in the constituency of Smethwick to Conservative MP and anti-immigration advocate, Griffiths was described as a turning point. This was because Labour realised that arguing for pro-immigration could cost them dearly.

This article uses Johnny Speight’s BBC TV sitcom to show how the working-class influenced Labours immigration policy between 1965-75 and how this affected race relations during this period. Speight was interviewed by The Sun in 1975: ‘There is still deep-seated racial prejudice in this country, based on ignorance and fear. But my show brings it out in the open and tries to make people realise how silly it is’.

Throughout 1965, the BBC were tasked with helping immigrants to settle within the community. New initiatives were set up such as new Sunday radio programmes specifically for immigrants from the Commonwealth. It was noted that this BBC policy resulted from pressure from the Labour government. They also conducted an anti-racism campaign and creating programmes to help educate the British public. This was why Speight’s sitcom is regarded an important piece for understanding the racism as it held a mirror up to the British public. This was done by having characters who represented each part of the political spectrum and highlighting the race issue by using humour and racial stereotypes. Speight’s goal was to highlight the absurdities of British racism, but many historians argue that this had the opposite affect and normalised and fuelled racism. This was due to misunderstanding from the viewers perspective who missed the point of Speight’s goal.

The BBC gained new cooperate bosses which began censoring Speight’s scripts. This could have resulted from the poor reception it had received by some immigrants who did not like the language used in the show. It returned in 1972 with 16 million Brits tuning into the first episode. A report was conducted showing that the show may have made middle-aged to elderly working-class people more prejudiced, with the viewers being slightly more anti-foreigner. The report also showed that 84% of people believed that the ironic racism was true suggesting that the series had the opposite effect of what Speight was trying to achieve. This leads to the conclusion that the show continued due to its popularity.

Speight understood that racism was manifestation of class prejudice to which he though that the working-class would have had a heightened understanding of this subject. However, not many got the ideas he was trying to illustrate with many wanting to see the series for the wrong reasons. This resulted in an intellectual blind spot shared with Marxist Historians who saw racism as an extension of class-conflict in Britain.

Oliwia's posts

‘Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain’ by Becky Taylor.

The article by Becky Taylor is divided into three sections and overall discusses the Ugandan Resettlement in 1970s Britain following after they were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972. In this article the author argues that paying attention to such small moments not only lies within the wider tradition of micro history but offers a way to synthesize concerns more often associated with post-war British history than with neglected histories of refugees and forcibly displaced populations. The author also uses these events in order to analyse the relationship between post-colonialism and the idea of citizenship and voluntarism.


Following the introduction which set the scene of the resettlement, the first section of the article speaks about the history of settlement of citizens from British ex-colonies, especially that of Kenyan Asians in the late 1960s. The author discusses the effect of settlement of ex-colonial individuals by focusing on this impact on British legislation and link the arrival of Kenyan Asians to the rushed passing on the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which was later strengthened by the 1971 Act. In this section, the author also speaks of the impact of the Act in terms of the settlement of Ugandan refugees, who were no longer entitled to an automatic right of entry into the UK. Within section one, Taylor also outlines the responsibilities of the Ugandan Resettlement Board who were in charge of the delivering the government’s reception and resettlement scheme. Finally, the author in this section outlines the important of charity and voluntary organisations in the support of refugees.


In section two, the author focuses more on the experiences of Ugandan refugees from their arrival at one of London’s three designated airports, to their experiences within resettlement camps. The author highlights the Boards’ emphasis on the involvement of retired administrators from ex-colonies. The article then speaks of the problems faced within camps when the process of resettlement turned out to be slower than expected by the Government and the Board, such as that of over-occupation. It is due to problems such as these that the author argues volunteers were of high importance within the camps for the support of refugees.


The final section of the article focusses on the enquiry into the role of the Greenham camp and the dismissal of Diane Woods, who was said to be at hear of the establishment of a social centre involving volunteers and expellees – which the older expellees, as well as the Board did not approval of. This section also talks about the depiction of expellees which was based partially on the basis of racism, which gave the camp residents very little room for challenging the conditions within the camps.


Overall, the article is very informative and bases a lot of its knowledge on statistics as well as information provided by other historians.

Siobhan's posts

“Going for an Indian”: South Asian Restaurants and the limits of Multiculturalism in Britain, E Buettner

This article discusses  South Asian groups within Britain with the establishment of Indian restaurants within mid-twentieth century Britain. Overall Elizabeth Buettner establishes racism throughout Britain from the South Asian community through the catering industry.

The author starts the article off by revealing that Britain now has nearly 9,000 restaurants and take-aways run by south Asian immigrants, and their descendants that employ more than 70,000 people and have an annual turnover exceeding £2 billion, she also established that the vast majority of their customers are white.  Although Buettner establishes that Indian food is popular within Britain she also establishes that several decades ago most British would either ignore or ‘vigorously reject’ food Indian foods, she explains that just as many reacted in the same manner to the arrival and settlement of people from the subcontinent. Buettner acknowledges that Indians were present in Britain before the end of the empire however their numbers were small and their visibility and impact uneven compared with the increase after India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947.

The author also acknowledges that multiculturalism has never indisputably been deemed a “positive” force for Britain for more commonly it has been imagined as a problem or as a means of tackling a problem. Other favoured foreign cuisines particularly Indian and Chinese that took root in British diets and dining-out habits were not widely associated with immigration to any comparable extent partly because Indian and Chinese communities were smaller and also deemed less culturally problematic in the post-war period. Buettner establishes that West Indians were the only minority group to compete with South Asians in terms of numbers and the level of public attention and anxiety they attracted. The history of South Asian foods rises to popularity revels “uneasy coexistence” and tension between ongoing racism and exclusion and the gradual and conditional development of enthusiastic appreciation and the gradual and conditional development of enthusiastic appreciation.

It was then acknowledged that in the 1970s “benevolent multiculturism” as the policy was most apparent within the British education system where it was believed that racism could be combated by dispelling widespread white ignorance of ethnic minority cultures through sympathetic teaching. The small handful of existing Indians grew exponentially between the 1950s and the 1970s when far larger numbers of Indians, Pakistanis and other Bangladeshis arrived to live and work in postcolonial Britain. Starting in the 1980s ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in London, Bradford, Birmingham and elsewhere became self-styled “Curry Capitals” as “Going for an Indian” achieved the status of a national habit with locally specific contours. The author then argues that positive and negative images of Britain’s curry culture have remained in perpetual tension, revealing much about the changing relationships between Asian and white Britons, the class connotation of producing and consuming this cuisine. Buettner then acknowledges that South Asians in the restaurant sector have played a critical role in remaking Britishness, yet at the same time, they form a deeply riven rather than a uniform group.

It was established that between 85 and 90% of Britain’s “Indian” restaurant’s and take-aways are owned by Bangladeshi museums. Pakistani Muslims run most others, particularly cities like Bradford and Birmingham. Indian restaurants in the metropole were few and far between. Several came and went in the 19th century and others emerged in the early 20th century, largely in London. Most were run by and catered mainly for an Indian and predominantly male clientele who had come to Britain as seamen, students or in a professional capacity.  An example that Buettner provides is one of the oldest restaurants that survives today is the Veerswamy’s off regent street dating from 1926 it was opened by a spice importer became an official caterer for the Indian Pavilion at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley outside London. It served upper-middle class and elite customers including visiting Indian princes and other dignitaries as well as officer-class Britons who had once lived in India. Like many other early restaurants offering Indian-style dishes Veersawamy’s was largely ignored by most Britons with the exception of repatriated ex colonials.

The author then establishes that two stereotypes surrounded this ethnic group: that of the arrogant privileged colonial and one of unhygienic South Asian people and food. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s most Britons continued to stay clear of South Asian food even when restaurants existed to offer opportunities for sampling unfamiliar dishes. Men who had run these casual café style establishments often begun as factory workers before deciding to go into business for themselves by providing a service that fellow new arrivals in Britain wanted. It was established that Asians were criticised for failing to adapt to English culture in reports that reflected demands for immigrants to assimilate with British society. Signs of curry’s popularity slowly became apparent by the later 1960s and 70s when some establishments that originally catered exclusively to Asians gradually witnessed a diversifying clientele.

Buettner acknowledged that “Going for an Indian” was very much a ‘boys thing’ a ‘boys night out’ for the younger members of an increasingly affluent post-war society with money to spend on leisure and consumption. However, displays of racism towards the waiters was regarded as masculine as this occurred frequently within restaurants. The writers explain that reports of young men’s behaviours at these restaurants suggested a lack of respect and appeared rude to both the establishment and their staff. Finally, the author establishes that the 1980s witnessed the largest increase in curry houses in Britain, which totalled 6,600 by the end of the decade. Eating at curry houses had become a familiar social practice in much of Britain. Many customers found curry houses attractive because they were cheap, filling informal and open late.  It was then established that most curry houses are run and staffed by Muslims of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin they are prime targets for Islamophobia, they would often be told to “go back to Pakistan” or get called “Paki” by aggressive passers-by. Overall Elizabeth Buettner acknowledges that racism within South Asian communities within the mid-twentieth century was present through the establishment of Indian restaurants.

Christy's posts

“Sit down, you haven’t reached that stage yet”, African Caribbean children in Leicester schools 1960‐74, Lorna Chessum.

This article discusses the experiences of some African Caribbean Children within Leicester schools during the 1960s, in connection with the local education authority. The research that is discussed by Chessum is from a collection of interviews of some 25 African Caribbean individuals, who had arrived within Britain between 1940 and 1975. The research was also provided by the local press and the sub-committees of the education committee of Leicester.

By 1991, the census showed that within Leicester there was the largest population of both black, and Asian residents than any other city within the United Kingdom. The city was known for prosperity, as it was home to a large proportion of two-income families, resulting in a high yearly household income. The predominate amount of African Caribbean individuals were working class, however, some that arrived after the war possessed qualifications from the West Indies. 

However, Chessum notes that, even with qualifications, faced discrimination due to their race, which resulted in many struggles finding employment within teaching roles for example. Clifton Robinson’s struggles showed that although he passed two scholarships, one from the RAF, and a second which was a degree in educational psychology, he was turned away from a teaching post that he applied to due to his race. After the employer discovered Robinson’s race, he was told the post had been filled, however, the same position went back up a week later. Robinson did manage however to secure a teaching job within Leicester, at Mellor Street School in 1951. He later became the first Black Headteacher in Britain and became an important figure for education within the city. Robinson after witnessing the ignorance of many white teachers within the city about children from the West Indies conducted a study on the children who attended the school. He later offered up his services to other schools in order to help them accommodate more children, which was taken up on a regular basis. Robinson noted however during his research that children from both white and black nationalities would be seen playing together, and would write within the class of their friendships with one another. Robinson highlighted that it was the parents racist, and discriminative views that tried to pull them apart.

Children were noted as some of the earliest arrivals from the Caribbean during the 1950s and faced a large culture shock upon arrival, many missed their homes, and struggled to understand why they had been sent by family members to the UK. Chessum discusses the importance of the relationship between family structure, and the migration process, where often family identity was the primary loyalty within Barbadian families. However, this method of children care that was often described as “leap-frog” due to the amount of movement, was often classed as inadequate to white families at the time. The migration of children was also linked to the racist view that Black culture was inferior, as well as the low attainment of Caribbean children within Schools.

An example from Editha Drew describes her time at a Girls school within Leicester as being a “terrible time” where she would be seen as a dunce who didn’t know anything, especially compared to the other white children, and where put in classes of age, rather than standard. Another example came from Oscar Frank who detailed that within Barbuda he was at the top of his class, however, within Leicester he was put back four years, not because of his knowledge or skills, but because of where he had come from. 

The Leicester Education Association responded in three distinctively discriminative ways according to Chessum, the first included the titling and rationalising of all Black, and Asian children within the Leicester school system as “immigrants”, which was being used to separate the individuals in a negative manner, away from the rest of society. Secondly, the children were defined as “West Indians” purely in order to monitor their numbers, and keep them low. Lastly, the children were seen as inferior to their white classmates and were treated as such within the classrooms, children were then often left without a school to attend, even in areas of low attendance, their presence was not wanted. Often teachers had gone on to complain over the issues of language barriers and would use this as their reasoning for why many were being left without an education, or for their poor treatment.

 The British government was aware of these problems and wished to persevere British influence within the colonies.  The government’s policy of dispersal was raised in 1963, where it was stated that schools should have no more than 30% of it’s pupils being immigrants. Discussions such as these along with the language struggles that led to further discrimination shows that through the 60s policies were being created to further show the perceived “problems” of immigrant children, and how these problems could be stopped by removing the children, as opposed to attempting to help, educate, and accommodate children from both Black, and Asian communities. There was evidence of Black, Asian, Polish, and other immigrants groups living within Leicester since 1945, and yet throughout the 1960s, nothing had been done to help in the fair education of these minority children.