One of the NHS’ pioneer nurses from the Caribbean, Edna’s life continues to be one of dedicated public service

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Edna Louise Allen was born in Jamaica in 1930. After leaving school she worked for three years as a teacher but had ambitions to become a nurse. Her chance came in 1951 when the Daily Gleaner newspaper carried a recruitment ad for trainee nurses for Britain’s recently established National Health Service.

She applied and was duly accepted, recalling: “I left my job at school on the Friday and on Monday I was on the ship to England.” Sailing on SS Cavina, she arrived at Avonmouth, near Bristol, 16 days later in March 1951.

She spent four years at Ashford Hospital in Middlesex and was one of a group of black recruits who said they experienced little prejudice. Food was still rationed then but, as a nurse, she was well fed. In her second year as a trainee nurse the ‘Great Smog’ enveloped London in December 1952. It took the lives of 4,000, and four of Edna’s patients died in a single night.

Life in the UK was full of little adventures and in 1953 she remembers sleeping out in central London so that she could see the Queen’s coronation – “a once in a life time event”, as she put it.

Edna trained in midwifery in Birmingham, qualifying in 1956, and later became a health visitor in rural Cambridgeshire, a job in which she combined the duties of district nurse and midwife.

She married George Chavannes in 1960 and they went on to have two children. After 45 enjoyable years in the NHS she retired in 1996.

Edna became involved in the work of the Commission for Racial Equality and was a founder member of the Pineapple Club, which continues to provide social support to older people. Edna remains very active in her local community and, though in her eighties, helps out at a dementia café run by her church.

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