In the same year that Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, a young woman called Princess Campbell left her home in Jamaica to settle in Bristol – only to discover freezing cold winter temperatures and a frosty reception from the so-called ‘mother country’ of Britain. Some 53 years later, the streets of Easton filled out with hundreds of people for the former nurse and anti-racism campaigner’s funeral, after she passed away aged 76 in 2015.
Princess, who worked at Glenside Hospital as a ward sister, was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to the community. Since her death there has been a ward at Southmead Hospital and student accommodation named after her. However, when Princess came to Bristol in her early 20s, like others who had been called over from former British colonies to fill job vacancies, she faced racism and discrimination.
While recent studies highlight existing racial disparities in housing and employment, prior to the Race Relations Act there was nothing in law prohibiting landlords and employers from racial discrimination. Princess, who campaigned in the Bristol Bus Boycott which is seen as influential in helping to bring racial discrimination into British law, was explicitly told when working as a nurse that she wouldn’t be a suitable candidate for a promotion due to the colour of her skin.
“In my job, I was told the white staff won’t go under a Black sister,” she told schoolchildren in 2007, when she was interviewed as part of the ‘Easton and Us’ local heritage project. “The English nurses would have the easiest jobs; we, the Black nurses, would be in the sluice cleaning bedpans and vomit boards.
“You couldn’t complain because the ward sister made a report. You had to put up or shut up,” added Princess. When a vacancy came up for promotion, Princess was rejected but there was uproar among colleagues who supported her and she was eventually offered the role as a ward sister.
Princess is best-known for being the first Black ward sister in Bristol but this widely held belief was recently questioned by retired nurse May Tanner, who was a sister at the Bristol Royal Infirmary eight years before Princess Campbell’s promotion. Mrs Tanner, who lived a quiet family life, didn’t want to take the spotlight off Princess who played a huge role role as an activist outside of work but her husband prompted her to set the record straight a few years ago.
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Princess also played a key role in setting up Bristol’s first Black housing association in 1985. United Housing Association (UHA) set about tackling the appalling housing conditions and lack of equal access to decent accommodation that faced residents of Black and minority ethnic backgrounds in St Pauls.
This particularly affected older people of Caribbean descent – who lacked secure housing for their retirement. Following a merger the organisation is now part of the existing housing association, Brighter Places.
Princess was later on the management committee of the Malcolm X Centre prior to chairing the Golden Ages Club in Easton, and joining the Bristol Older People’s Forum. She also played a prominent role in Bristol’s commemoration of the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade and through her role as a founder of Bristol Black Archives Partnership, she helped to preserve local Black History Archives for future generations.
Racism still endemic in health and care
Despite the changes in laws and attitudes in Britain today, figures released by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) last year showed discrimination to be endemic in health and care with white nurses twice as likely to get promoted than their Black and Asian colleagues. A review commissioned by the NHS Race Health Observatory in 2022 found incidents of ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ racism to be rife in the nursing profession.
Incidents reported included patients “refusing care from international or Black nurses”, and staff who “would undermine the work of their international colleagues, or draw unfair conclusions about work ethic, motivation or character”, Nursing Times reported.
Earlier this year, a senior nurse, Michelle Cox won a landmark case against her employer after facing discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The RCN and Michelle both expressed their desire for the case to drive change and encourage others who face discrimination to speak up.