People Library

Standing on the shoulders of others

We all face adversity in our lives at some point, but everyone responds differently to it. Often it’s our internal perspective that shapes outcomes to the challenges we face. Equality is a human right, yet for so many people both throughout history and in our present day, inequality is the everyday reality instead.

Jamaican-born Lorna James, part of the Windrush generations has faced inequality throughout her life, yet her deep strength and resolve have allowed her not to just overcome but also to succeed in life. Her energy has always been focused on building a better future, rather than being held back by her negative experiences.

She arrived in Bradford in 1963 at the age of fourteen, and has consistently faced racism both personally and professionally.  As she shares her journey, you realise that her sense of self is rooted in a belief system deeper than emotions or thoughts, and it’s those inner values that have made her the inspiring lady she is today.

Lorna credits her grandmother and the local district nurse as her two main influences which set her on the path she’s forged in life, and gave her the internal foundations she’s built upon despite the surrounding challenges. 

Speaking about her childhood on the island of Jamaica, she explains, “Life was very similar to here in the UK.  Days revolved around school, household chores, sports clubs, homework and family. It wasn’t until the holidays when we got to socialise and go to the beach.” Addressing the stereotypical view of Jamaica as a party island, she says, “Yes, we are a happy people, but we have a serious side too.”

Lorna’s mum moved to the UK without her when Lorna was eleven years old, part of the Windrush generations who sought better opportunities by responding to the call for help from the British government, to rebuild the UK after the Second World War. Many worked in construction, manufacturing, public transport and the NHS.

Explaining Caribbean culture, Lorna says, “In Jamaica, grandparents take on the role of mothers, so I was well taken care of by Mama and Papa and I wasn’t distressed about my mum leaving, I didn’t suffer in any way.” It was three years before she saw her mother again.

Describing her key life influences, Lorna says, “My Grandma passed on all of the important life values to me from an early age; one of faith and believing in God, making sure you’re kind and helpful to everyone and being respectful to people no matter who they are or how old they are.”  Her grandmother led by example and had a strong work ethic. Every morning she’d leave the house at 6.30am to prepare food for the local boarding school students. “She used to say to me ‘work hard to be the best you can be’. And so I have, I’ve always worked hard.”

Her second key life influence is ‘Nurse Henry’, the school nurse and district midwife. “She had this black bag,” says Lorna, with a warm smile. “I’d say to her ‘Nurse, what have you got in your bag?’, and she’d reply, ‘A baby.’ Then she’d go into a local house and after a short while there was a baby crying inside, so I strongly believed that there was a baby in her black bag, and I too wanted to carry babies in a black bag!” So by the age of fourteen, Lorna was determined to pursue a nursing career, but Latin was compulsory in Jamaica and she hated it.  After discovering it wasn’t compulsory in the UK, she got on a plane to join her mother in Bradford. 

“I remember arriving into Bradford one evening and it was dismal. It was getting dark, it was cold and all this smoke was coming from the rooftops, I thought their houses were going to burn down, not realising that people were just trying to keep warm,” she chuckles. “We didn’t need to do that in the Caribbean!” 

“I cried all the time, thinking ‘why have I left my beautiful island to come and live in a refrigerator!’. There was ice on our windows and the food was different, you couldn’t tell anyone was cooking because there was no smell to it,” she says, comparing British and Jamaican cooking.

The other challenge she soon faced was people’s attitudes. “I know for the first immigrants the reception was very frosty, there was all this ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. And the Teddy Boys were around, so if you weren’t careful you’d get assaulted or spat on.”

Remembering life as a young teenager, she says, “We used to go out in numbers because we were afraid of getting assaulted and the looks you got were…” She pauses. “…Although I didn’t experience this myself, friends of mine were asked about having a tail. It was really uncomfortable, you know. You’re a human being.” 

Her grandmother’s values and faith played a big part in Lorna’s resilience as she entered the NHS. “In 1968 I began my nurses training in Dewsbury. There were only four black colleagues on the course, and I knew that I was disadvantaged. I was seen as different because of the colour of my skin.”

Recalling her training, she says, “It wasn’t easy, but nothing was going to stop me from reaching my goal. I was always given the worst jobs. The first ward was a nightmare. I was allocated the sluice. Every morning of the week, it was my job to measure the vomit and sputum.” She pauses to let the information sink in. “Others were fighting to bed, bath, medical or comb hair – not me, every morning was spent in the sluice.”

After three years of training, she qualified as an SRN (State Registered Nurse) and then continued on to do midwifery. “I thought things would change after qualifying, but I ended up getting the most difficult cases. You know the ladies with prolonged labour, who had posterior positions, the ones you had to really work with. But I turned my disadvantage into an advantage, because irrespective of how complicated their labour was, I was able to deliver the baby, and so I became very skillful.”  She continues, “I knew that I had to get that knowledge, because knowledge was powerful. I’ve seen it work so many times because when other midwives had questions, they would say ‘Go see Lorna, she’ll be able to tell you’.”

Throughout Lorna’s career, she’s delivered over 1,000 babies (of those only two were black) and she says her passion was to always provide the best birthing experience for mothers and families in her care. “I really didn’t see the point of all that screaming and carrying on. My plan was to continually improve the birth experience and quality of midwifery, so they could realise their dreams,” she says.

“It’s the miracle of life, and it was such a privilege to be part of something so absolutely wonderful and to touch so many lives. Mothers entrust their baby’s life, and to some extent their own, to a stranger. You become part of the family and witness all these emotions, like joy, relief, gratitude and wonder.”

She always championed new methods to create tranquil and gentle birthing environments. During her 45 years as a midwife, she led the home birth team, implemented team midwifery and also set up the midwife-led unit which allowed midwives to work autonomously, and resulted in an NHS modernisation award. She was also voted ‘Midwife Of The Year’ from readers of Parenting Magazine, after the care she showed to one of her patients.

All this achievement, despite the racism she faced. “I’ve cried and I’ve cried and thought, ‘should I go to work today?’, but I turned up, you know, and then went home and cried again.” She continues, “It took me ‘til the 80’s to realise what was happening and give it a name, but it was just such a standard way of doing life for me. It’s not easy when you’re made to feel lower than others.”

The quotes are:

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight but they were toiling upward in the night.”

     –   Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Don’t quit.”  

– Unknown

I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.” 

– Psalm 121, The Bible

“This woman is not for turning”

– Margaret Thatcher

You get a sense of Lorna’s fortitude and values when you learn that alongside work and family commitments, she also served for thirty-five years as a Magistrate and completed a law degree in her spare time.

“I didn’t want to be a ‘black magistrate’, but a magistrate for all the people, to serve my community, equity throughout.” She continues, “There’s an element of responsibility. My approach was always to ask ‘what’s the best outcome for this individual?’. My job was to follow the guidelines and law, but even if someone is found guilty, they still deserve to be respected.”

Now retired, Lorna has chosen to give back to her elders and runs a community group for African Caribbean elders and carers. “They paved the way for us,” says Lorna. “I feel I’m standing on their shoulders and want to give back to them. I like to make people feel valued, cared for and loved. That’s very special to me. What would be the purpose of life if you didn’t have someone who cared for you, who made you happy? As they get older and family members move away and possibly lose partners, they’re isolated and a lot of them are lonely. So instead of them being at home by themselves, we provide somewhere for them to come for friendship, exercise, food, games and skill development.” It’s a wonderful, vibrant community and because of this, has won awards.

It’s often said that, as humans, we have the capacity for both good and evil. The question then, is what shapes or influences these sides in us. Lorna has experienced over and over again the joy of new life, potential and opportunities, but also the hurt and pain we inflict on ourselves and others.

In her experience, our ‘good side’ is nurtured within families, community, faith and intergenerational relationships. She feels that in some ways we’re losing that in society, through greed and a lack of respect and core values. However, she is immensely proud of Bradford and the potential within it. “Bradford is so cosmopolitan. The talent, oh, my goodness. There’s so much. We will work together and we will succeed together.”

“When it comes to racism, it stems back from colonialism and it definitely still exists today. I’ve seen it in hospitals, where doctors from other countries are treated appallingly. However, I think there’s a shift coming, but I think it will only happen when black history is taught in schools. Young people need to know the truth.”  She continues, “We have to co-exist. I’m hoping there won’t be this division, that you won’t see people as black and white, just people of value.”

Her final advice. “Make sure that you know what your goal is. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it and surround yourself with good people. Be humble, be respectful, stay where your passion is and things will work out.”