Picture this, a baby born in London’s Docklands, mother English, father Jamaican. Nothing unusual in that except Winifred Scott came into the world almost a hundred years ago spending her infancy in the shadow of the Tate and Lyle factory in Silvertown before being placed into care.
But spirited and self-possessed, she became one of Britain’s first qualified black nurses, married a political activist and counted Paul Robeson as among her regular guests at her Hampstead home.
“My mother was one of those unsung heroines, an extraordinary woman, whose life offers an insight into a little known era of Black Britain,” says her daughter Penny Klees, who is researching the family history.
“She experienced a lot of prejudice and hardship, but rather than let it get her down it made her more determined to get on.”
Born in 1917, when the sight of a black person on the streets of London would have excited a range of reactions, from curiosity to hostility, Winifred seems to have inherited her gutsy determination from her mother, Isabella, who defied convention by marrying Charles Scott, a merchant seaman from Jamaica.
But Charles returned to the Caribbean, leaving his wife to bring up their baby alone. “Gran found herself ostracised and couldn’t cope financially,” explains Penny.
“She felt she had no choice but to put my mother into a children’s home, which, sadly, was the fate of the majority of mixed race children then. The only difference was, my gran kept in touch with my mum.”
Like most working class girls of the day, Winifred was expected to either go into service or to work in a factory. But she had other ideas.
“My mother set her heart on becoming a nurse and that’s what she became, training for her qualification at Whipps Cross Hospital just before the Second World War,” recalls Penny with more than a touch of pride.
“As far as we know, there were only two black state registered nurses in the country at the time, my mother and Princess Tsahai, Haile Selassie’s daughter, who trained at Great Ormond St Hospital.”
Winifred’s skills were soon much needed as the war hit home, and one of her deployments was to the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich during the Blitz.
By this time she had married Peter MacFarren Blackman, a Barbadian who had studied for the priesthood. He traveled to Gambia as a missionary in the 1930s only to return a communist.
“He was completely disillusioned by the whole experience – for a start, African worshippers had to sit at the back of the church. My mother met him at a political rally – it was a real meeting of minds but they clashed a lot.”
The couple had three children, two boys, Chris and Peter, and a girl. Penny, the youngest, was five when they moved to rented accommodation in Heath Hurst Rd, Hampstead.
Her father worked for the Communist Party and the flat became a haunt for political activists, among them Paul Robeson. “Robeson was a lovely man and I remember often sitting on his knee,” recalls Penny, who attended New End primary and Haverstock secondary schools.
Winifred was by now a member of the senior nursing staff at the Whittington Hospital and would go on to specialise in midwifery before joining St Columba’s hospice in Hampstead. “It was unusual for married women to work but she really loved her job and saw it as a vocation.”
But her parents had a volatile relationship and Penny would look forward to the weekends when she and her mother would escape to Silvertown to stay with her grandmother and her new husband, another Caribbean seaman.
“I used to love going down there. It was wonderfully calming and I had a really special relationship with gran. As for Silvertown, it may have been rough but it was a lot friendlier than Hampstead.”
Despite the disruption to her childhood, Winifred had grown close to her mother and would later look after her in old age. Did she ever talk about the children’s home? “No. My mum never mentioned it and neither did my gran. It was a closed subject. All I know is that they’d always kept in touch with each other.”
Although Winifred was well travelled, she never expressed a desire to seek out her father in Jamaica. “She was a most open minded person but in this instance she just wasn’t interested,” shrugs Penny, a retired potter and jewellery maker now living in Lambeth.
Penny’s parents divorced when she was 13 but it was Winifred who moved out of the family home. She ended her career as a community nurse and retired to Epping. She died aged 92.
“She is someone whose story deserves to be heard,” declares Penny. “Considering her background and her generation, my mother achieved such a lot and I always look up to her as an inspiration.”
Published West End Extra 4 October, 2012