Leonie Harford: a nurse who would not be denied
In the third of a series of profiles to mark Nurses Month, Cecille Snaith-Simmons tells the story of Phyllis Leonie Harford and her drive to be accepted by Bermuda
The year 1925 saw the formation of the Bermuda Welfare Society. In order to be employed, nurses were required to hold the qualification of Queen’s District Nursing Certificate. No Bermudians held this qualification, which resulted in nurses being brought to the island from England.
By 1927, the Bermuda Government passed the Midwives Act. It stipulated that in order to work, all practising midwives had to pass an oral and written examination. Most local midwives at that time were not formally trained and were unfamiliar with sitting examinations. Cordelia Fubler, 67, from Somerset, was the oldest and only applicant to pass. She had trained at the Royal Naval Hospital in Dockyard and for three years under the supervision of Richard Packwood.
It would be 38 years before the Bermuda Welfare Society employed its first Black Bermudian nurse — Phyllis Leonie Harford, for the parish of Sandys. Five years later, Sandra Allen was employed as the district nurse for St George’s and Cecille Snaith for Smith’s. All other parishes were represented by nurses from England.
Leonie was admired and respected. Her determined and unrelenting climb to success had always been followed by the community. She understood the Bermudian approach to healthcare and our family ties. She recognised the use of established home remedies and educated the community on ways to improve their health. Her advice was valued not only as a nurse, but as an elder within the community.
Phyllis Leonie Harford was born to Austin Ernest Harford and Lesseline Inez Ratteray-Harford on March 11, 1921. She attended the West End School before moving on to Sandys Secondary. She began her working life as a teacher’s assistant at the West End School but decided to follow in the footsteps of two prominent Somerset nurses — Alice Scott and her older sister, Eula Harford. She was also aware that E.F. Gordon, whose medical practice was located at Heathcote Hill in Somerset, was fighting for equality in employment practices relating to Black nurses.
Our nursing history reveals that Dr Gordon’s lobbying for desegregation in nursing began in 1929. He died in1955 without seeing the fruits of his labour.
In 1938, at the age of 17, Leonie entered the training programme at the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home as a probationer. From there she went on to complete postgraduate training at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York, and obstetrical training in Providence, Rhode Island.
An affiliation was established in 1905 between the Lincoln Hospital Nursing School to train Bermudian nursing students. This hospital had been established in 1882 by a group of public-spirited Americans who were concerned about the lack of hospital care for Black people in New York. The nursing school opened in 1898 with the first Bermudian, Mabel Crawford, graduating in 1911, followed by Alice Scott in 1912.
When Leonie returned to Bermuda, King Edward VII Memorial Hospital would not accept her local and American qualifications. They did offer her a position as a nurses’ assistant. She was insulted and vowed that she would never apply for employment there again. She decided she would return to work at her original training hospital, where she was employed as the second assistant matron and instructor for the nursing students. She held those positions until 1956 when The Cottage Hospital Nursing Home closed its doors for good.
In 1957, there was an effort by the Bermuda Government to retrain the increasing numbers of Black nurses who had studied here and in America. Neither KEMH nor the Bermuda Welfare Society would employ them. A large number of foreign nurses were brought in to fill the nursing shortage. There was an escalation of community frustration and resentment, which resulted in the decision to send these young women to Britain at the Government’s expense to retrain or — as Leonie Harford said — “to do it all over again”.
The Friendly Societies also played an important part in the education of Black nurses. The Bermuda Nursing Home Auxiliary was the forerunner to the Bermuda Nurses Association. It was affiliated with the Cottage Hospital and also assisted Leonie Harford, Muriel Basden and many nurses with the funding required to live and retrain in Britain.
In 1955, my great-aunt, Blanche Dowling-Smith, bequeathed her home, Franklyn Lodge on Union Street, Hamilton, to the Friendly Societies’ Bermuda Nurses Association fund for the education of Black nurses. Its mandate, as exists today, is to assist student nurses in times of need. (This association is not to be confused with the present Bermuda Registered Nurses Association.)
In 1962, Harford and Basden returned to Bermuda with the qualifications required to be employed by KEMH. When Ms Basden applied for a position, she was informed that there were no vacancies. Discouraged, she returned to England, where she spent the rest of her nursing career. Leonie Harford, however, had competed the additional training as a Queen’s Nurse. She was aware that the Somerset district nurse would soon be retiring and that segregation practices in nursing were beginning to slowly change. She waited patiently.
Her decision was a wise one, and by 1963 she was appointed district nurse for Sandys, the parish in which she had grown up. Her district ran from Ireland Island to the Naval Operation Base Gate. She usually visited between 15 and 20 patients daily. During that era of district nursing, she was expected to do bed baths, insulin injections, wound dressings, antenatal and postnatal visits, home deliveries, a weekly baby clinic as well as visits to the sick and “shut in”. She was always on 24-hour call. Eventually the Bermuda Welfare Society merged with the Department of Health. Before this, every parish nurse lived in her parish, was given a car and lived in a house owned by the Bermuda Welfare Society.
When interviewed about her career in 1967, Ms Harford discussed the many progressive changes since she began nursing in the late 1930s. She constantly marvelled at the use of antibiotics and other new drugs. She recalled days gone by when hydrotherapy was used for swollen, infected wounds. She was required to soak the wound in hot water and salt for five to ten minutes a day. Today the use of antibiotics has proved highly effective for the patient and less time-consuming for the district nurse.
Years later, Leonie Harford described her career path as extremely challenging but rewarding. Her sincere hope was that qualified Bermudian nurses would never again experience the humiliation of rejection in finding employment in their own country.
In 1982, Leonie Harford received the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour for her 45 years as a dedicated nurse, both at the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home and at the Bermuda District Nursing Service.
One interesting award was bestowed upon her by the Somerset Majorettes — the Special Mother Award. Leonie had delivered many generations of Somerset women within the group during her long career.
In 2000, she was recognised by the Department of Community Affairs for Outstanding Community Service.
Phyllis Leonie Harford died on September 21, 2003 after years of dedication to Bermuda and, especially, her beloved Somerset community.
Sincere thanks to Albert Foley, for his assistance and photograph.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian
References: Mid-Ocean News (December 12, 1967). Freedom Fighters by Ira Phillip (1987), CARE by J. Randolf Williams (1994)