The ultimate caregiver
When I first met Nurse Richardson, she lived with her parents in a well-kept pink cottage built on the roadside opposite the Richard Allen AME Church on Queen Street, St George’s. My grandparents were not only neighbours, but friends of the Richardsons, and often I would visit with my grandmother. There was a beautiful piano in the living room and, as I was just beginning to take piano lessons, I was fascinated by Nurse Richardson’s piano skills and her quiet, confident personality.
Sylvia Geraldine Richardson was born in 1909 to Thomas and Inez Richardson. She had hoped to attend The Berkeley Institute, but was unsuccessful in passing the entrance examination. Her parents quickly arranged for her to take private lessons from Collingwood Burch and A.E. Guishard, principal of the East End School. In her family, there were four generations of midwives, and so her desire to become a nurse was no surprise. Her paternal grandmother, Letticia Bascome, was a nurse in the 19th century.
In 1932, Sylvia’s dream began to take shape when she was accepted into the nursing programme at the Bermuda Nursing Home on Curving Avenue, Pembroke. There was a period during her training when she was selected to manage the home because the matron, Lauretta Smith, became ill and required a year off. Although Sylvia was still a student, the management team felt she exhibited the organisational and people skills necessary. This delayed her training by one year. By 1935, she held a senior position and was in charge of the move from the Bermuda Nursing Home to the Cottage Hospital in Happy Valley. She described the move as very challenging; it took two days to transport patients and equipment by horse and cart from Curving Avenue to the new location. She completed her training and graduated in 1937.
In 1938, she was the first nurse sent by the Bermuda Nursing Home Association to continue her training at the Lincoln Hospital in New York. She sailed from Bermuda on the Monarch of Bermuda, a journey she later described as extremely rough and frightening. Unfortunately, she was forced to return the next year on the SS Queen of Bermuda because of the outbreak of the Second World War. This proved another frightening experience, as the ship sailed in a “blacked out” convoy escorted by naval destroyers.
Job opportunities for Black nurses were limited, so she returned to the Cottage Hospital where she was responsible for midwifery and assisting in the training of student nurses. In 1939, Nurse Richardson and Henry Wilkinson opened a clinic at the hospital to treat sexually transmitted diseases. She remained there for three years before sitting and passing the required midwifery examination in 1944. Her services were in great demand. This led to the establishment of her own business — midwifery cases and caring for private patients.
By 1947, attitudes towards qualified Black nurses was changing and there was the realisation that the community would be better served by nurses who understood and could relate more to the Black community. Nurse Richardson was then selected by the Department of Health as the first Black community health nurse. Her work involved several schools in the central parishes, including The Central School and Northlands. She also worked in the eastern parishes at Harrington Sound Primary School, East End School and Francis Patton, as well as the main clinic and the clinic for sexually transmitted diseases.
Before its move to Victoria Street, the health department was located on the corner of King Street and Victoria Street. Today, The Salvation Army’s Harbour Light Rehabilitation Facility is housed in the building.
There was a period when Nurse Richardson performed her responsibilities on foot, but eventually she was provided with a car and busily began visiting the island’s schools doing medical inspections, treating minor ailments and providing health education.
There was a great need for health visitors for at-risk seniors, new mothers and newborn babies. Nurse Richardson was offered the position and went off to Battersea College in London to train for a year. When she returned, she recommended the opening of a well-baby clinic and an immunisation centre with a doctor in attendance. She felt facilities were greatly needed within the more populated community. The hall at Grace Methodist Church was selected for a weekly clinic and the facility was well attended.
In 1955, she was off again to America where she completed a course at the Margaret Sanger Clinic. Margaret Sanger opened her first New York clinic in 1916. She was a nurse, activist and an early crusader for women’s healthcare.
The honours began to come in 1955, when Nurse Richardson was awarded the British Empire Medal for Meritorious Service in Nursing. The next year, she was selected by Battersea Hospital as one of a group of international nurses to return to the facility for the important purpose of reviewing their nursing programme. Upon her return to Bermuda, the Department of Health appointed her as a senior health visitor. All baby clinics, and district and school nurses in the eastern parishes fell under her purview.
In 1974, she was honoured by the International Women’s Year Co-ordinating Committee for her outstanding achievements in the community.
Nurse Richardson was a gifted pianist and was much in demand as a piano teacher during the era of the silent movies.
A devoted Christian, she held Bible study meetings at her home. She attended St Peter’s Church and played the organ for the Chapel of Ease in St David’s. In 1978, she was inducted by the Bishop of Bermuda as a church warden. Additionally, she assisted the rector by visiting the sick and offering counselling to needy parishioners .
Nurse Richardson’s skills as a hostess could not be surpassed. I will always remember her delicate bone china teacups, delicious tea sandwiches and cakes. She regularly held meetings at her home for the Sunshine Garden Club and the Bermuda Graduate Nurses’ Association, of which she was a founding member. My friend, the late Beth Bean-Miller, and I belonged to both organisations. Because we were the youngest members, we always volunteered to tidy up and wash the dishes. Beth was always concerned that if our teeth touched the cup when sipping tea we would surely chip them — the teacups, that is! They were the most delicate teacups from which I’ve had the pleasure of sipping tea. You can imagine how nervous we were of washing them.
Times were swiftly changing. In the mid-1960s, the two segregated nurses’ associations applied to attend the same international conference held by the International Council of Nurses in Switzerland. Bermuda’s request was denied because they would not accept two organisations from one country. It was for this reason that the two organisations were forced to amalgamate. Nurse Richardson along with Nurse Caro Spencer-Wilson, Annette Lightbourne, Jacqueline Lightbourne, Barbara Wade, Cynthia Stovell, Rachael “Beth” Miller and Cecille Snaith-Simmons formed the team on behalf of the Bermuda Graduate Nurses’ Association to oversee the transition. By 1967, the transition was complete.
Nurse Richardson represented Bermuda at many international nurses’ conferences and served for many years on the executive of the Caribbean Nurses Organisation.
In appreciation for her years of dedicated service to nursing and Bermuda, the Bermuda Registered Nurses’ Association honoured her at a testimonial banquet held at the Pembroke Princess Hotel in 1975.
After 30 years of service, this dedicated nurse retired from the Department of Health.
One of her rare hobbies was weaving fine American Indian tapestries, a skill passed down from her mother and generations of grandmothers before her.
Nurse Richardson, in her declining years, chose to become a resident of the Matilda Smith-Williams Care Facility. I was the administrator at that time and was grateful that we could administer to her the patience, love and care she showered upon so many within this community.
Nurse Sylvia Geraldine Richardson, a dominant figure in Bermuda’s nursing history, died in 1994.
How humbled yet delighted she would be to know that in 2007 a residential care facility in St George’s came to bear her name — The Sylvia Richardson Care Facility.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian
The Bermuda Recorder (June 11, 1955)
Bermuda Nurses Association 50-year commemorative booklet 1967
Mind The Onion Seed by Nellie Musson (1979)
CARE — 100 years of Hospital Care in Bermuda by J. Randolf Williams (1994)
Black History Month Calendar (2009)
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