A black and white photo of a nurse posing by a mirror
NHS matron Daphne Steele. © Pulse Magazine.
NHS matron Daphne Steele. © Pulse Magazine.

Daphne Steele

Guayenese nurse and midwife who was a pioneering Black matron in the NHS.

Daphne Steele (1927 to 2004), described as a ‘quiet revolutionary’, made history by becoming the first Black matron in the National Health Service in 1964.

Born in Essequibo county in Guyana (then British Guiana), South America, she arrived in the UK in 1951 (only 3 years after the NHS was formed) and trained in Balham, South London. After spending some time in the United States, she returned to the UK and worked in the NHS.

Daphne has been honoured with a blue plaque on Hillside Court in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, formerly known as St Winifred’s Nursing Home.

Plaque erected in: 2024
Category: Medicine
Location: Hillside Court, 2 Crossbeck Road, Ilkley, LS29 9TF

Making history

Daphne’s qualities as a nurse and her engaging personality helped her progress quickly. When the position of matron at a hospital in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, became available, she was encouraged to apply for the post.

She was appointed matron at St Winifred’s nursing home in August 1964 at 36. The appointment was a turning point in the history of the NHS and gained international attention. Daphne received more than 350 letters of congratulations from across the world, including a one pound note from a UK pensioner. She replied to every letter that had a return address.

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Daphne was a woman of courage with a heart of gold. Her family and friends recognised her humanity and divinity. She attracted and radiated a positive outlook, which is why she made such extraordinary strides, despite the social constraints of the time.

Carmen Monroe, Daphne Steele’s sister taken from 'Nursing a Nation. An anthology of African and Caribbean Contributions to Britain’s Health Services.' Compiled by Dr Jak Beula.

St Winifred’s and beyond

Daphne started work in September 1964, and delivered her first baby on 8 October that year, according to the hospital records. She ran the 14-bed hospital and oversaw between 250 and 300 deliveries a year. She personally delivered more than 200 babies throughout her career.

St Winifred’s closed in October 1971, and Daphne found a new job working in Wharfedale Children’s Hospital in Menston, south-east of Ilkley, deciding to retrain at Leeds University as a health visitor.

She worked as a health visitor in Ilkley, becoming a familiar and friendly figure to countless families in the area.

Honouring Daphne

In 2001, Daphne received official recognition of her professional achievement when presented with an award from the Guyanese High Commission, a moment which she described as ‘smashing’.

In 2002, she carried the Queen’s Jubilee relay baton in Shipley to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Daphne commented that she was ‘mainly doing it for my community, but the fact that I come from a Commonwealth country is good’ (Ilkley Gazette, 27 June 2002).

Official recognition of her achievements from the Guyanese government meant a great deal to her and the Association of Guyanese Nurses and Allied Professionals (AGNAP) instituted an annual memorial lecture in her honour in 2014.

Over the last decade, Steele’s role as a pioneering member of the Windrush Generation has become even better known. A plaque was erected by the Nubian Jak Community Trust at the site of St James’s Hospital in Balham in 2018, and the new Health and Wellbeing Academy at the University of Huddersfield will be named after her, opening in 2024. An annual Daphne Steele Day has been inaugurated at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, on her birthday.

Daphne’s name was put forward for a Historic England Blue Plaque by Bradford Civic Society and Bradford Metropolitan District Council after local people named her as one of several inspirational local women through a community-led project called 'Bradford Lasses'.


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