First Winter – Play Synopsis:

Starting in the sunny Caribbean, First Winter follows the story of three ambitious women who travel to England to work in the NHS. When they arrive in the chilly UK they are struck by cultural differences, the challenges of a nursing career, and what it means to be black in post-war Britain.

Picture of nurse Veta Hudson Rae in the 1960s. With kind permission from Johanne Hudson-Lett

First Winter – History of Development

In 2018 the RCNA was contacted by a producer and manager of the Audience Development in the Community Project at The Place Theatre Bedford. Funded by the Harpur Trust, this audience development project at The Place was devised to build new relationships with different communities in Bedford and develop projects that addressed the cultural priorities of those communities at that time.  The RCNA met with the producer, and after many conversations and some initial workshops, it was decided that they would collaborate and seek some funding that would enable them to commission a play that would tell the story of the nurses’ lives and work. The play would become an important cultural artefact, relating to Bedford’s ever-changing identity. In applying successfully to the Arts Council England for a grant, the partners brought on board playwright Yasmin Joseph, who is of Jamaican heritage. She also has close links to Bedfordshire. They also appointed Rebekah Murrell (of Bajun heritage) who became the dramaturg and director of the play which we now know as First Winter. In March 2021 the nurses themselves read First Winter in an online broadcast. Over 300 people booked tickets for the event. By doing this reading, the nurses claimed ownership of the text they commissioned while sharing their story with other Bedford citizens. This offered perspectives on local lived experience that are often unvoiced. 

Screen shot of production meeting, taken after Yasmin submitted the first draft of First Winter. Top left clockwise to bottom right: Cynthia Patience Stuart; Rebekah Murrell; Yasmin Joseph; Glenor Roberts; Elizabeth Howard.


The RCNA enables the history of Caribbean nurses to be recorded and told. It aims to do this through collaborations with community stakeholders in Bedford and with serving nurses. In the group’s relatively short life, it has gathered oral histories of its members, some of which are deposited at the Higgins Museum & Art Gallery, Bedford. The group’s facilitator devised a series of Reminiscence Suitcases containing oral histories of nurses, photographs, artefacts and news items associated with the 1950s and 60s. These have been deposited with local partners: the University of Bedfordshire, Kempston Mobile Library Services and The Higgins. These artefacts contributed to an exhibition held at The Higgins for Black History Month 2018. In July 2018 the RCNA’s histories in Britain were recorded orally in partnership with The Place Theatre, using binaural sound equipment and the expertise of Living Records Theatre Productions. The RCNA has instituted a bi-annual Gathering of retired Caribbean nurses in Bedford and the East. The first event was in 2016, the second in 2018, and the third in 2020. An Awards for All grant enabled the group to survey delegates’ views as to the future direction of its work. The RCNA is developing the findings of the full membership survey into a programme for Elders to create a strong basis for future collaboration with local partners.

Sister Ruth Sam O'Neal from St. Andrew’s, Grenada. She travelled by ship, the Irpinia, in 1961 and started her training at Bromham Hospital.

Yasmin Joseph (Playwright):

Yasmin Joseph is a London-based writer. Her debut play J’Ouvert premiered at Theatre503 in 2019 and she was nominated for the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award and most recently won the 2020 James Tait Black Prize For Drama.  Yasmin is the current writer-in-residence at Sister Pictures and is on attachment at the Royal Court Theatre as a winner of the Channel 4 Playwrights scheme. Yasmin is also under co-commission with Soho Theatre and The Actors Touring Company as part of the Soho Six, and Clean Break. She is delighted to work with the RCNA (Bedford) on this project. 

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March 2021 reading:

Written by: Yasmin Joseph

Based on an Idea by Elizabeth Howard & Glenor Roberts

A Retired Caribbean Nurses’ Association (RCNA Bedford) production, 2021

Made Possible with the Generous Support of Arts Council England

In partnership with: The Place Theatre Bedford, The Higgins Museum and Art Gallery, University of Bedfordshire

Readers:  Members of the RCNA (Bedford) including Barbara Bellamy, Maxien Clovy, Joyce Bristol, Adailia Paul, Jacqui Pearce, Ruth Sam O’Neal, Patience Stuart, Joyce Sutherland

Stage Directions: Johanne Hudson-Lett

Readers’ Support:  Jasine Belinfante, Wilma Bennett, Wena Grant, Margaret O’Connor, Lucy Reeves

Director and Dramaturg: Rebekah Murrell

Videographer and technician: Dave Deans

Producer: Elizabeth Howard

Chairperson, Retired Caribbean Nurses Association (Bedford): Patience (Cynthia) Stuart

Project Manager: Glenor Roberts

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