Photograph of Rose Cam

Rose Cam

Born: Not given

Natal, South Africa

Date of interview: 20th July 2006

Map showing where Rose Cam came from

My name is Rose Cam.

And Rose, can you tell me where you're from?

I was born in South Africa.

And what year did you come to England?

In a week's time, it'll be forty years exactly. On the 28th of July to England in 1966.

And what was it like for you leaving South Africa to come to UK?

It was very traumatic actually because, as much as I wanted to come to England to do my nursing, I didn't want to leave my brother and sister because they really relied on me. I was the child carer and subsequently was an adult and continued to support my brother and sister and so it was very hard to leave them.

Could you tell me a bit more about your family in South Africa and growing up in South Africa?

I was the second of perhaps you could say five children, but the first two before me were twins so my mum had five pregnancies but had six children. And unfortunately they didn't really live long. The girl, because it was a boy and a girl; the girl died in its infancy and the boy died when he was three years old and he broke a leg. Those days there were no hospital things and the people, the local medicine men, did the best they could, but it never healed and then really it just got infection and gangrenous and he died of poisoning, of blood poisoning. He was three years old. Then there's me and then my sister, my brother and then my two ... the baby who was two weeks old when my mum died of septicaemia. He died when he was three as well, so, so, it was hard, so really this is the reason why I was a carer.

My dad did marry again, but during the time my mum died, before my dad got married, we had to go and live with my grandmother in the country and that were the best days of my life because it really was open country, and we roamed for miles and we loved, I just loved it and I learned to help my grandmother on the farm, and I learned to milk a cow and learned to thatch houses.

I used to work alongside her and she showed me what to do which was brilliant and I learned to do pottery. We used to go and collect the clay and actually pound it ourselves to get the impurities out, to prepare it for making the earthenware and fire it. So it was beautiful. I really did learn a lot in a very short space of time.

What part of South Africa was that?

That was in Natal, it's Zululand, but my family are all over really Natal area and Durban and Vryheid, then Nongoma which is really known as the Zulu heartland. And that's really where my grandfather was born, my paternal grandfather.

So you said something about nursing. You came here to do nursing. So did you start your nursing in South Africa?

Yes, I did do auxiliary nursing because I really did want to do medicine. But because being orphaned in South Africa, there were no grants. You had to take a loan bursary and, if I took a loan bursary I would've had to take a big enough loan to support my brother and my sister while I was at the university and then I would've just spent the rest of my life paying the government back and it was impossible.

But, when I worked as an auxiliary nurse, I worked in a hospital which was a white hospital. I couldn't train there but I could work there as an auxiliary nurse and it also had a coloured wing. When I say coloured, it's difficult to explain to somebody. In South Africa, 'coloured', when they refer to people as 'coloured', it's people of mixed race. So there was, there was a coloured wing in the white hospital, but they couldn't mix in the same ward and so I used to work between the white wards and the coloured wards, at the same time I was studying because I did really want to do, go to the university and do medicine.

It was a very big hospital. In fact they used to say it was the biggest in the southern hemisphere - a place called Addington Hospital and there were nurses from all over the world; mainly Europe, France, Scandinavia and because they could see me studying, they used to help me.

They said to me, 'Look, the way you are studying', I was doing two subjects a year, but they said, 'By the time you've finished training to get your matriculation you'll be tired of studying and then go and do nursing. Why don't you go to England?' And they used to receive Nursing Times. Then, I think there was another magazine called Nursing Mirror and they used to receive those and so they used to pass them on to me.

And so I started applying, they encouraged me to apply. I applied at St. Thomas' and St. Bartholomew's. St. Bart's said they would love to have me from what they were hearing, well we didn't call it CV then, it was just the background of my training and they felt they would really have liked to have taken me, but I didn't have enough qualifications. So, but they forwarded my application form to Maidenhead Hospital, St. Luke's.

The next thing I heard from St. Luke's giving me directions to go to the British Consul in Durban to get a work permit because, by that time, South Africa, although we were in the Commonwealth and we were part of the British Commonwealth, we were no longer allowed to be in the Commonwealth because of Apartheid. South Africa was kicked out in 1961 so we'd become a Republic and therefore I had to have a permit to come here, whereas before we were British Protectorate and in the Commonwealth. So I went to the British Embassy to get the, well we call them British Consul and I got my permit to work, permit to come to England and eventually came to Maidenhead.

And then I was very disappointed because when I came there were so many black people in Maidenhead. I'd been told that there would be nobody and I was really pleased to see black people and a lot of Asians as well from East Africa. But nobody from South Africa. I was just the misnomer - everybody used to say 'How did you get out of South Africa?' And I don't know how I got out. I think somebody up there was with me because I had known men who had applied, black men applied for passports to go away from South Africa and they were promptly arrested, because if you indicated at that time you want to leave South Africa, you were immediately called a communist and against the Government. I think what helped me was because when I did apply for a passport I already had a work permit, I already had a job going to ...

I had to go to a place where the immigration people to give me permit to
go and they still grilled me. 'What are you going to England for?' In fact, one of the Africana women was so horrible. 'Are you going there for the process of, for the ...' what did she call it? 'with the view to be a prostitute?' which was really infuriating. I just chose not to answer that because I'm not going to go down to her level. But, and also, you had to just be grin and bear it, otherwise they wouldn't give you the permit. But I got it within six months.

What age were you then?

I was twenty.

So when you lost your mum...

I was four and a half when my mum died. And I was twelve when my dad died.

So that affected your schooling?

It did. I used to go to school before ... in fact, when I was ten I left school to go and work and then went back the following year. And then left again and went ... But then I decided it was too much of a hassle, but, it just helped me that I was a quick learner and had a good memory and in fact the second time I left school, I left in Standard two and when I went back I didn't go back to Standard three or Standard two and they pushed me straight to Standard five. And ... and, that really helped because I caught up with my peers who had carried on at school.

In the end I passed them as well because some of them left at that point and I carried on because I loved education and I knew what I wanted to do. And, then of course, after that I just thought it's just too much of a hassle to keep leaving school and going back. I'm now going to do everything by correspondence, which I did.

So when you came to England at twenty...

I was twenty-one and a half.

So did you come in the wintertime or the summertime?

July was the summertime here, but it didn't feel like summertime. When they told me it was summertime and I looked at the sky and I thought it was so cloudy and so cold and I was still wearing a coat.

Tell me something about your first winter.

My first winter actually wasn't bad because I was expecting the worse. I hadn't known anything else so everybody kept saying 'Oh, you wait until ...' So I was waiting for the worse, but the worse never came that year. But the following year, it was 1967, it snowed and it was awful. So eight months I spent in Maidenhead and then I came in Reading in January 1967 and I was in Pendragon House. But the first two months I was at Prospect Park just working on Evelyn Ward and by this time another African girl joined from Ghana so we teamed up together, and because we'd been there the longest when PTS started we were really lucky. We had private rooms. Everybody else shared.

So you didn't miss your family?

Oh, I did. I used to write letters every night, and ... but then it was overwhelming, because when the replies came there were just so many. Some of them I never did go round to keep regularly reply because I was just ... I had a calendar every month I used to tick the day one day down, one day down and I just missed ... I dreamt, I still do now, dream about home so much.

So you had a plan of when you wanted to go back?

Oh, yes. I was, as soon as my midwifery had gone I was going back home and of course people often used to say to me 'But you're a political refugee.' I said 'No, I'm not an asylum seeker. I've come to do my training and I'm going home.' And I didn't run away from Apartheid. The only thing that made me come away was that it was so difficult for me to get into training as a nurse 'cos I didn't have matriculation and I couldn't train at Addington although I was already there and the nurses used to say 'You know, Rose, the way how much you know', because I used to learn alongside the old, the white nurses that were training and they were really lovely. In fact I used to say to people if you went to Addington straight from the airport and went to Addington and then out again you would completely deny that there was Apartheid, because we all worked together. Those blacks that worked there, they, I mean I worked at both theatres, the surgery and orthopaedic theatre and I was an auxiliary nurse, but when we were all dressed up and scrubbed and they treated me as if I was one of them and I as if I was a trained nurse 'cos they knew I was interested.

Did they treat you as a coloured or as a black?

Well, coloured 'cos my grandmother was half Scottish and so that's how I got in. Unless you had a background of a white relation you couldn't get into Addington Hospital.

So the Apartheid experience. How was that for you then compared with the ...?

I just went as a Zulu. I didn't care. In fact I used to be an embarrassment to the other coloureds who wanted to distance themselves from black people and I just used to ask them one question. Where did coloureds come from? Why are you called coloureds? If you want to distance yourself from blacks because you're coloured because you're mixed! So, I used to ... and in fact Miss Cork who was in charge of all the coloured workers, she was Irish. She was a Sister. She was lovely and the very first day I went there she asked me who was your next of kin and I said I haven't got parents but my next of kin is Nicolina Zungu. She said 'That's a Zulu name' and I said 'Yes.' And she didn't say anymore, but I'm told that she said 'I admire Rose because she does not try to be what she is not.' And I used to see some of my colleagues refusing to speak Zulu to black guys because, if you were coloured you were closer to whites and you ... And I used to speak Zulu and they used to say I was an embarrassment and I thought well, I'm afraid that's my mother tongue. I speak both Zulu and English. And that's how I grew up in my home because of my grandmother.

Did you take a trip back there during your student days?

No, I couldn't afford ... In fact, I worked my socks off. I used to work at the cinema, at the Granby, but again, they were lovely people but now when you look back they really did exploit me. They were paying me one pound for four hours.

What year was that?

1967 to '69. For four hours I was paid one pound and they knew I was doing that job because I wanted to go home. I just could never have saved anything like that.

This was in addition with your nursing work?

That's in nursing and also going to college because I wanted to learn as much as a could before I go back to South Africa. So that's why I was at Woodley Hill House. On my days off I used to go and do my, I didn't have a day off to go and muck about like other girls. I used to go to college to do my nursing. To do my English and Maths and chemistry. 'cos I still felt, after my nursing I want to go to the university to do medicine. And so that's what I was doing.

So, what happened with your plans?

Well, in 1969, I was on Rushey Ward. I was in my second year actually, the end of my second year, above the maternity unit. Maternity unit moved from Battle Hospital to where it is now and we were the first, myself and my other colleagues, first intake to do obstetric nursing. They moved in December 1969. I was just in my third year, in fact, just at the beginning and we went there to start my three month obstetric because I thought I don't want to do nursing, but I will do obstetrics. I'll just get an insight into midwifery and do obstetrics and then I'll do the rest at home. I was that determined. I thought I'm not staying another year longer in England.

There was a lady, she came in for hysterectomy. She was lovely and she happened to be in the ward. There were four bedded cubicle, four and six bedded cubicles and I ... that's when they were experimenting with smaller wards and I nursed her and we really became very friendly and one day she said to me 'Are you married Miss Cox?' I said 'No.' She said 'because I've got a cousin I'd like you to meet.' I said 'I really don't want to meet anybody at the moment because I'm so close to my exams, boyfriends waste your time. If I have a boyfriend that means I've got to have time to go and see him.' I said 'No, I'd really would rather not.' And she said 'He's really lovely.' Anyway, the ladies in the ward said 'Cowardy custard.' They kept teasing. But I said 'Alright I'll meet him once.' And of course I met him. I think he was as scared of meeting me and also I thought I really don't want to meet a white man because, if anything develops then I can't go home.

This lady was a white lady then?

Yes, she was a white lady. I thought 'No I really don't want anything ... something that will stop me from going back home.' But in the event that's exactly what happened.

So you liked him at first sight?

Yes! Ten months after we'd been going out he proposed. Up until that point there had been no agreement that I was his girlfriend and he was my boyfriend.

So he proposed to you then in ten months?

Yes. Yes and I just felt no I'll wait. I said 'No, I really have to think about this' and I did have to think about it. I did have to speak to my sister in South Africa and she, and my uncles, they were alive then, and my uncle said 'Do you know Rose. You know our views. We don't interfere if you love somebody you go with your heart.'
I can't go back home and my people are left in Apartheid system and I'm away from it and free. And that did trouble me and I think that's why I used to have nightmares. I used to really sleep, I didn't sleep well at all for a long time.

Yes. Yes and I just felt no I'll wait. I said 'No, I really have to think about this' and I did have to think about it. I did have to speak to my sister in South Africa and she, and my uncles, they were alive then, and my uncle said 'Do you know Rose. You

Oh yes, in 1976. It's funny, we ...

You got married in 1976?

No, we got married in 1970, but I went home in 1976. And in 1976 we went in March and came back in April and then of course in June that's when everything blew up. When the children decided they will have no more of Apartheid.

In Soweto?

In Soweto and all those areas.

Was that near to where you came from?

No, I'm from Natal, Soweto is in Johannesburg. So ... and that's really why I'm in England.

So, have you got a family yourself?

I've got one daughter.

So, the transition and meeting new people helped you to settle down?

It did help and I think the ability to go and do studies when you want and where you want and not be told. And I actually had a culture shock. I thought it would be easy because South Africa, especially Durban, is more English because that's where the English first landed before the Afrikaners. And I thought 'Oh, it's more English, South Africa.' But I had a culture shock because I hadn't bargained for the fact that everybody can go anywhere in the shop. I was constantly looking up to see which door I was going to get in and it was awful, it really was. It took me a long time to get used to it.

So what happened to your career after you got married then?

Yes, so I switched from ... well concurrently with nursing I decided when I retire from nursing, 'cos everybody was doing nursing degree. I thought 'No, where will that take me when I've stopped nursing? I'll develop something that I know can carry me on.' And I'm glad I did because I then, in 1992, I went to a summer school. I was already teaching, I started teaching music.

So you learnt music then in this country or ... ?

At home I used to be in the choir. My parents had, we had a piano at home We didn't have formal lessons, we used to just sit at the piano until we'd get the tune that we know and really play it. And when I came to England, at the Royal Berkshire, because the piano was in the same room as the television, unfortunately I couldn't always play but I always thought 'Well one day I will really play the piano.'

I started learning and then a friend, he was Nigerian, he was doing his doctorate in Reading and he said 'Well, will you teach me?' I said 'Well I'm not a teacher.' He said 'Surely you can help someone who is starting from Grade One?' I said 'Alright.' So I started making lesson plans and I really felt like I can do this. And he did extremely well. And then he told his friends at the university so I started getting enquiries really by word of mouth.

I did the Trinity College Certificate of Teaching and then I've done the Associated Board Certificate of Teaching and then the Open University diploma and degree in music with humanities with music. And it's building up now. I'm hoping that's going to carry on. 1992 I had nineteen pupils and I was still working full-time. And then I went to a summer school which was run by Hungarians and they've got a different, unique way of teaching music. So I got into that. So I've done their diplomas.

So are you retired yet?

Well, I'm still doing the three days for the health authority, but not health visiting this time. I'm doing primary mental health work. It's just seeing the children with difficult behaviour, children and young people. And it's been an eye-opener. It's not dissimilar to health visiting in that I visit people in their home but it's got that mental health element more highlighted in it than health visiting.

So, you did mental training as well or just part of health visiting?

I'm just doing the in-house and I'm just transferring my skills that I've learned along health visiting because I was also a community practice teacher, teaching health visitors so that has helped.

I hadn't asked you at the beginning how old you were? How old?

Now? Me? Now I'm 64.

So you're not ready to retire yet?

Yes. No. No. I'm feeling I've got bags of life in me.

So in terms of how Reading has changed then 'cos you've been here since 1960.

Oh it's changed so much. The Butts Centre wasn't there. When I came there were nice Tudor houses. I can still see them now, two of the houses on the side of Broad Street on the side of that road that goes down to join Castle Hill and I remember coming, walking, 'cos I used to love walking, because I just wanted to walk and get as much information about the area so that when I went home I didn't want to appear not to know about the area I lived in. So I walked a lot and I used to go to the library to read the history of Reading. I even found out that there was a woman who used to be a childminder and they called her Baby Farm and she used to drown the children in the river in Caversham and one of them lived in Kensington Road not far from where the chippy I worked with was.

So, you say that there were Tudor houses now so you think that Reading ...

Yes, and I can remember seeing old ladies with lovely gardens. Not big, you know, the gardens that terraced houses have like in Oxford Road, little ones at the front and I remember seeing old ladies sitting there, you know, outside their house door, and I saw it being bulldozed. It all happened in 1970 and I remember I went to school talking to children about how Reading has changed. One of the little boy looked at me said to me 'You sound as if you have been alive for a hundred years!' I said 'It feels like it!' 'cos I was telling them about things that no longer there and some people don't even remember them.

When I remind them, where the Inner Distribution Road is, it used to be an ambulance service where is now The Oracle car park. Ambulance service was a little hut. That road was a two-way road and on that same road were houses and one of my friends who befriended me, she was a nurse, she did SEN and she was on Benyan Ward when I first came and she befriended me and really looked after me, they lived there in those terraced houses but they had long gardens backing onto London Street and I saw it all being pulled down.

You were saying about your parents was in business. What sort of business?

Oh, my dear, they've had so many businesses. My dad was a tailor by day and then he was also a motor mechanic but working at night as a night watchman as well with other people. And they had other jobs as well. But also my mum was a, she was a seamstress. She used to make dresses for people and they had a smallholding and they had two taxis and a bus so they gave a lot of employment. We had people looking after us, but my mum would not allow us to call them nannies. They were just my sister or my grandmother. And she didn't call them servants. They were just the people she knew at parts of the family, part of extended family and she, so it's nice to look back now, yeah, I wonder if my mum didn't die if I would've come to England actually. It's just amazing how one incident could change your life. I don't think I would've come to England.

So it was easy for your transition to come into a purely sort of a white, working with white people ...

Oh, it wasn't a problem because, my dad being a tailor, and also he was in business with people so he was a tailor for white people as well. 'cos we didn't live in the city at that time, we lived in a mining town.

He was black?

My dad, yes, yes. But he was tailoring for everybody. This is what I was saying. If you came to that part of South Africa and then left again you would not have believed that Apartheid was there because people just ignored it and carried on with their lives, black and white. And the police were not nearby to see, to try and enforce their, you know, draconian rules. But then, as Apartheid got deeper and deeper it spread into the country. It's worse in the country now, because they started uprooting black people from the country because they wanted the land for themselves and carving the land.

So, but, my dad sewed for everybody. I mean, all the colours of the rainbow used to come to us, our home to be measured and then I worked in a white hospital with white nurses and it really was not an issue to me. But I remember in Maidenhead one of the sisters I worked with on a ward called Desborough Ward turned to me, she said to me 'I'm surprised that you're from South Africa.' I said 'Why are you surprised?' She said 'Your attitude is so different. You don't seem to have a chip on the shoulder.' I said 'Well, why would I have a chip on the shoulder?' She said 'Well, you just, you can talk about black and white, you don't seem to have any anxiety about it.' I said 'Well, I'm black. It's true. So, what's the problem?' And she said 'No, but sometimes some people when you talk about black they don't like it.'

Do you think it was easier 'cos you didn't have an African name? You were Rose, Rose Cox did you say?

Yes, but I used my grandfather's name. My paternal grandfather's name, if I wanted to I used to use that a lot. People they'd say 'What's your name?' I'll say 'Rose Mthethwa'. So it was no big deal to me to have that name. It's not a big deal now. It's just a name. I'm me.

As an ex-pat white South African, I thought this interview was awe-inspiring! What a fantastic lady! How sad that apartheid has destroyed our wonderful country!

kath kay, 8 March 2008

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