Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

210 : Lulu Coote (1890-1964), African nurse in Britain

In March 1964 the officials at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham reported the death of Lulu Coote, stating that she had died on 13 March 1964 aged 73. She was described as a retired nurse, unmarried, who had been living at 476 Gillott Road in Edgbaston, near the centre of the city of Birmingham. No probate documents have been traced, suggesting that Miss Coote had no wealth. The body was cremated. We might assume she had no living relatives.

Miss Coote was an African, in that her mother was Congolese. Her father was a Dutchman, one of several who traded at a small port on a sandspit where the mighty river Congo poured into the Atlantic – at Banana or Banana Point. Europeans had traded in the area for decades, but it was not until the 1870s that they got past the rapids that stretches for miles – and soon found the Congo drained an area the size of Europe (if the mouth, at Banana Point, was at the Spanish/French border on the Bay of Biscay, its sources would be in St Petersburg [Russia] and Turkey). The region attracted British missionaries, notably the Baptist Missionary Society, and one of their pioneers was the Welshman William Hughes (see page 009). He returned to Britain and worked to establish a school and training institute for Africans. The Congo Institute (later the African Institute) was founded in Colwyn Bay, and Lulu Coote was one of its pupils in the late 1890s. With another female, Ernestina Francis, also of Dutch-Congo parentage, Lulu Coote became unofficially adopted by Hughes and his wife. Surely both ‘mixed-race’ girls were sponsored by their fathers?

Some of the pupils – almost all were male, but some were born in the West Indies and America – went on to qualify as doctors and teachers, and Lulu Coote expressed an interest in nursing. The publicity of Hughes and the Institute is our source for details of these achievers, but there were rogues and failures – as Draper and Lawson-Reay’s Scandal at Congo House: William Hughes and the African Institute, Colwyn Bay (2012) makes clear. They state that Coote’s local education, more an apprenticeship in fact, reflected that ambition and that Hughes arranged for her to study in Manchester at Ashton-under-Lyne District Infirmary and that she was working as a nurse in that town in 1911. She seems to have gone to southern Africa but correspondence with Hughes ended by the time he died in 1924, and we have no trace of this African nurse until her death in Selly Oak was noted in 1964.

Selly Oak hospital, like so many in Britain, was originally a workhouse (King’s Norton workhouse, opened 1872), and it closed in 2012. Ashton-under-Lyne’s hospital was originally a poor law institution, expanding in the 1900s to be the District Infirmary. It closed in 1957 and the site is the Tameside Hospital.

Her nursing career remains an enigma.