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Caro Spencer Wilson
March 30, 1903-January 3, 1989
Nurse and community worker

Photo courtesy of Dr Nathley Landy

Caro Spencer Wilson was one of a long line of black Bermudian women who trained at U.S. nursing schools during the first half of the 20th century, only to be denied employment at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital (KEMH) and as district nurses because of their race.

But when Wilson returned to Bermuda in 1929, a newly qualified registered nurse, her employment options were limited to the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home and private duty nursing.

Learning of her plight, a group of community leaders formed the Hamilton Parish Nursing Association and hired her to be a nurse-midwife for Hamilton and Smith’s parishes.


Wilson provided home care to residents in the two parishes and beyond, and delivered hundreds of babies. For the first two decades, she did her rounds by pedal cycle, then the main mode of private transportation.

Active in parish politics and as a church and community worker, she lived long enough to see racial barriers crumble. Her competence never in question, she served on two Government boards. In the latter stages of her career, she played an instrumental role in the formation of the integrated Bermuda Nurses Association.

Known as Caro Spencer for most of her life, she assumed the Wilson surname in 1962, when at age 59 she married Devonshire widower Wentworth Wilson.


She was born in 1903, one of 10 children. Her parents were Leonora (Harvey) and Joseph Spencer, a farmer and contractor. The family lived in Flatts. The Spencers were Anglican — she was baptised at St. Mark’s — but she left the church because of its segregationist practices and joined Bethel AME Church, where she would become a life-long member.

She attended a school run by her sister Alice until age 10, then moved on to primary school at Temperance Hall. She attended Berkeley Institute for two years, working after school to pay the fees. After dropping out of Berkeley, she worked in private homes as a housekeeper and cook. Doing domestic work made her determined to get an education.

A hospital stay for an appendectomy at age 12 and the death of her mother when she was 13 inspired her interest in nursing. In 1926, she and three others — Frances (Cann) Eve, Jane (Stowe) Lambe and Greta (Pearman) Swan — left the Island to begin the three-year course at the Lincoln School. Attached to Lincoln Hospital, the nursing school was founded in 1898 to train black nurses. In 1905, an affiliation was established between the school and Bermuda, which led to the training of black Bermudian nurses.


Mabel Crawford was Lincoln’s first Bermudian graduate. She graduated in 1911, followed by Alice Scott in 1912. Between 1911 and the early 1950s, close to 30 aspiring Bermudian nurses had passed through Lincoln’s doors.

Black nurses, however, had been barred from working at the Cottage Hospital, which opened on Happy Valley Road, Pembroke in 1894 as Bermuda’s first hospital, and at KEMH, which replaced it in 1920.

The Bermuda Nursing Home, which opened in 1903 in Middletown, Pembroke, and was run by the Friendly Societies, employed black nurses and offered training in basic nursing. In 1936, it moved its operations into the Cottage Hospital building, was renamed the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home, and had an expanded role, caring for adults as well as maternity cases.

In 1925, leading suffragettes, concerned by Bermuda’s unacceptably high maternal and infant mortality rates, formed the Bermuda Welfare Society and a district nursing service. A nurse-midwife was assigned to each parish, to do home nursing and deliveries. She was provided with accommodation in the parish and was on 24-hour call.

But the requirement for district nurses to be U.K.-trained Queen’s Nurses eliminated that avenue of employment for U.S.-trained black Bermudian nurses. (White Bermudian nurses, who trained in Canada, were not eligible for district nurse positions either, but KEMH welcomed them with open arms.)

Future labour leader Dr. E. F. Gordon was highly critical of the Queen’s Nurse requirement. It was the first cause he took up in 1929, four years after his move to Bermuda. At the end of her career, Wilson said the ruling had been started “essentially, to keep coloured nurses out.”

In 1930, a year after she returned home, Wilson sat the local exam and was admitted to the Bermuda Midwives Register.


Wilson wanted to work in a hospital, but could only find employment at a Hamilton Parish nursing home. A group of prominent black families from Hamilton Parish came up with a solution. They formed the Hamilton Parish Nursing Association to give her a job.

The Welfare Society had not yet put a district nurse in place in Hamilton Parish when Wilson started her new position with the Association in October 1930, although a plan was in the works.

The result was that in 1931, Members of Parliament found themselves considering applications for grants from both organisations. MPs asked the obvious questions: why two organisations; why couldn’t the Welfare Society hire Wilson; why not send “Bermuda girls” to the U.K. to obtain the requisite qualification? With black MPs underrepresented in Parliament, the issue of racial discrimination was never raised.

In the end, both organisations were successful. The Association received £50 as requested, while the Welfare Society was awarded its standard annual grant of £100 per parish.

White MP Harry North, who tabled the bill on behalf of the Association, explained that Hamilton was a “struggling parish” and in need of two nurses, according to a Royal Gazette report of the debate. He also said Wilson had done excellent work in the parish, had made 525 visits and “had performed many services free of charge for poor people”.

MPs also heard that Wilson was working “near Crawl”, while the Welfare Society nurse “was concentrating at the Tucker’s Town end of the parish”.


For the next 40 years, Hamilton Parish would be served by two district nurses. Spencer lived in the family home. Until 1946, when Hamilton Parish got street lights, she rode her bike in the dark when responding to night calls.

Wilson’s responsibilities included seeing patients at a weekly clinic which the association established in October 1934 and was presided over by respected black Bermudian physician Dr. Leon Williams.

Despite a number of recommendations over the years for the two services to merge, this never happened. Both nurses cared for black and white patients, who were treated irrespective of their ability to pay. In some cases, patients were seen by both nurses. In 1945, both nurses, having visited the same household, gave evidence in a court case involving child neglect.

The Association’s funds came from the same sources as the Welfare Society’s: patient fees, members’ dues and fundraisers such as bazaars and baby contests. But smaller grants and lower income levels of the Association’s patients and members ensured their revenues were significantly lower than the Welfare Society’s.

Throughout her career Wilson was praised by black and white leaders for her competence. In Hamilton Parish, in particular, she seemed to have been held in high regard. During the Second World War, she was one of three nurses who gave instruction in first aid and home nursing to women in Hamilton Parish for the Bermuda Women’s Auxiliary Force.

By all accounts, she enjoyed the same status as the other two nurses, who were white. But the unequal treatment she received overall rankled. At one point, she became so discouraged she considered emigrating to the U.S., going so far as to have a conversation with the U.S. Consul General. But in the end, she decided to stay put.


Her second-class treatment was not lost on E.F. Gordon. At a Hamilton Parish public meeting in May 1943, he denounced the disparity in grants. He said the Welfare Society’s Hamilton Parish branch received £100 pounds a year from the Vestry and £100 from Government while the Association received £75 and £50. He said it was better for the Association to receive no grant at all if grants could not be equal.

He pointed out that Wilson’s work had doubled in 12 years: 1,823 visits in 1932 as compared with 3,585 in 1943. The visits included home and clinic cases and 42 maternity cases. In December 1943, Hamilton Parish Vestry equalised the annual grants awarded to both organisations: each received £100 for the year 1944. Both organisations would receive the same annual grant for many years.

The disparity in Government grants remained. In 1948, the Association applied to Government for an increase in its annual grant from £75 to £200. An increase would enable the Association to increase Wilson’s salary and to hire a nurse for vacation relief as Wilson had not had a vacation in three years.

Communications between government officials revealed that Wilson’s salary was “subsequently below” that of the district nurse and Health Department nurses. The request was sidestepped with a recommendation for the two services to merge.

Another disparity had to do with transportation. In the late 1940s, cars becoming legal in 1946, Wilson purchased a car. In December 1950, the Vestry voted at its AGM to purchase a car for the district nurse, who did her rounds on an auxiliary cycle. Hamilton Parish Association member Mrs. Cyril Burgess, saying “fair is fair”, wondered why the Vestry could not buy Wilson a car.

Her appeal fell on deaf ears. But in 1951, the Vestry voted unanimously to give Wilson an annual grant of £50 to service her car.


Outside of her busy work schedule, Wilson was a force to be reckoned with. She judged flower shows and baby competitions, gave health lectures to church and community groups and helped build floats for the annual Easter parades. She served on the Boards of Health and the Junior Training School.

No doubt spurred by the racism she encountered, she was politically active. As an executive member of the Hamilton Parish Political Association, an offshoot of the Nursing Association, she canvassed voters for the political campaigns of Hilton Hill and Walter Robinson, who served in Parliament during the 1950s.

Longstanding calls by black MPs such as Gordon, Hill, Robinson and others for KEMH to hire black nurses bore fruit in 1958 when Barbara (Davis) Wade became the hospital’s first black staff nurse.

In 1963, the Welfare Society hired the first Bermudian district nurse, Leonie (Harford) Simmons, for Sandys parish. Both women had trained in the United Kingdom, although Simmons got her start at the Cottage Hospital. The changes came too late for Wilson to switch gears, but she would continue to make a valuable contribution to nursing.


As long-time secretary of the Bermuda Graduate Nurses Association, which comprised black nurses, Wilson worked with the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital Nurses Association, which had an all-white membership, to form the Bermuda Nurses Association.

The merger had been forced on the two organisations after both applied to join the International Council of Nurses and were informed that only one organization per country would be accepted.

Writing in the May 2001 issue of The Bermudian, Cecille Snaith-Simmons, who was the Island’s third black district nurse, said: “Her vast knowledge of the nursing profession, the change in the country, her insight into the future and her intolerance of racial inequality made her invaluable in the discussion leading up the passage of the 1968 (sic) Nurses Act.” The 1969 Nurses Act established the Bermuda Nursing Council and required nurses to register with the Council in order to practise.

Wilson retired in 1970 and in January 1971, received a Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour for services to nursing.

Wilson’s 25-year marriage ended with her husband’s death on June 2, 1987. She died 18 months later on January 3, 1989. Burial was at St. Mark’s following a service at Bethel.

Despite the unequal treatment she endured, she insisted she did not regret her decision to remain in Bermuda. She said her satisfaction came from having “to do things for my people and for the people in the community at large".

In a Bermuda Recorder interview, months after her retirement, she made it clear that the sacrifices she made helped pave the way for those who came after her.

Editor’s note:

Wilson’s fellow Bermudian classmates at Lincoln, Frances Eve and Greta Swan, also qualified as RNs and worked as private duty nurses in Bermuda. Fourth trainee Jane Lambe did not complete her training because of illness.

During the 1930s, Lincoln stopped admitting foreign students, but continued its connection with Bermuda. Trainees would start out at the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home and finish up at Lincoln. Graduates included Sylvia Richardson, after whom the nursing home in St. George’s is named.

When the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home closed for good in 1956, U.K. nursing schools became the first choice for black Bermudians. As of September 2020, Gladys (Simmons) Barney, who lives in New York, and Grace (DeShield) Washington of Bermuda, both in their 90s, were the last two surviving graduates of the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home/Lincoln Nursing School programme.

During the early 1970s, the district nursing service was incorporated into Government’s Health Department. The Hamilton Parish Nursing Association and the Welfare Society went out of existence.

Finally, in her interview in the Recorder in 1971, Wilson said she worked at the Hamilton Parish Nursing Home upon her return to Bermuda. Information about the home could not be found in newspapers or Government reports. In an article (Mid-Ocean News, August 22, 1964) about parish rest homes, it was stated there was no rest home in Hamilton Parish.

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March 30, 1903—Born in Flatts

1926—Begins training at Lincoln School for Nurses in New York

1929—Returns to Bermuda as a registered nurse, with limited job prospects

October 1930—Hired as a district nurse by the Hamilton Parish Nursing Association

December 19, 1930—Admitted to the Bermuda Midwives Register

1931—Parliament approves the Association’s request for an annual grant of £50; the Welfare Society receives £100

October 1934—The Association starts a weekly clinic in a private home

1940—Wilson and white Bermudian nurses Mrs. J.J. Outerbridge and Mrs. J. Thompson give classes in home care and first aid in Hamilton Parish

May 1943—E. F. Gordon criticises the disparity in grants given to the Association and the Welfare Society at a public meeting; the Hamilton Parish Vestry makes the grants equal in December.

October 1943—A Health Department Report recommends the Association and the Welfare Society merge; nothing happens

1946—Hamilton Parish gets street lights, making roads more welcoming for Wilson on her night rounds 

Late 1940s—Wilson purchases a car

December 1950—Hamilton Parish Vestry votes to give the district nurse a car, but not Wilson

1951—Vestry votes “unanimously” to award Wilson a £50 annual grant to service her car

1958—Barbara (Davis) Wade becomes KEMH’s first black staff nurse

July 1959—A two-week Theatre Boycott ends segregation in public places

March 3, 1962—Marries widower Wentworth Wilson

1963—Leonie (Harford) Simmons becomes the first Bermudian to be employed by the Welfare Society as a district nurse

1967—The Bermuda Nurses Association is formed from two segregated nursing organisations; Wilson plays a pivotal role

1970—Wilson retires after 40 years

1971—Awarded a Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour in the New Year’s Honours list.

June 2, 1987—Husband Wentworth Wilson (born December15, 1905) dies.

“The two parties I imagine would work in harmony, and I imagine the colored nurse would look after quite a number of poor white people, and I imagine the white nurse would look after a good many colored people. I think it is a pity to try and rub up friction where there is no friction. The people of Hamilton Parish get on alright and would be willing to support both these.”

T. H.H. Outerbridge, MP, speaking during the debate in Parliament on grants for the two services, The Royal Gazette, June 6, 1931.


“There are not many Bermudian District Nurses. One of the reasons for this is that in order to be a district nurse, one has to train in England. This is because the Welfare Board made a ruling that you had to be a Queen’s Nurse in order to be a district nurse. This was started, essentially, to keep the coloured nurses out.

“Originally, I was working for the Hamilton Parish Nursing Home, and we tried to get some information as to why the Queen’s Nurse was any better than any other nurse. You know that we found out that there was no difference at all! It makes me wonder: I like to think how silly people can be when they’re in power.”

“It was not an easy role from 1930 on. I didn’t make any money because I was working for my people—and they didn’t have any more than I did.”

“There was a time I was so frustrated and disappointed that I went to the American Consul. He promised to put me on the quota immediately as he felt that it was deplorable that I couldn’t work at what I was trained to do, in my own country.”

“Young people should avail themselves of the opportunities that they have. There is so much more today than in years gone by. They must avail themselves of the opportunities that are presented to them. In the even that positions come along, then they will be qualified to fill them."

Caro Spencer Wilson — Bermuda Recorder, January 30, 1971


Lincoln graduates from left: Evelyn Sawyer (of the US), Caro Spencer Wilson, Frances Eve and Greta Swan.
Photo courtesy of Gwen Dean

Newly-minted registered nurse Caro Spencer Wilson in 1929. Caro Spencer Wilson (right) with friend and colleague Sylvia Richardson in 1986.
Photos courtesy of Dr Nathley Landy.

The Hamilton Parish Nursing Association was reportedly started by 14 families. Key members were founder John Tucker, Reuben Outerbridge, Alex Manders, Peter King, Ernest Furbert, Seward Smith and James Burgess. Alex Manders’ home (pictured) on North Shore,Hamilton Parish was a meeting place for members. The Manders’ home and Eleanor Burrows’ home were used as venues for the Association’s weekly clinic. 


Further Reading

“Give our Nurses Chance!”, Bermuda Recorder, February 29, 1936

“Hamilton Parish Nursing Association Forging Ahead—Opening of Clinic”, Bermuda Recorder, October 13, 1934

“BWAF Activities in Hamilton Parish”, The Royal Gazette, January 27, 1940

“Urges More Publicity on Venereal Diseases” —Dr. E. F. Gordon Addresses a Public Meeting At Crawl”, The Royal Gazette, May 15, 1943

“Gives Recommendations for Health Work Here”, The Royal Gazette, Oct 5, 1943

“Neglect of Children is Charged at East End”, The Royal Gazette, May 3, 1945

“Nursing Association Holds Annual Meeting—Nurse Made 2,205 Visits in Past Year, It is told”, The Royal Gazette, May 26, 1949.

“Hamilton Parish to Give Nurse a Car—Also to Raise Grants to two Nursing Groups”, The Royal Gazette, December 29, 1950

“Late J. R. Spencer was one of the first to Export Farm Produce to U.S.”, Bermuda Recorder, October 1, 1952

“Nurses Class Reunion”, Bermuda Recorder, May 30, 1959

“After 40 Years—Nurse is Honoured for Work in Community.,” Bermuda Recorder, January 30, 1971

“True Grit—Nurse Caro Spencer Wilson Did Not let Barriers Stand in Her Way”—The Bermudian, May 2001.

CARE100 Years of Hospital Care in Bermuda by J. Randolph Williams

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