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First official blue plaque outside London unveiled in Ilkley

Robert Steele (Photo: Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

A woman who made history by becoming the first black matron in the NHS, is the first person to be commemorated with an official blue plaque outside London following an expansion of a national scheme run by Historic England.

Daphne Steele, the first black matron in the NHS, is being honoured with the blue plaque celebrating the trailblazing NHS matron’s life at the former St. Winifred’s maternity home in Ilkley.

Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, together with representatives of Historic England unveiled the plaque.  The new national scheme which is delivered by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Daphne arrived in Britain in 1951 from Guyana. Despite the challenges she faced, she helped to break down barriers and paved the way for nurses from a wide range of backgrounds to play a vital part in running the National Health Service. Her appointment as matron in 1964 attracted national attention and acted as a turning point in the history of the NHS. 

Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: " Daphne Steele made a huge contribution to our National Health Service — not just through her work here in Ilkley, where she delivered hundreds of babies a year, but in paving the way for so many others from a wide range of backgrounds to play their vital role in that cherished national organisation.

"I am delighted that she can be commemorated with the first official blue plaque outside London, and hope her story will continue to inspire people across Yorkshire and far beyond.

"The national expansion of the famous blue plaque scheme is all about recognising people who made their mark on national life, wherever they happened to live. I look forward to celebrating more such inspirational figures, including Clarice Cliff and George Harrison, in towns and cities across the country in the coming months."

Robert Steele, Daphne Steele’s son, said: "My mother saw herself as a nurse and midwife. As far as she was concerned, she was just getting on with her job. She would be speechless, mind-blown, to see a plaque dedicated to her and to know that she had made such a difference to so many people."

When St Winifred’s closed in October 1971, Daphne found a new job working in Wharfedale children’s hospital in Menston and then retrained as a health visitor at Leeds University. She worked as a health visitor in Ilkley and Bingley, becoming a familiar and friendly figure to countless families in the area.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: "We are delighted to dedicate the first Historic England blue plaque to Daphne Steele, a ‘quiet revolutionary’ who, nearly sixty years ago, changed history when she became the first black matron in the NHS.

"Our national blue plaques scheme is a fantastic opportunity to tell the stories of inspirational people, like Daphne, who have helped make the world a better place. Blue plaques are well known and loved. They help people and communities feel pride and connection to their local and national heritage.

"This summer, we will be inviting people across England to nominate the individuals they believe deserve a blue plaque and I look forward to seeing the stories this uncovers."

Chief Nursing Officer, Dame Ruth May said: "It is wonderful that Daphne Steele is being honoured with the first official blue plaque outside of London – Daphne had a remarkable career in nursing, midwifery and as a health visitor, and like so many from the Windrush generation, she made an enormous contribution to the NHS.

"This is a fitting tribute to an inspiring woman who no doubt paved the way for many other nurses and midwives to follow in her footsteps when she became the first black matron in the NHS."

Health Minister, Andrew Stephenson said: "Daphne was an inspiring and dedicated midwife, and I am delighted to see her pioneering contribution to the NHS recognised in this way.

"I hope this blue plaque ensures more people from all backgrounds hear her story and are inspired to join the NHS.

"Our NHS is as diverse as it’s ever been and its Long Term Workforce Plan will see us continue to recruit more staff from diverse and traditionally hard-to-reach backgrounds, for instance by boosting the number of nursing and medical apprentices entering the health service."

The national expansion of the official London Blue Plaque scheme was announced in September 2023. A change in the law underpinning the scheme was made through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023.

For the past century and a half, the official blue plaques scheme has been London-only. While there are a number of local schemes operating across the country, this expansion will see one cohesive, official scheme, run by Historic England, operating equally across England.

The expansion is an opportunity for people to research their own local history and nominate figures from their communities who have helped define the towns, villages and cities in which they live.

If successfully nominated, the buildings where local figures lived, worked or stayed will be marked with a blue plaque, which will shine a spotlight on our shared heritage across the country.

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