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 [Scandal at Congo House, p 215] but correspondence with Hughes ended by the time he died in 1924, and the only trace of this African nurse until her death in Selly Oak was noted in 1964 is in the BT files of the National Archives in Kew, where she is named leaving Liverpool on the Burutu on 24 September 1914, bound for Freetown. She was described as a nurse, aged 26. The passenger list of the Obuasi, which brought her into Liverpool on 5 June 1916, states she was a nursing sister (still) aged 26, a British subject with an address at 15 Hayseaden Road in West Norwood, modern south London.

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 has been traced in outline by David Killingray: in the 1911 census, she is living at the District Infirmary Ashton-under-Lyne, and a note states her place of birth as ‘Congo’ and then ‘Father English, Mother W. African’.  The available Nursing Registers indicate that she worked at the District infirmary, Ashton-u-Lyne from 1911 to 1939. The 1939 Register has her living at 311 Ladbrooke Road, Urmston, Manchester, occupation given as ‘Nurse SRN’ and in ‘Civil Nursing Reserve’.

The 1940 Nursing Register has her living at 74 Rosenheath Rd, Urmston, Manchester, and states that she became a certified nurse (SRN?) in 1923. The Nursing Registers and Electoral Registers show her at various addresses in Edgbaston: 1943-45 Monument Rd; 1955-57 Gillott Rd; back to Monument Rd 1960, and then 1962 to Gillott Road.  

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Lulu Coote made friends with a Colwyn Bay woman Annie Holt, whose grandchildren Valerie (born 1944) and Peter Cocks (born 1947) recalled Aunt Lu in 2020. They met at their grandmother’s home in Perranporth, Cornwall in the 1950s. Family documents include cards and pictures  of Lulu  including a postcard of the Burutu which was sent to their grandmother in Colwyn Bay in 1914 when Lulu had arrived in Sierra Leone. Married in 1917 Annie settled in Ebbw Vale with her army officer husband Captain William Dunne. The grandchildren recall meeting Aunt Lu in Perranporth in the 1950s. The two Colwyn Bay ladies had kept in touch and Lulu visited Annie and her husband on several occasions at their cottage in Perranporth, the last time being around 1953 or 1954. The grandchildren recall that Lulu, in a kind gesture, paid to have an electric light installed in the  bedroom in which she generally stayed.

They supplied some photographs of Lulu Coote, too. The seaside photo was taken at the North Pier in Blackpool, and suggests that she was a medical attendant rather than a hospital nurse, at that time.

  • Coote is not a Dutch name (totally absent from telephone listings in the Netherlands in 2020) but Koote (Kooten and van Kooten) is a normal Dutch name. [My thanks to Carlo van Oosterhout.]

I am indebted to Kaitlene Koranteng whose question stimulated this page, and Howard Rye for the passenger list details. David Killingray supplied the Nursing Register details. The assistance of Peter Cocks and his sister Mrs Valerie Blight was nothing short of wonderful. Thanks to you all.

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