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Princess Ademola - the African Princess who served as a nurse during wartime Britain

Black History Month UK 2023 'Before Windrush' - exploring the lives and stories of Black Britons who were living in the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.

From Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent to Princess Alice of Greece, princess nurses have gifted their talents to hospitals and medicine, particularly during wartime. However, missing from this history of royal altruism are the African princesses – notably Princess Omo-Oba Adenrele Ademola. (1)

Princess Adenrele Ademola or Omo-Oba Adenrele Ademola was born in Nigeria on 2 January 1916. She was the daughter of Ladapo Ademola, the Alake of Abeokuta.

She arrived in Britain on 29 June 1935, and initially stayed at the West African Students’ Union's hostel in Camden Town. This space acted as a haven for Ademola, as it did for many other African students and visitors during the early 20th century. It is here that she attended social events and committees, and the Africa Hostel is noted as her residence address until she returned to Lagos temporarily in 1936. (1)

During her early career in Britain, Ademola balanced her role as a princess with the demands of her vocation as a nurse. As a princess, she returned to England in 1937 with her father and brother, Prince Ademola III (the future Chief Justice for the Federation of Nigeria) for the coronation of King George, staying at the Grosvenor Hotel, London. (1)

While it’s unclear whether Princess Ademola attended the coronation of George VI on 12 May 1937, she attended many royal social events from May to July 1937, including royal garden parties at Buckingham Palace and a royal gathering hosted by her father at the Mayfair Hotel, in May 1937.

She also conducted royal visits to the Mayor and Mayoress of London at Mansion House and notably the Carreras cigarette factory in June 1937. It is likely that she continued to attend royal appointments until her father’s departure to Paris in early July 1937. (1)

She attended a school in Somerset for two years, and by January 1938 had started training as a nurse at Guy's Hospital.

A photograph of Ademola appeared in a 1942 pamphlet about the BBC's international activity. The film ‘Nurse Ademola’ centralised her role as a nurse but is now lost. Made in 1943 or 1944–5, it was a 16mm silent newsreel film in a series for the Colonial Film Unit called The British Empire at War. (2)

The Colonial Film Unit was established in 1939 as part of the Ministry of Information to tell “the story of the War with the right propaganda.” During WW2 Britain pumped propaganda into Africa on an unprecedented scale as information offices were established in the colonies and propaganda activities directed and co-ordinated by the Ministry of Information in London. (1)

War information and propaganda were communicated via radio broadcasts, touring cinema and loudspeaker vans, the press and through public meetings. The propaganda messages were aimed at keeping Africans war conscious, combatting apathy and ensuring their identification with the allied cause. The Film Unit produced 200 propaganda films on the African continent and closed down in 1955. (1)

‘Nurse Ademola’ played an important part in this as a uniquely feminine perspective. It ‘depicted an African nurse at various phases of training at one of the great London hospitals’, it was said to have inspired many African viewers at its screenings across West Africa. (1)

When she arrived with her father in 1937, Princess Ademola was recorded as a ‘midwife’, which epitomises her presence in the historical records after this. In 1939 she was listed as a part of the nursing staff at St Saviour’s ward at Guy’s Hospital, and by 27 June 1941 she was a registered nurse at Guy’s hospital, having passed her nursing examinations after six years of training. (1)

From 1941, she moves between hospitals and is recorded at Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital in London before being listed at New End Hospital in Hampstead in December 1942, having passed her Central Midwives Board exam. (1)

Ademola's patients apparently called her "fairy" as a term of endearment. "Everyone was very kind to me", she told journalists at the time.

At this stage, her last definitive sighting in the archives was in September 1948, before her father’s departure from Nigeria and abdication of the throne. She returned from Lagos with a man believed to be her husband, Timothy Adeola Odutola, a 46-year-old trader. Here she again lists herself as a nurse, residing in Limpsfield, Surrey before moving, accompanied by her husband, to Balmoral Hostel in Queensgate Gardens, South Kensington in 1949.

Little is known about her activity after the 1940s, with the last record of her being in 1949, when she was working as a nurse in South Kensington. Despite her royal status, the historical records about Princess Ademola are not detailed or complete. Research on her has been hampered by the haphazard recordings of her personal details such as name and birth dates. For example, The National Archives found five variations of her name whilst researching her.

Such challenges are rife when examining Black populations and represent a larger issue: the failure to consider Black people/Black histories a priority. Contemporarily, the lives of Black people were considered ‘second-class’ and therefore detail and accuracy in records were deemed unnecessary. (1)

But historians of Black history and community groups such as ourselves and the Young Historians Project, are beginning crucial initiatives to recognise and promote the histories of Black people in the British archives.

The National Archives says:

African nurses such as Princess Ademola, through their migration, settlement and contribution to British society, hold equal claim to the attentions of historical archives as any Florence Nightingale or Edith Cavell. They must also be recognised for their struggles against social and racial adversity. It is our responsibility to bring forth histories like Princess Ademola’s and transition the narrative of Black women in Britain from the abstract to the celebrated.



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