ulling up to English ports, the first wave of Caribbean men disembarked in sharp pinstripe suits and stiff-rimmed fedoras. So, too, did scores of women with hot combed hair, silk shirts and coats to brave chilly temperatures they’d never encountered on those sunny isles. ‘WELCOME HOME,’ reads the Evening Standard headline marking the arrival of the first 800 passengers on the HMT Empire Windrush who had come in search of a new opportunities in postwar Britain.
When we speak of the Windrush Generation, the term can understandably evoke sadness, anger or shame. It’s often used as shorthand for the thousands of Caribbean workers who came by boats and planes to fill Britain’s postwar labour shortages between 1948 and 1971, providing the backbone for the newly formed NHS and transport systems, but there’s new weight to it.
The memory lingers of the hostile environment, which saw at least 83 people wrongly deported. It’s a Home Office scandal that is still unfolding and impacting families across London as people who came as citizens are threatened with deportation to lands they may not have seen for more than half a century — or ever.
And yet, for many the term was and still is synonymous with family. I cannot talk about my own place in the UK without honouring that generation. The influences of Caribbean and Black culture are inextricably woven in to Great Britain’s music, arts and fashion. But it is also present in many childhood memories: eating curry goat on a Sunday, hearing my granddad play dominoes and drink rum, or wondering when the special occasion plates displayed in my grandma’s front room would ever be used to serve a meal.
I know I owe my existence to that generation, as do many Black British people. And as their skin wrinkles and their hair greys, it’s vital we give the Windrush Generation a voice not only to shed a light on the injustices behind the headlines, but also to archive how they fell in love, how they built a life here and how we built communities of safety, solidarity and joy. As ES Magazine launches a landmark collaborative project with the Black Cultural Archives and Circa to collect these nuanced histories and showcase them across the big Piccadilly Lights screens, we caught up with some of these long-time Londoners to talk about their journeys and early memories of the capital.
‘Don’t listen to me. I’m trouble but I’m good trouble!’ Ruth Roberts laughs. At 83, she is constantly cracking jokes. She attributes her sprightly disposition to the fact that she drinks coffee every day for breakfast. ‘That’s my grandfather’s fault. From when I was a baby he taught me to drink it. When you’re born in the Caribbean, you have to be active; there’s no time for laziness. “Get up, sweep the yard and hurry off to school and you must not be late.”’
Born in Jamaica’s St Catherine Parish in the countryside — where she would look after ‘pigs and fowl’ — Roberts came over at 22 after her uncle requested for her to come and join him in the UK. ‘I didn’t know what I was coming for but [when] you get the opportunity to come to the mother country you think glamorous, glory, the grass is always greener,’ she says.
Roberts lived in Birmingham where she worked as a baker, soon followed by a stint in a shared house in Gloucester with her aunty. It was where she met her husband, John. ‘Being naughty I got pregnant,’ she says laughing before impersonating her panicked aunt. ‘“You’ve come to England and got pregnant! You have to get married!”’ She’d heard from another baker that she would be able to make a more stable living as a nurse. It took three years of strict training, working alongside other Caribbean nurses from Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica ‘and two from Lagos’. There were more opportunities for work in London, so she settled in Mitcham where she bought the house she still lives in, a stone’s throw away from a community centre and social club where she connects with other residents of her generation. Impressively, Roberts worked for the NHS from the age of 24 to 80. Beaming with pride she shows us a black-and-white photo held on her lap of herself in her uniform. ‘I never forget how they taught us to be kind, to be gentle.’
Roberts has other hilarious memories, too. ‘In the nursing home they provided you with your meals and [once had] “toad in the hole” on the menu,’ she screams. ‘A toad? That’s something that jumps around in a bush. None of [the Caribbean girls] put our names down for dinner.’ She keeps her links to home by cooking familiar dishes like ackee and saltfish, green banana and cow foot. Her three daughters and one son also return with her annually. ‘I said to them, “You must know where you come from,” and they love it,’ she smiles. ‘I treasure my island. I appreciate the opportunity to come here but my memory for my country... it will die with me.’
Linda Tomlinson is beaming. Her face is framed by a black fringe. She looks nowhere near 70 as she speaks of her final memory of Trinidad, before she left to come to the UK. ‘I remember carnival, jouvert. Crazy people came down the street and I remember always wanting to be outside. Then I remember my last day — it was raining.’ Her father left for England a year prior and had been sending her toys in the mail. ‘It was a clay doll that arrived broken,’ she says.
In November 1957 when she was around four years old, Tomlinson boarded a boat to begin a convoluted journey to England. It stopped in Italy where little Linda and her mother got a train to France, then another boat to Southampton, another train to London and then eventually they took a taxi and arrived in Acton. ‘The local baker brought a tray of cakes because he knew a new family had arrived from the Caribbean and we were treated like we were the crème de la crème,’ she laughs.
They lived in one ‘cramped’ room with a kitchen and a garden for nearly 10 years. But the family found comfort in Shepherd’s Bush’s Caribbean community, comprised mostly of Grenadians, a few Trinidadians and Jamaican people. Tomlinson wishes there was more acknowledgment of how tight-knit the communities were back then. ‘But then when I went to school I was the only Black person in my class until I got to secondary school,’ she says.
Tomlinson remembers being ignored by teachers at first: ‘I spoke differently. My mother tried to give us an introduction to English culture via her local church to make sure we knew what was going on. She’d say: “Remember, they have their passports already.’’’ Tomlinson became a teacher in 1976, hoping to give other children a better education than she received. However, when she first became a deputy head teacher in Brent the racist backlash she received made local headlines. That same year tensions were rising in the streets. ‘I saw bottles flying when the Notting Hill riots kicked off. My husband was working on some of the cases — everybody knew him as he was a Rastafarian lawyer and the courts wouldn’t let him in unless he had his hat on.’
Despite this, she has fond memories of her time in north-west London, particularly the Black hubs near the Mangrove restaurant such as her husband’s record store, close to where Richard Branson’s Virgin Megastore was. Her friend Dennis actually punched Branson on the nose ‘because he was being cheeky’. She adds, laughing: ‘I’ve got some stories.’
Dressed formally in a green suit and maroon Freemason tie, 82-year-old Norman Mullings immediately commands respect. Not just for his many years of activism within the Windrush community but for his captivating professorial oration. ‘When I came here in 1959, I was almost 20,’ Mullings explains. Hailing from the rebellious parish of St Elizabeth in the Jamaican county of Cornwall (home to the most famous community of escaped slaves), he came to the UK in search of bright, new opportunities.
‘There were big signs in the Jamaica Gleaner at the time, inviting people to the motherland to help rebuild it from the destruction after the war,’ he remembers. ‘Enoch Powell, the man who [eventually] said we should be sent home, [was actually] sent out to recruit people in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad for London Transport.’ Responding to the call, Mullings came by plane, which felt like it took ‘a lifetime’, and moved in with his overbearingly religious uncle on Brixton’s Leander Road, working and studying part-time with hopes to return to the Caribbean as a teacher. He soon realised that there was lots he didn’t understand about Britain. ‘When I first saw all the houses I thought all of these places were baking bread. In Jamaica you only saw chimneys on top of a bakery,’ he explains.
‘Then I realised people were saying things to me that were unkind, asking if I slept in trees and spitting at me. It wasn’t right.’ In truth, Mullings has an encyclopaedic knowledge of these constant injustices — of the Bristol bus boycott after the local transport company refused to hire Black staff, or how banks refused to offer Black people mortgages so they set up their own informal, trust-based group savings schemes called Pardner. ‘Very few landlords would rent [to] us anywhere. There were big signs up: no blacks, no Irish, no dogs,’ he says.
London’s pseudo-Edwardian Teddy boys with towering, flamboyant Brylcreemed hairstyles enforced this hostility. ‘They walked around with bicycle chains. [Kelso] Cochrane was killed by Teddy boys by Westbourne Park. Nobody got arrested.’ What many don’t know is that the Notting Hill Carnival grew out of the community response to this wave of violence. ‘We took to the streets of London and I will continue to go until I am too old,’ he laughs. ‘You would never recognise me with my two beers!’
‘We’ve come a long way,’ he continues, but he’s not finished doing his part to create a fair society. ‘People say, “Mullings, you have a chip on your shoulder,”’ he says. ‘No, I have a log on my shoulder.
‘I was a country girl. We lived down the bush,’ Claudette Parkins-Scott explains. The 68-year-old youth worker has her locks wrapped in a red headscarf. Her speech is slurred due to some outstanding dental work she’s been putting off that has left her feeling self conscious. Before Parkins-Scott arrived in 1965 she had been calling St Thomas Parish home with her grandparents and extended family, surrounded by goats and chickens, fetching water and living off the abundant land making their own coconut oil. Early memories of growing up were punctuated by evocative moments such as running to a local stream and play fighting with her cousins, fishing while their grandma washed the clothes, and collecting firewood for dinner.
‘Jamaica was vibrant. It was happy. We weren’t rich but we didn’t go without,’ she says. ‘We were free.’ She remembers her mother was working in Kingston, as there were more opportunities for work in the city. Meanwhile her dad had already left for England. ‘To come and to do better. That was the call,’ she says. ‘But we weren’t allowed to earn enough to save to go back [to Jamaica]. My dad couldn’t come back but he sent for me when I was 10.’
She didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone when she set off alone, getting a bus in the early hours of the morning and then arriving in England by air to meet her father in Leicester. ‘I cried for two weeks when I got here,’ she says of her feeling homesick. ‘Dad would say “next week” but next week never came. When I was in school I said I wanted to do secretarial work and [my teacher] Miss Gaskel said: “Oh, no. You can’t do that.”’ Parkins-Scott points to her skin and says that she began seeing that there were limits on what she could achieve based on what she looked like.
Bouncing between industries after leaving school at 16, she took a job telexing (before fax machines), and then moved to London to live with her late eldest sister. At first she worked in the fashion warehouses of Commercial Street (‘A lady I worked with was going out with one of the Krays’) and eventually in social care and youth services. Her new care organisation Unity Trust Foundation pops up every Tuesday at the Blue Rock restaurant in Tottenham, helping to skill up and support the generations of Black youth that have followed hers. ‘It’s about ambition and creating a better community for our young people.’ Amid her career changes she built a happy family life here, marrying at 19 and starting a family. One of her sons has been proudly watching us converse. She points to a picture of her four-day-old grandson, Zion. ‘I want to put down a blueprint that my offspring can follow.’
‘Talk it hard man!’ shouts Uriah Esson. At 98 he has to instruct you to resist the urge not to scream your words because otherwise he won’t be able to catch what you’re saying. Living in Britain hasn’t diluted his staccato patois cadence at all, though his voice quivers unless he projects — a sign of his age.
Still, he prides himself on the other ways in which he remains sharp, like his memory. ‘Windrush? I wasn’t on it. I heard about it. I saw a woman… she went on the boat and then she came back. I remember my journey — I haven’t lost my senses, thank the Lord. I just have lost a little bit of my ears,’ he says.
We’re sitting shouting at each other in his living room, one of many in a polished tower block for over 55-year-olds in the borough of Westminster, with Esson in a leather armchair surrounded by lots of family photographs. ‘I have six children standing behind me — one boy and five girls,’ he says. His 76-year-old daughter Carmen, who is caring for him today, instructs him to answer questions directly and not to go on conversational detours. ‘Alright, I’m not stupid!’ he quips.
In 1963, Esson journeyed on a boat called Ascania from Jamaica that stopped off in Madeira and Spain before sailing into British waters. He was reluctant to leave the island but felt like it was essential to join his family who had already left. Esson heard about the aggressive Teddy boys and worried about his younger, and smaller, sibling. ‘I thought I better come quick so I can back my brother,’ he says. ‘Me never go prison but when it comes to my family… don’t touch!’
His brother, who had come to Britain two years earlier, had arranged for him to work for Ealing Council as a forklift driver — he then went on to be a delivery driver before eventually getting behind the wheel of a bus for London Transport. ‘I’m a Seventh-day Adventist and they wouldn’t let me take the Saturday off,’ he remembers. ‘They took me to the head office and told me they had to sack me. I said, “Right, sack me,” and then I went on to be a cabbie for 25 years.’
He didn’t bring his children with him initially but eventually sent for his eldest daughter to come and join him. He also tells us he met a wife and had a brief relationship, but his daughter cuts him off, telling him no one wants to hear about his marriage. ‘Me love here though. I loved the girls,’ he says, erupting into laughter and clapping his hands.
Maurice Anderson is a city boy at heart. When he left the buzz of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, reggae had not yet been born. People would spend every Friday enrolling in competitions at the local theatre to sing and try to win a spot on the line-up for the regular Saturday night show. ‘It was a musical island,’ he says. ‘There was R’n’B, rock’n’roll, and there were soundsystems so people would gather and dance on the sidewalk.’
In 1959, 14-year-old Anderson left Jamaica for the first time, alone, boarding a plane to come and join his father who had settled here earlier. ‘I was very excited to go to the mother country, as they say, but I was very disappointed when I got here,’ he laughs. ‘It was grey and smoky, so that was a bit strange.’ His first address was 45 Angel Road in Brixton. ‘The food was flavourless. There was a Black community in Brixton where you could get things close to your culture. You weren’t getting the authentic stuff but [it was] the nearest thing to your culture,’ he says.
‘I had to go to school until I was 15, so I was only there until Christmas and nobody could understand me. All I wanted to do was get a job and get my mother to come over,’ he says. Anderson had moved out of his father’s place and his mother did come over in 1961 but soon left because she didn’t like it in London, leaving him on his own. ‘There were not many places of joy but we made friends with all the other families in the three-storey house I lived in.’
He had got a job in engineering, and with the NHS needing workers there were new arrivals coming to fill the gaps. ‘In those days a lot of young girls used to come as nurses; they weren’t living in the community. They were living in a nursing home. So a lot of us guys, we used to go to hospitals,’ he laughs. In 1971 that’s how he met his late wife, who would go on to be the mother of his two children.
Anderson has no plans to spend his retirement back on the island. ‘Our folks go back and leave the kids but you need your family to support you as you’re setting yourself up. A lot of us missed out because a lot of our parents go back,’ he says, reflecting on his rocky start here. It’s clear that England is undoubtedly his home. ‘Everything I have, I have because of this country — I’ve got my children and my grandchildren here. I’m not going to beat this country up.’
Black Cultural Archives is the home of Black British history, dedicated to celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in the UK. Visit blackculturalarchives.org to learn more
Photography by Adama Jalloh. With thanks to Circa Art, the Black Cultural Archives, Blue Rock Restaurant; Togetherness Community Centre Mitcham, Designworks Harlesden; Svetlana Leu, Jasmine Dale, Diane Shrouder-Johnson. Penelope Beckles.
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