“Nothing about us without us,” is sound advice to news outlets attempting to write stories about people and communities who are most often negatively stereotyped and marginalised. This week, on the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush ship, bearing more than 500 migrants mainly from the Caribbean, it is good that we are able to hear the voices of original Windrush passengers, some of whom are now great-grandparents. It is right that the descendants and followers of those pioneers are leading the campaign to get this pertinent history into the mainstream. In this, as I wrote in the review of the Africa Museum in Belgium, I guess the UK is ahead of other ex-imperial countries in celebrating how immigrant cultures assert themselves and get into the mainstream.
The booklet ‘Why the Windrush matters today’ was sent in for review by someone whose father was Jamaican and of the Windrush generation. It consists of 31 pages containing lively illustrations. It provides key facts about the arrival of that ship and how the young workers from the Caribbean were coming for jobs that were needed to rebuild the war-weary ‘mother’ country. It juxtaposes the history and individual stories with questions about where we are today in the UK regarding racial discrimination. It presents a vision to reach ‘net zero’ on racial discrimination in the next 25 years.
It has three personal stories from Windrush, all of them from women. It also has a section asking ‘where would English football be without Windrush?’
It has a section on how to engage young people, and what schools and museums can do. As Patrick Vernon, political activist, cultural historian and Windrush campaigner says in the Introduction:
“Knowing one’s history and heritage is important. We need to make sure that the history of Windrush is in the national curriculum and that it reflects all aspects of our society. This is black history and it is British history, the story of how our society came to look as it does today”.
So here are some personal recollections of how I first encountered Caribbean people in this part of England. Firstly, in my rural childhood in Kent in the 1950s, there were no black people to be seen. There was just one family in Tunbridge Wells whom I sometimes spotted with a black (possibly adopted) son. One only saw black people on going to London, where they were often working on the buses and trains (some of the jobs that the call to the Caribbean had asked them to do). Others had come to work in the newly founded NHS where state registered nurses (trained in the Caribbean following the British curriculum) found that they were allowed only the lower state enrolled nurse status or even only nursing assistant status. In other words, some of those who came expecting to use their professional qualification were in fact only able to get grunt jobs because of racial discrimination.
Toynbee Hall and Notting Hill
When I spent a year in 1969 working at Toynbee Hall (in Commercial Street, London E1), I became more educated about the politics of racial discrimination. My office was next to that of an advice and campaigning organisation set up by Caribbean immigrants in the wake of the new Race Discrimination Act (1968). It was staffed by a Barbadian person who was happy to talk about his work sometimes when we took lunch break together. He was answerable to a committee led by David Pitt, then the deputy chair of the GLC (Greater London Council) and the most prominent black politician of the time.
Although Notting Hill has gone down in history as the part of London that was the nexus of black Caribbean settlement and culture (along with Brixton), there were plenty of families who had settled in Stepney too. In fact one of the priests at St Dunstan’s Stepney was from Barbados.
I was still living in Stepney when I did my teacher training at the Institute of Education, London, and was assigned teaching practice at the John Cass School in Whitechapel. On our reading list was, of course, To Sir with Love, a heart-warming book of memoirs of a black teacher in the East End of London.
There were reported tensions between the teenagers of different ethnic backgrounds, basically the old East End families of white Cockneys (my own family two generations back); the Caribbeans, and the Bangladeshis. But I was amused to realise that there were also tensions between the Caribbeans from different islands, mostly Jamaicans against the rest, or taking down the Barbadians for acting superior. I witnessed this because I got a lovely winter contract at a local FE college to occupy a class of Caribbean teenagers on Friday afternoons. The manager who recruited me explained that they were all in an interim category, not likely to carry on with courses, but required to attend. I was to fill the afternoons with excursions all over London. So I did. And even today when I see a near-retirement black ticket collector at London stations, I wonder if any of them were from that class.
Keep it in the family
A few decades later, I actually went to Jamaica, for the marriage of our daughter to someone of part-Jamaican descent. After the celebration, one of the other wedding guests took us up into the hills of the interior to meet his uncle. This was a wonderful trip, beyond the usual tourist beat. The old man was in his 80s, and he had worked as a driver in the London Underground for more than 40 years before retiring to his family land in that beautiful part of Jamaica. He showed us around, introducing us to both animals and plants. I counted some 22 separate productive small farming operations he was engaged in: goats and chicken, of course, but also harvests of typical tropical produce like breadfruit and bananas. I love to think of him driving trains through the London tunnels but dreaming of his retirement farm in the hills of Jamaica.
Migrating from London to Kent
Then five years ago, in Ashford, I urgently needed a gas engineer to seal off an old kitchen pipe. A black plumber turned up from Tenterden. I got talking and told him there were no black families in Tenterden in my childhood,and asked him how he found it. He admitted that his family were the first black Londoners to settle in Tenterden. And so that is the story of how the descendants of those Windrush pioneers spread out first in the cities (like London, Manchester, Leicester) and then in the next generation out into the smaller towns, often doing essential jobs in hospitals or utilities. I think most people in Kent have now got used to living in a more multicultural society.
The Windrush75 celebration is basically about the Caribbean people who came to the UK then, the heritage and history that is an integral part of British society today.