All aboard the MV Empire Windrush
My grandparents were born in British Guyana (as it was then known) which is in South America but a part of the Caribbean due to its shared history and language - Guyana was a British colony from 1814 until its independence in 1966. They moved to England in 1954, my granddad arrived first to set up home and granny followed a few months later. They first lived in Tottenham before finding a home in two rooms of a house in Edmonton. That was where my mum, their third child, was born.
Granddad’s father had been employed by the administration in British Guyana as a building contractor and on arriving in the UK granddad followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in evening classes for a HND in building structures at Tottenham College of Building Technology. It took him five years to complete his studies and he worked full-time throughout.
For me, two of granddad’s working relationships during those years illustrate the light and shade of the Windrush Generation’s experience.
Granddad’s second job in the UK was with Thorn Electric Industry where he was employed as a draftsman. His boss, Mr Evans, was Welsh and the son of a miner. He had worked in the mines for a year before he was awarded a scholarship to go to university and he was the first person from his valley to do so. He told granddad that because of his humble background he had been treated badly at university, this led he and granddad to build an empathetic relationship.
It was Mr Evans who gave granddad the opportunity to develop the skills and experience that would set granddad up for his career. Mr Evans and my grandfather developed a strong friendship and a lasting bond which lasted beyond my granddad’s employment at Thorn. He is my uncle’s godfather.
The positivity of that relationship is contrasted by granddad’s experience at Eastern Electricity, the company he moved to after Thorn Electric Industry.
Granddad’s boss at Eastern Electricity, Mr Lewis, was a racist and he made that clear. In the 12 months that my granddad worked at Eastern Electricity, amongst other comments, Mr Lewis told granddad that he was not welcome in the same office as the white employees and should be outside with the dogs and, on another occasion, he told granddad that he should not be allowed in the canteen at the same time as the other employees because he found it disgusting to eat at the same time as him.
Despite many witnessing his behaviour, Mr Lewis was not disciplined during granddad’s time at Eastern Electricity. Granddad was encouraged by his colleagues to report Mr Lewis but he feared losing his job. Instead he looked for another job, this time in the public sector, because he believed it would be more difficult for him to be sacked in the event that he had to report another racist colleague.
Granddad initially applied to the Crown Agents for a civil engineer role in British Guyana. Like many of the Windrush Generation he saw his future ‘back home’ in the country of his birth. He was unsuccessful, but shortly after saw a similar role in Nigeria, which at the time was a British colony. Granddad was aware that the other candidates for the role were white men so he didn’t think he had a chance, but Mr Evans encouraged him to apply nonetheless. Granddad got the job and in October 1959 my grandparents left for Enugu, Nigeria with their three children.
Because he had been hired in England, granddad was given full expatriate status, so when my mum and her siblings boarded the plane, it was to the first class cabin they were shown. The family were given a home in the expatriate’s compound in Enugu with staff that provided granny with invaluable support as child four, five and six arrived. Apparently, the first thing my granddad did when he arrived in Nigeria was take a photograph of the house and write to Mr Lewis to let him know how things were going. That must have been a satisfying letter to write.
The best perk of all was that for every 18 months worked granddad was given six months off and a ticket to wherever he wanted in to go in the world. It was not always easy to get that time off, because he was the only black expatriate in Enugu, possibly Nigeria, it was assumed that he was only entitled to the less generous rewards the other black employees got.
It’s difficult to imagine what my grandparents would have made of this pauper to prince change in fortunes but in granddad’s words he went from a “beast to a priest”.
My grandparents may have stayed in Nigeria longer, but the Biafra War prevented that. They moved back to London in 1966 after which my youngest uncle, their last child, was born. My mum and her siblings grew up here and their experiences of growing up black in Britain are for another blog.
Granddad went on to have a 32 year career working for The Crown Estate and, once my mum and her siblings were old enough, granny also worked until retirement. She passed away in 1997. Granddad stayed here until the early 90s when he moved back to Guyana where he still lives, aged 97.
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