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London Stories - Immigration from 1947 to 1970

From 1947 to 1970 nearly 500,000 people emigrated from the Caribbean to the UK. Until the mid 1960s many migrants came by boat and made a train journey from their port of entry to London. The most famous of these boats was the Windrush docking at Tilbury. What is not so well known is that many boats docked at Southampton or Dover, and many of the newly arrived passengers took a train hauled by a Bulleid designed locomotive up to London.

Over the last eighteen months, as part of the HLF supported Canadian Pacific project run by the Watercress Line, two researchers have been tracing individuals with memories of this boat crossing and train journey. All these accounts have been given by people whose train to London was very likely to have been hauled by a Bulleid designed locomotive like Merchant Navy class 'Canadian Pacific'. To be included the journey must have been from Southampton Docks to London before July 1967 or Dover Western Docks to London before June 1959, the dates when Merchant Navy class steam locomotives stopped working boat trains on those routes.

The accounts included here reflect the immense variety of life stories that have emerged during the project. The train journey to London was often the longest train journey that our informants had taken up to that point. It was (likely) from a Bulleid designed carriage that they saw England for the first time, and it was a Bulleid designed train that pulled them into Victoria or Waterloo to begin their new life in the UK. The Mid Hants Railway rolling stock played a role in this significant moment in British post-war social history.

These accounts are based on extensive interviews with final versions corrected and approved by each donor. There were two exceptions to this method. Rosalind's story was written by her and given to us as it appears on the website. Ruby lives in Jamaica and she told her story over the phone to her granddaughter Jessica who lives in the U.K.

It is inevitable that for most of the people in these stories the actual train journey does not figure as their most significant memory. The most vivid memories that they recount come from their journey by ship, lasting several weeks, and the first impressions of the strange and cold country they arrived in. The value of these accounts is that they are full of a wealth of information about the people who took those trains into London and their early experiences in the U.K. 

Read some of the accounts we have collected below.

Coming to England in 1966

I was born in Dominica in the West Indies in 1958. I was 8 years old when I came to England. My father came to England in the very early 60's. My father worked in a factory making dog food. He made enough money to send for his wife (my mother) and my 2 brothers and sister. It was my choice to stay behind in the West Indies as I was very close to my Grandad and did not want to leave him.

My family sent for me in 1966. I remember waking up very early to make my way to the harbour with my mother’s friend. I was dressed in my best clothes, and I remember wearing gold dangling earrings which were too heavy for my ear and was very painful.

It was very early in the morning, I remember getting on a cruise liner the biggest boat I had ever seen in my life with lots of people dressed in their finest clothes men in suits women wearing hats handbags, pretty dresses and high heels.

The cruiser was so big it was like an island. I stood on the deck and saw hundreds of tiny people, it looked like they were walking on water and I actually thought at the time that they were. We docked somewhere in America, I'm guessing it was New York where we stayed for the day did some shopping and returned to the boat. The next time we stopped we had arrived, which at the time I thought it was London but I now think it was probably in Southampton? From there we caught a train and me and my mums friend carried on to London.

My first feelings and thoughts of being in Britain was the cold, it must have been winter as it was very, very cold and I was not dressed for the weather.

My mother’s friend lived in London and a taxi came to collect us from the station to her house in London. Travelling in the back of the taxi, I remember being very frightened, almost all the faces we passed were white, and that was very strange to me. My mother came to London the following day to collect me and take me to Doncaster South Yorkshire, to reunite with my Dad, brothers and sister. It felt at the time like being introduced to strangers.

I hated Doncaster as it was so cold, wet and miserable and the only black faces I saw was my mother’s friends.

Rosalind John-Alao

Bingo

I came from Grenada in 1963. Grenada was British at that time. Growing up in Grenada was fun. Children in this country have no life, they can’t go anywhere, they can’t walk from their house to the beach like we used to. I was taught at school by English people. My mother was a French speaker, because before Grenada was British, it was French. I remember whenever she was talking to her sisters, my aunts, she would tell me to leave the house. They were talking to each other in French. My mum didn’t want me going to work. She was very strict, there was always church on Sundays. We lived in the countryside. My sister came to England and a few months after that, she sent for me and a man who eventually I got married to.

It was a big cruise ship and we went through different countries, it took 22 days. We were going through countries and countries, stopping at Jamaica, then at Madeira, then in Italy somewhere. I wasn’t sea sick, but the lady I was sharing a cabin with, she was sick from Trinidad to England. There was a hospital on the boat, shops, a cinema. It was fun, the cruise ship was fantastic.

When I landed in this country I started crying and saying that I wanted to go home. It was July 14th. How do I know? Because I still have my old passport with the stamp and the date on it when I came. My sister met me off the boat at Southampton. When I saw the train I said “What’s that big long thing?” I’d never seen a train before. I came to London with my sister and we went to Acton, Churchfield Road. She had a place close to the park. We got off the bus, we went up there, and I stood at the window and looked over the park. What was funny was that I saw people in the park who were kissing. I said to my sister – what are they doing? Back in Grenada, if you kissed in the street, the police would come to arrest you. At the start I wasn’t happy at all in England, but afterwards I enjoyed it.

In the 1960’s it used to be fun. Weekends used to be fun. You could do what you wanted. People used to visit each other. There was no crime and no fear. I used to walk from Acton to Shepherd’s Bush in the evening, I wouldn’t dare to do that now. My first job was in a laundry. The Whitehead Laundry in Avenue Road in Acton. The next job, I went to work for Lyons, they were making cakes. I didn’t like that work, so I went into nursing. I started as an Auxiliary Nurse. Then one of the sisters said to me – “you’re so good at this, why not train?” So I started to train as a nurse, but then I got pregnant and I dropped out and didn’t finish because I wasn’t legally married. If you were doing nursing and you weren’t legally married then they won’t keep you. On the 26th March 1966, my first child was born.

All my friends happened to be white people. I met some of them at work, especially Irish people. I didn’t mix a lot with my own people. I used to mix with white people because I loved Bingo. I was the only black face in the Bingo hall. People accepted me, they used to say “she’s one of us”. I love the game. The largest amount I ever won was £1,500. I remember that night, I said to my friend ‘if you win, you share it with me, if I win, I’ll share it with you’. But she said ‘No way!’ And then I won £1,500. I still gave her £200. 

I still play Bingo, but I can’t get to the Bingo hall anymore. I run a game here every Tuesday in the lounge.

Anonymous

We were all Jamaicans

My grandfather was a general merchant, he had a shop. Those days were different, there were many poor people in Grenada.  I remember my grandmother, she used to make bread, get it out hot from the oven, with bread and butter on it. I would come home from school…the smell of it… And she called children over, in those days Grenada was a poor place, they would be bare foot…and she gave them this bread and butter….

I went by boat from Jamaica. You had to get to Jamaica first. Jamaica…there is a problem for me, because when I got to England everybody thought anyone from the Caribbean came from Jamaica. If you were from the Caribbean you were Jamaican, that was that. But we were all different. Southall and Shepherd’s Bush, that was where the Grenadans lived. Brixton, that was where you found the Jamaicans. Ladbroke Grove, people from Dominica.

Oh, there are many things to say, about how we lived. We were living four or five in a room… For years I worked nights, working my way up in a biscuit factory, MacFarlane’s in Hounslow. Later on, I got my own business, Import Export, and I used to visit different factories, and go to West India docks too. I remember the Tate and Lyle factory, Silvertown, the smell of it…

Southampton, that was the docks for the Liners, and Liverpool too….

My grandfather came from Scotland. Yes, Scotland. He was a white man, an engineer. He came to work on the Panama Canal. They made their money, then they looked for somewhere to buy. He bought a place on Grenada, that’s how he came there. He invested in the sugar cane in Cuba, then he came to Grenada and bought a shop. Grenada had people from all over the world, people who emigrated there. My grandafather had a General Store, he was a shop keeper. I used to assist him in the shop after school. His name was Whiteman. He was my grandfather on my father’s side, on my mother’s side, there was a doctor from Ireland, but I don’t know about them. My ambition was always to go to Scotland and see where my grandfather came from.

Every day, when I got back from school, I went to help my grandfather in the shop. And he would read the newspaper. You can’t imagine it now, there he was, with the newspaper, folding it out, reading from it, turning it page after page.

I came to Victoria, late at night. I don’t remember the journey, because I was so excited by everything. We were on a boat, and it short stopped at Genoa, stayed there for two three days. Then we continued to Southampton, and got there when it was dark, late. The boat was the SS Eskinia. The train journey, I don’t remember. It was at night. The journey on the boat lasted three weeks. The fare was more than £300.  A lot of money. But by the time we got to Southampton I had earned almost all of it, by working on the boat. It wasn’t like a cruise. There were fights on that boat, you had people from the different Islands, some of them speaking English, some of them speaking French. There were arguments, disputes, if you know what I mean. They gave you jobs on the boat, if you wanted them, and paid you. I worked in the shop and I worked at the bar.

Why did I come? Do you want to know the reason? My grandfather. He said to me ‘I want you to promise me, you must travel across the oceans, across the seas…’ He thought that you were not complete, unless you had travelled across water, even if it was just forty miles to America or to England or wherever. He had come from Scotland. That’s why I came. People came for different reasons. You think that they all came because they wanted work, but that wasn’t true. Some people had left a good standard of living back home. Perhaps they were teachers or perhaps they were policemen, so why did the come? It was for adventure. I came in the February. It was so cold and foggy. My aunt had told me about the cold, she had warned me, but nothing could have prepared me. She said to me ‘you must get some nylon socks the first thing you do, because of the cold’ and when I came back home later, I was wearing nylon socks. So she noticed that and she approved of me. There was a prison on the boat and you could be put in it, for silly little things such as throwing a glass across the table. The captain was there on the deck, looking down and noticing these things. People would do things wrong, like opening a porthole and then forgetting to close it. There were 2,000 people on the boat. There were differences, if you were high up or low down on the boat. And there were stowaways, of course there were. Before the boat sailed, there was always a time when friends and relatives would be there to see you off, to say their goodbyes. And it was easy for one of them to stay behind, to be a stowaway you see. They got amnesty, so I heard, when they had been in England for long enough.

When we got to Victoria there was a night time crowd, people being taken away by taxis to different places to work. To tell you the truth, it looked to me like slavery was going on. I had an address my father had given me. It was supposed to be an address in Kennington, but the way my father wrote it, it said Kensington. So I ended up going to the wrong place and they didn’t know me there. I had to stay with friends, while I waited for my father to send me a letter with the right address on. In those days it took a week for a letter to arrive.

In the mind of English people, if you come from the Caribbean, you come from Jamaica, it’s insulting in a way.

I got a job straightaway in a biscuit factory. It was easy to find a job, if you had a friend, your friend would have a word with the boss, tell him they had a friend looking for a job, he would say to come down and you’d have a chat with him and you got the job. I got to England in 1961. I had friends there and we met up at week ends. You buy some drink, one of you cooks and you socialise together. I was twenty one years old, I had never cooked in my life before. But I learned, I learned all these things….

The number of people who returned, went back, you won’t believe it. I’ve seen it, I can understand why. Some people thought that life in England would be a bed of roses, but you’d be surprised. Those people might have good jobs back home, they might be a teacher or a policeman. So after a while, they wanted to go back. Enoch Powell, you remember him, he started something – if you wanted to go home again, you could get £5,000. Well, the queue to apply was so long, they had to close the offer in a few days, so many people wanted to take it. A chap goes home, he has some money, he gets a teaching job, he gets married, that’s a better life.

It’s the little things in life that matter. Do we all want to be millionaires? No. We want to be comfortable, that’s all.

Anonymous

St Kitts is my home

I came in October 1961.  I came from St Kitts. I understood that this country wanted people to work here. I wasn’t doing much at home, so I went. My mother encouraged me to go. I was twenty-five. I thought I was very young. I used to work in shops in town like the grocery stores, and sometimes I worked with my mother in the fields. She grew sugar cane and sweet potatoes, but it was hard work, under the sun, it was hot. There was a lime business, a little business near the village. You used to burn the lime, then grind it down into powder then mix it into concrete and sell it to the builders. But it could burn you, it peeled the skin off your hands.  When the storms came, the sea water came in and reached the village and it nearly took that business away. My mother thought there must be something better than just staying behind on the island and working so hard. My sister and my grandmother, they all used to work with my mother. Eventually my sister went to St. Thomas, it’s in America. I’m the only one of my family that went to England. Two of my sisters went to Curacao, that’s in the Dutch West Indies. They worked with people from Holland. When you decided to leave, you went to the big town to the agents. The agent told you the next trip, when the boat is going, you talk about it, then you set off. I went into town to buy tickets, I had to pack my clothes. The ship was called the SS Montserat. It was a Spanish boat. It stopped at Teneriffe for a couple days on the way to England.

When I first saw it....it was such a big boat, so much was going on. I was looking after five children from St. Kitts. They were in my charge. When we were on the boat, I spent my time in the rope house. They used to have big parties and dances there. All the people on the boat were Caribbean people. The children I was looking after were different ages, from 15 the oldest, 11 years old, all the way down. The boat went from St Kitts to Jamaica, then around all the small islands. Then the boat was going into heavy waters. I was still comfortable, but some people got sea sick. I remember the captain, he used to meet us in his cabin. I was in a little room in the ship, I remember there were three bunk beds and I had five children with me so they all slept in those bunks.

When I got to Southampton, the children were met by their parents, and I never saw them again. I took the train up to Archway. I don’t remember much about the journey on the train. I was more concerned to get to where I was going, I was thinking ‘look where I am, in a big country, dragging along in this train...’ My cousin was supposed to meet me, but she had a young son. When I got off the boat, I was standing around and my cousin asked a friend to meet me and put me on the train. England looked strange, there were dried trees all around. My cousins’ friend, he was from Trinidad. He’d been in England a long time before me and he put me on the train up to London. My memory is that the train was coloured Red. I remember people saying to me, ‘come on where are you going, the train is waiting for you, get on...’

When I was in Archway, I stayed in Miranda Road, with my cousin. One room.  Very tiny room.  There was a stove and a little table. We needed paraffin for heating and cooking. I shared it with her until she moved up to Manchester. She had a young baby boy, she moved in ’67 or so, we shared it for about five years. I used to write a letter every month to my parents. I waited till I had accumulated what little money I’d got. Sometimes I bought a little dress and I’d make up a parcel and I’d sent it to my mother and daddy. In Archway there were a few shops. There was the bucher’s in Junction Road. The milkman used to come round, and the paraffin man. He delivered paraffin every Friday so you would have enough for the weekend. 

I never left Archway. I got a job as a Care Assistant. That’s what they called it in those days. It was in an Old Folks Home, that was the term they used for it. It was looking after old people, treating them with respect. I had some friends there, there was Pearl, she was from Jamaica. This is where I have lived for many years, in Archway. I call it home, but for me home is really in St Kitts, it still is. St Kitts is a beautiful island. Have you heard of Brimstone Hill? It’s a big hill, people go there for excursions. You can look down on the sea. And Sandy Point, people went there to go fishing. The problem was poverty. Everybody wanted to have something better, you just had to take a chance and step out. Now as the years go by and I’m getting away from it, I don’t remember. When I was at school in St Kitts, my favourite subjects were arithmetic, reading. We used to play games, running the sack, egg and spoon. I used to sing a lot, especially in church. ‘I am coming nearer Lord God to thee’ and ‘tell me the old old story’. Every area had a church. There was one in my village. My teacher was called Eileen Hazel, she came to England too. She used to play the piano in church. Her dad was a preacher. There was a Moravian church in Bassetierre, that was the capital.

My mother died when she was 82.  She died when I was in England. They brought her to the town and buried her in the town. My father, he went to America for a holiday and he died there. He was ninety-seven years old. They had to bring the body back to the town and they buried him next to his wife. When I went back to St Kitts I looked for my old school but it was all mashed down. The boards were rotted, the walls had collapsed. Rain falls on St Kitts. Sometimes if falls for a week, and when there’s a storm it gets things in a mess. 

Enid

I was different from the others

I was born in Jamaica. My grandfather was Chinese, he came from Hong Kong. His name was Chen. My grandmother was a Maroon – they are descendants of people who escaped from slavery and lived in their own area in Jamaica. In Jamaica we were seen as different, we were called ‘black headed Chinese’. We were discriminated against.

My parents left Jamaica first, with my grandmother. My parents were having such a good time in England but after three years, my grandmother said they had to send for us. We came over in 1956. We took a boat from Jamaica and we arrived in Southampton on 15th February 1956. I remember the voyage because we spent the whole time below deck. There was a young woman who was supposed to be looking after us, but she left us alone. There were a lot of parties on the boat, and I think she was more interested in parties than us. I remember being hungry and that my brother vomited a lot. He was 4 years old and I was 6 years old.

When we got to Southampton, my father was waiting for us. We took the train up to Waterloo. I don’t remember too much about the train. The first thing I remember about London was the snow. I had never seen it before. My father had to pick me up and carry me, because I was frightened of it. 

We lived in a tiny room in the attic of a house. The street was Salton Crescent. My father was a cook in the army, but when I came with my brother, he left the army and he started to work as a mechanic. Later on he bought a house. My mum worked at the Smith’s Crisps factory. She used to bring home bags of broken crisps. 

I went to St Xavier’s School in Paddington where I was the only black child. There was a teacher called Mr Lawrence, who made it clear that no one should bother me. There were many nations living in Paddington. The St Lucians kept to themselves, and the Jamaicans kept to themselves, and the African nations kept to themselves. But all my friends were white. I felt more freedom and equality in Paddington than I felt in Jamaica. It was only when I went to Secondary school that I had problems with some black girls, because they saw me as different just like in Jamaica. Now we have all mixed together. My grandchild is half African, his father is from Ghana.

I left school at 16, and I wanted to do teacher training. I was good at English but I couldn’t do Maths. The examiner for the teacher training college told me that judging by my English he would let me through, but because of my Maths I failed the exam.

I remember that I went back to Southampton with my father several times. He had a friend on one of the boats, and this friend used to bring him Mangos from the Caribbean. I remember eating mango, how nice it was, cracking the seeds with my teeth. That was the only way to find mangos in England at that time. 

I worked at different jobs through the sixties – I worked at the Press Agency and at the International Telephone Exchange. But I don’t have memories of the sixties. The reason is that my dad was very strict. I wasn’t allowed to go to dances or parties. When I got married in 1969 I felt as though I had escaped! My husband was a friend of the family, that was how I met him.

I’ve never regretted coming to England. My brother did well, he’s a graphic designer and he speaks like the Queen! I have been back to Jamaica several times, but this year I am going to move back for good. Many people came to England and then went back home. They were surprised sometimes to find that their friends who had never left were doing better than them. But I don’t regret living here. I’m glad I lived in London.

Jasmin

Straightening my hair

I came to England, from Jamaica in 1960, when I was 18 years old. I was too scared to fly, so I came by ship, first class which took about a month and arrived finally in Southamptom. There was a short stop in Italy or Sicily first, I can't remember which one. When we got on the train to Victoria, I remember how strange it felt to see smoke coming out of chimneys, heavy like fog. My mother was a dressmaker, and made me a dress especially for the voyage, she had sent me to London to become a nurse. I wanted to travel so my mother arranged for me to stay with her friend, and I was glad to leave Jamaica, as it gave me freedom from the restrictions of my very strict mother.

When I arrived in Victoria, a friend of my mother, Miss Vai, was supposed to meet me, but she wasn't there. So I made my way to the address she sent me, in Islington and found her. We stayed in a room with two beds, with her daughter named Precious. She used to straighten my hair all the time, I guess to make me fit in more with British society, all this kind of thing was such a fuss to me at the time. I guess she was right...sometimes people would ask to take my photo because they thought all black people were monkeys.

I got a job working in Charing Cross hospital...one of the nurses joked that she thought black people had a tail, so I led her to the toilet and pulled down my knickers to show her my bare behind. She was in such a shock, she ran out of the toilet, and me and the other Caribbean nurses we laugh and laugh...

The thing that struck me the most when I arrived in England, was how horrible the houses looked, and seeing people kiss in the street, especially interracial couples. One day, we saw two men kissing in the street, and Miss Vai said 'you haven't seen anything yet'. Yes, at the time this really struck me, I had never seen anything like it in Jamaica, so I thought it was nasty.

After a while, I rented my own room in South London, the owner was Jamaican and lived on the bottom floor, I lived in the middle, and his nephew, Desmond, lived on the top floor. I used to see him waiting at the bus stop most mornings, always wearing his felt hat, one day I joked that he looked better without it. A few days later, I was trying to get into the house, but there was a cat in the way, I was terrified of cats, luckily Desmond was on his way home from work at the same time beaming down the road smiling and kindly shooed the cat away so I could get in. Later he offered me a slice of bread with golden syrup on it, oh I used to love that stuff. Then he began to ask me to cook for him, and after a while one thing led to another. We married in 1967 and have 5 children, 14 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren. We moved back to Jamaica in 2001, and come back to London every other year to visit them when we get the chance.

I still miss England, especially all my family that still live there but I am glad to be back in my home country where it is warm and I have a place my family can visit too.

Ruby

Sandwiches and burgers

I left Grenada on 15th April, 1961 and I arrived at Southampton on the 2nd May. Then I took a train to Waterloo. I remember that I got on the train, the train started, and a man came along with a plate of sandwiches. The sandwiches were thin, white bread. We needed bigger sandwiches because we were hungry. That’s what I remember.

That was the second time I had seen a train. The first time was when I went to Jamaica to take the boat. There were no trains on Grenada. A lot of people were emigrating at that time. I had an older brother and my mother had decided that my oldest brother was supposed to be the one who emigrated. But he was a churchman in the Seventh Day Adventists, and he wanted to be a minister. So, he stayed and I emigrated instead. I was 23 years old. I saw a train and a boat for the first time. The journey on the boat – well, I was sick. I heard from someone in England at the time, just before I emigrated. He said ‘don’t come, there’s ice and snow’. But I had left school, age 17, and I was working. In ’55 there was a hurricane, Hurricane Janet, and that caused a lot of damage to Grenada. My dad had died, left my mum with six children to look after. So, I had to leave school and work. I worked on estates, looking after animals. 

When I got to the UK, it took me two weeks to find a job. I worked from 1961 to 2003, that’s when I retired. I worked at one job for 19 and a half years, and I had another job for 20 years. I was a welder, sheet metal, that kind of thing. The last job I did, I was working in fibre glass, making the models you see in Madame Tussauds. I remember I went to London Bridge, to get my first job. There was a factory there – it was making cleaning fluid. I had to go up on a ladder, and follow the instruction on the list. There were chemicals, in a certain proportion, I got down the first tin, then I got the next tin, then I mixed them together according to the proportions, then I filled up the tin, put it somewhere else… Yes, I worked hard. The man there liked the way I was working, he gave me the job. That was my first job.

I remember going back to Grenada in 2006, and I was surprised, it had all changed. There used to be fields, land, and a few houses, but now there were houses everywhere. 

I went down a road, then it turned into a track, just a dirt track, I went down that, over some stones, and suddenly, there it was, the liner. When I got to Waterloo, my sister and her husband met me. I was so hungry. There were people selling burgers. I remember I ate a burger. My first meal in England. Unless you count the sandwich. I don’t remember so much about the journey, all the time I was praying that I would get where I was going, that’s what I remember most.

Mr Bholdoo