“Come Whatever” – Stories from the Windrush generation

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The arrival of the Windrush generation in the Black Caribbean, moving for a new life in England in the 50s and 60s, marked the beginning of modern multiculturalism in Britain.

The promise of better pay and conditions attracted many – but when they came from the top of government to the streets where they walked to work and school, they faced resistance and racism.

NS Birmingham Museums Foundation He collected a series of interviews from the first generation of Caribbean immigrants who settled in Birmingham and published them as part of his online publications. Black Oral History Project.

In them, they describe the experience of adjusting to Birmingham, from racial intolerance at their first job and first friends they made, to adjusting to the British vibe and watching their new home change over time.

Here are just a few of his stories – you can listen to the rest online. Birmingham Museums Trust website.

Esme Lancaster

Esme was born in Jamaica and moved to England in 1950 to further her education. He came to Birmingham, where his sister already lived. In a clip from 1992, he recounts his thoughts on his first arrival in England.

Esme Lancaster, who moved to the UK from Jamaica in 1950, was photographed outside Summerfield Park.
Esme Lancaster, who moved to the UK from Jamaica in 1950, was photographed outside Summerfield Park.

“When we first came here, we thought every house was a factory. Because it is a tropical country, we didn’t have high chimneys.

“I came in December when the trees were bare. ‘Why do they keep so many dry trees around?’ I was saying. I didn’t know that the leaves were falling because of the winter.”

“The weather was awful. I thought, ‘I wish I could also come back…’. The conditions of living here made me cry for months, months and months, until I started to see some improvement in living standards. often homesick.

“I was clinging to the church—it brought me much of the kind of life I was used to.”

In other clips, she recounts her early experiences of racism in Birmingham and argues that it didn’t bother her.

In her weekend office manager job, her boss would bring her all the work that her white colleagues couldn’t do while they were lazing around.

“Once I went to the cloakroom, I heard them say, ‘They couldn’t bear to see me.’ They said, ‘Here I am. One day we will be like the sons of Israel in the land of Egypt, and if you don’t like it, you can leave or die.’ Then I walked away.”

In another clip, he talks about his personality and the strength of character you need to succeed in England.

“People confuse humility with weakness. When you don’t get up and answer someone, they think it’s because you’re weak and cowardly.

“I noticed a plant growing in the city center between two stone slabs. As it grew, I came back to the city every time to see what it was.”

“About 5 weeks later I saw it was a tomato plant. I thought about how it got there – dropped by someone or dropped by a bird. It survived being swept away by a street sweeper.”

“I kept coming back. I saw three blackberries develop and start attracting people. It just wasn’t attracting people when it was leaves. This image gave me something for myself – to thrive no matter what.”

Frank Scantlebury

Frank was raised in Barbados by his grandparents and came to England in 1955 at the age of 18 – first living in Bath, then moving to Birmingham in the 60s.

He remembered that he had made many friends during the journey, communicating with some of them through letters. He and the others had heard of job opportunities in England and went to live with friends who had already arrived.

Frank Scantlebury, who moved from Barbados to England in 1955.
Frank Scantlebury, who moved from Barbados to England in 1955.

“I was so used to living with my grandparents. When I first moved here, I was really lonely, very lonely for the first few months. Fortunately, I had friends that I grew up with and a lovely hostess who helped me get over it.

“We didn’t notice any racism after we arrived very early. However, after we settled in after a while, we realized that some people were quite hostile towards us. We found it very strange, we never expected to encounter it. We were always taught that this is a fair society.

“Some people don’t want us to sit next to them or they often make condescending remarks. At work, if you had a good working standard, they would accuse you of ‘favoring’. being lazy means you’re never going to be able to stand at this job.

“Fortunately, there were people who did the opposite, very kind and made us feel at home.”

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Frank moved to Saltley after spending five and a half years in Bath.

“Everything was quite different from what it was in Saltley. I remember Co-Op had a shop on the corner of Edmund Road and a grocery store on the next block towards the traffic lights.

“Gradually, things started to change. There was the opening of the supermarkets which at first I didn’t feel very welcome – I was so used to the personal service and friendliness at Co-Op, but now it’s just getting started, getting things off the shelves, going to the checkout, and leaving as quickly as possible.

In another clip, Frank talks about his “English” feeling.

“I see and feel a lot as part of the British way of life. I tell you this sincerely.

“Even when I look back on the turmoil and displeasure I’ve been through, there is so much that was good and pleasant. There is so much that I can look back on and say I enjoyed.”

When asked if he was British or Black British, he replied, “I’m just an Englishman”.

This interview was recorded in 1991 – Frank was asked if things were getting better after the racist violence of the ’80s.

“Yeah, I think everything is changing and changing for the better. I look around and see all these little improvements – people talking to each other, laughing, going out and having fun with each other.

“When I first came here, people probably wouldn’t have done that.”

Made through the Birmingham Museums Trust – hear more stories on their website, including that of the first Black headmaster, Carlton Duncan, and the challenges of being married to a white woman from Ryland Campbell.

What do you think about the progress made in this country against racism? If you could go back to the first people in the Windrush generation who came to the country, what would you tell them? Comment below or talk to us on social media.


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