LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Caribbean Londoners - Carol Lewis with her son, Mylori Lewis-Sobers
Date of photography: 18th March 2018
London has one of the largest UK populations of people from the Caribbean, people who responded to the Mother Country’s call to bolster her depleted workforce, to toil in her factories, to man her transport, her hospitals and a host of other civic projects that would help rebuild a dilapidated, post-war Britain. Born to Jamaican parents in Sheffield, Carol is a nursing professional who has now lived in London for most of her adult life - she can rightly claim to be a Londoner. But while London is a melting-pot of people from all over the globe, skin colour has ever been the basis for discrimination. Carol comments: “I am always seen as a black person first. Even now, when institutional racism and explicit discrimination have been outlawed, and people are more careful what they say, every black person knows that little has really changed, except perhaps that we’re not silent any more. We are proud of our contribution and we won’t suffer in silence any longer. I am Caribbean and so is my son, Mylori; we are Black British. We might be seen as outsiders, but England is where we were born; this is our country and when we ‘get our country back’, as they say, we are definitely staying in it. We aren’t going anywhere!
London without Caribbeans? Can you imagine it? My answer is certainly a categoric, ‘No’. London and Birmingham have the greatest number of residents who hail from the West Indies, people who responded to the call from the Mother Country to bolster her depleted workforce, to toil in her factories, to work in her transport industry, in her hospitals and on a host of other civil projects that would contribute to the rebuilding of a dilapidated, post-war Britain. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Windrush Generation’ (the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in June 1948 at Tilbury Dock, Essex, marked the beginning of post-war mass migration) they arrived to help with the reconstruction of London and the UK’s other great cities. And here they settled, bringing a vibrant new dynamic into an urban landscape dreary and damaged by the toils of war. Commingling with the indigenous population, many intermarried, thus changing themselves at the same time as they helped to transform and reshape our major conurbations into the lively, cosmopolitan cities we enjoy today.
When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, in June 1948, it completed an 8,000 mile journey to convey to Britain its 492 passengers from all across the Caribbean: they came from Jamaica, St Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, Trinidad, Tobago, St Kitts, Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, and Guyana (and later from Belize too). Initially, many of these men (at that stage, most of the immigrants were men) were ex-serviceman who had fought for the Empire; now out of uniform, they were anxious for work and there was plenty of it here. The British Nationality Act (1948) that had just gone through Parliament, granted all the peoples of the British Empire the status of citizenship. These Caribbean migrants were therefore arriving to what they saw as their ‘motherland’. The first of the new arrivals were housed in temporary accommodation near Brixton and in air-raid shelters at Clapham South; from there they gradually dispersed, though many who had found work locally put down roots in the Brixton area.
Of course, reality for the new arrivals was not all wine and roses. There was certainly plenty of work but finding decent accommodation in war-ravaged London was much more of a challenge, and lots of what was available was pretty squalid. The notorious, objectionable, blatantly racist signs, “No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs,” were a shockingly familiar sight and would be commonplace for many years to come. The men often faced a hostile reception in pubs, clubs and restaurants too where they were confronted with considerable discrimination, xenophobia and racism - there were even some churches that barred entry to anyone black. Several labour unions refused to enrol black workers as members, or imposed strict limits on the numbers of their black membership.
As the numbers of Caribbean immigrants grew, so did the incidence of racist clashes with xenophobic white youths, encouraged to believe that, by their willingness to work for lower wages, black people were taking their jobs. This hostility inevitably led to the clustering of Caribbeans in certain areas (the ghetto is hardly a new concept) partly to generate a sense of communal safety but also to create more familiar and convivial surroundings where black immigrants could feel more at home and less out of place. While work in post-War Britain was indeed plentiful, it is the case that black men and women were often obliged to accept low-paid work or work that native Brits didn’t want. The statistics are not precise, but it is estimated that the number of Caribbean immigrants grew from about 15,000 in 1951 to around 173,000 in 1961 but that once the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed, in 1962, the rate of migration from the Caribbean slowed considerably. Nevertheless, those who had already settled continued to contribute to every sphere of life and work in the capital and in many other major cities; society benefitted in virtually every field and Caribbean migration was certainly instrumental in shaping our contemporary cities.
I was kindly invited to south-east London and the comfortable home of Carol Lewis and her 23-year old son, Mylori Lewis-Sobers, to hear their particular story. Carol has a large family and photographs of her relatives both decorate the walls and adorn most flat surfaces in the house. Though these days, Carol only shares her home with her son, her house is filled with images of several generations of family members, all of whom are obviously close to her heart. A formidable personality, Carol has both a sharp mind and an almost instinctive kindness towards other people, a frame of mind no doubt honed by having attended to thousands of patients during a long career in one of the most trying areas of healthcare. But the years have certainly not dented her compassion and she still very much loves the work she does.
While not a native Londoner - Carol was born and grew up in Sheffield - she has now lived in London for most of her life and can quite rightly claim to be a Londoner. I ask her to tell me something about herself and her parents. “Both my parents are Jamaican, and both were of humble, working-class origins. Ours was a large family, with six daughters and three sons; I was the latecomer, the last child. My father, a trained carpenter and joiner, came over to the UK in 1960, where he settled in Sheffield, sharing a house with a relative. His original plan was to stay there for five years, work as hard as he could, and send money back to support his family, but I don’t think separation suited them and after a year, my mother came over and joined him in Sheffield. She was a trained nurse so finding a job in a local general hospital was no problem at all.”
While their parents established themselves in Yorkshire, the children were cared for by their grandparents, coming over to the UK in stages, as and when circumstances permitted. Father had to go where the jobs were and sometimes spent extended periods working away from home, while Mother raised her family during the day and worked as a hospital nurse during the night. Doreen, Carol’s older sister to whom I spoke over the phone, remembers her parents discussing the prospect of one day ‘going home’, ie back to Jamaica. Apparently, they even acquired some land there but, like with many first-generation immigrants, their plans never quite materialised.
I asked Carol what kind of childhood she’d had: “Milan, the only way to describe it is to tell you it was the best; I really had a happy start in life. My mother was strict but always fair and I don’t ever remember being told off by my father at all, he was not a disciplinarian. We were a large family so there were always little frictions and differences between us, but us children arguing amongst ourselves was never tolerated.”
“I went to Park Hill Primary school in Sheffield and I liked it there because I felt it gave me some freedom. Our mother was a working mother, as was the case in lots of Caribbean families, so we all had to share in the domestic chores, and we all took our share of the housework that had to be done. We had to be at home and in bed at a certain time, and we all had to follow the house rules so, compared with being home, being at school gave me a greater sense of freedom. I also felt that I was not being watched over all the time and, while there were rules in the school too, these were different. As you can imagine, there were not many black kids in the school in those days but I was never concerned about it and never really felt that I was any different from the other kids.”
Carol progressed to Hurlfield Secondary School but there she struggled a bit, suffering from dyslexia which, at that time, was rarely identified or recognised as requiring special support. She did make progress, but her confidence in her own ability to learn had been dented and this was a handicap for many years to come. Asked how she coped with puberty and all the stresses and strains of becoming a teenager, Carol continues: “Thankfully, my mum was always my best friend, she was my best companion, and she remained at the centre of my world right up until the day she died! But yes, being a teenager was certainly a time full of confusion and I would freely admit that I became a young woman well before I fully understood all of what that meant - lessons at school on ‘the birds and the bees’ came a bit too late for me,” Carol laughs.
“After school, I didn’t have a clue about what sort of work I should do. My mother was a nurse and so was one of my older sisters, so there was some pressure on me to become a nurse too, but I feared that my dyslexia might hinder my training too much - I just didn’t have the self-confidence. Instead, I had a succession of short-term jobs in Sheffield. I also very much wanted to visit my grandparents in Jamaica for the first time and, in order to do that, I had to save up quite a bit of money. I therefore joined one of my sisters in London, worked really hard as a hotel chambermaid, and saved up enough to be able, at the age of 21, to disembark from a plane in Jamaica.”
“This was my first flight, my first trip abroad, and my fist visit to the land of my parents! Milan, I was equally excited and scared but, almost instantly, I had the feeling that I’d arrived home. I felt at peace. Though I’d just arrived, I almost felt that I belonged there, that I was amongst my own people. It was deeply moving, immensely reassuring, to see so many faces just like mine. Remember, Milan, I had grown up in Sheffield where the overwhelming majority of people were white. While my parents had not brought us up to feel that we were somehow different, once I was in Jamaica, I suddenly felt at home, even though Jamaica wasn’t my home, really. However, for me, it was a sort of awakening about who I am, my waking black consciousness, I suppose. We saw lots of places on that beautiful island; we visited lots of relatives; we explored far and wide; but then, after six wonderful weeks, it was time to return to my real home, to England.”
Carol returned to London and continued working in hotels until, that is, romance blossomed and she became a mother herself. She then concentrated on raising her first son until he started school, at the age of five. She lived in Brixton, on the Stockwell Park Estate which, in years gone by, was seen as one of London’s no-go council estates. A lot of undesirables certainly seemed to have gathered there but a team of residents got together and determined not to let these reprobates get the better of the decent, law-abiding residents. Carol was a founder member of this team and, together with Julie Fawcett MBE and others, they stood up to the troublemakers and gradually succeeded in driving them away or neutralising their influence. The creation of a Community Centre for the estate was instrumental to this change; it can only be described as transformational, and it continues to play a pivotal role in that community even today.
Carol also returned to education, attending Brixton College where she gained qualifications in Social Care, together with the necessary additional modules in Nursing. These qualifications enabled her to secure employment for 13 years as a nurse in the prestigious Harley Street Clinic, where much of the time she worked in the challenging Oncology Department. “My time at the Clinic was both fulfilling and taxing. It was rewarding because you met people at what was probably the worst time in their lives. Most of the patients there felt that they’d probably reached the end of the road and, while nowadays there are more cures than deaths from cancer, I somehow got more emotionally attached to those patients who were not expected to pull through. However, after all those years of what was very emotionally draining work, I felt I just had to get off this punishing merry-go-round for a while, so I left and moved into agency work.”
Time was certainly flying by and Carol’s second son had already grown up into a fine young man. Seven years ago, the two of them moved away from the Brixton estate and into their present home. Carol continues to work as a healthcare professional, but as she now works for an agency, she gets work placements all over London. “I enjoy my work immensely. I like working with people and, at the end of a long day, I can go home knowing that I have done something worthwhile, helped someone, comforted someone, made that little difference to someone else’s life. I am still a trustee of Brixton’s Stockwell Park Community Trust and in many ways I still miss living there; it was a community that I had helped to build and I still have lots of dear friends living there.”
Around 1980, there were turbulent times ahead for Brixton. Numerous industrial disputes coupled with a serious recession brought about a period of very high unemployment, especially affecting London’s black population. The resulting poverty, racism and some aggressive local policing led to the Brixton Riots of 1981 and 1985, disturbances that will be remembered in the locality for a long time. Not only was there huge damage to property but the whole community felt blighted. What emerged very clearly, however, was that the local black population had had enough, that they were no longer willing to be treated as third-class citizens, expected to bear the brunt of every economic reversal.
The highly influential Scarman Report, published following Lord Scarman’s groundbreaking enquiry into the riots, clearly identified racial discrimination as one root cause but it also highlighted how the ‘racial disadvantage’ experienced by black youngsters was another underlying motivation for the riots. Lord Scarman argued cogently and passionately for urgent action to be taken if the destabilisation of all society was to be prevented but, despite his insightful report, the Joint Campaign Against Racism was obliged to report over 20,000 attacks on immigrants during 1985 alone. This was intolerable.
I asked Carol about her own experience of racism: “My parents never talked openly about the discrimination that I expect they experienced, so perhaps I was sheltered from it and, happily for me, I therefore knew little about racism until I became an adult myself. It may seem strange but I was not even aware that I had colour issues; I didn’t feel, or didn’t see myself, as different from anyone else. It was only when I came down to London that I was first called a “nigger”, by a white person on the Tube. I was called “gorilla” so often that I wanted to ask if they couldn’t think of something more original! Ironically, nothing like this ever happened to me in provincial Sheffield.”
I went on to ask Carol if she felt that things had changed, that they were better now; without the least hesitation, she responded: “NO, Milan, and I don’t think they ever will be. I am always seen as a black person first, even now. Institutional racism and explicit discrimination may be outlawed these days and people are much more careful what they say, but every black person will tell you that little has really changed. Mind you, what has changed is that we don’t stay silent any more; these days black people stand up for themselves, though that means they sometimes get labelled as being aggressive!”
“So, if anything has changed, it’s me: I still don’t see colour, I was never brought up to see it, and I haven’t taught it to my own children. I don’t stereotype people either; instead, I always strive to see the broader picture of life and I don’t dwell on trivia. I deliberately don’t watch much TV, I don’t follow the news fanatically, and I choose to opt out of many things that I consider irrelevant, aggravating and irritating, things that I’m not able to influence. I now mostly live in my own world; I share it only with my son, and I try to exclude from it all the things that I cannot manage or change.”
We were in the middle of one of the many heated discussions about Brexit, so I asked Carol how she felt about our imminent exit from the EU and whether she had noticed any particular way in which the Black community had been affected. “I have not really noticed any special increase in racism, as such. What I have noticed is that people in the black community are emphasising more forcefully the fact that they are black; they are now showcasing more readily, saying what black people have done for this country, how much they have contributed, how many ways they have changed England for the better, how many businesses they run and the jobs they create. I have the distinct impression that black people are now louder precisely because of the hostility they see directed towards all foreigners, since Brexit. Milan, I am Caribbean, I am black, and I might be perceived as an outsider, but England is where I was born; this is my country and when we ‘get our country back’, as they say, I am definitely staying here, I’m not going anywhere!”
The Caribbean influence on London is omnipresent: the Notting Hill Carnival, a grand celebration of Caribbean culture, is now the largest street festival in Europe; traditional Caribbean dishes have become standard UK fare and influenced our street food; Caribbean dialects and accents have entered into the mainstream British vernacular, especially amongst the young; and black filmmakers, musicians, choreographers, television presenters, writers, poets and other media personalities and artists are highly visible in the capital and are undoubtedly influential in shaping the city’s cultural landscape. And then there are the black athletes, cricketers, footballers, boxers, and so many more.
It may all have started with the Slave Trade, with the British colonisation of the Caribbean, of Africa, and many other parts of the world, the imperialism on which much of British prosperity was originally built, but Caribbean people were invited to these islands to help reconstruct them after the War and no longer were they to be treated like slaves. Neither do they see themselves any more as outsiders: they are an essential element in the alloy from which this great, world city has been forged; they are proud of what they have contributed; and they will no longer suffer in silence.
Carol wanted to add a postscript to her fascinating story: “Milan, I’m speaking to the younger generation of Caribbean families, growing up in London, who have been fortunate enough to be brought up in a diverse and multicultural society; I say to them: ‘Do not forget your traditions, it’s what makes us Caribbean; it’s our job to pay it forward to the present generation of children, remembering the land we stand on and the dirt we must grow from. We stand on the shoulders of our forefathers who paved the way for us to live free, so stand tall and look deep … we are amazing! Just being black!’”
Text edited: 8th April 2018.
Page modified: 17th March 2019