This year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which docked in London on 21 June 1948 carrying 492 passengers from the West Indies who planned on settling in the UK. The arrival of the Windrush is traditionally taken to mark the beginning of a period, lasting from 1948 to 1971, of migration from the Commonwealth to the UK – the “Windrush Generation”.
To celebrate the arrival of the Windrush and its passengers, and to mark Black History Month, we have put together the exhibition ‘Wiltshire Remembers the Windrush Generation’ to showcase the stories of some of the many West Indians who came to settle here in Wiltshire.
The exhibition draws on recollections gathered as part of the SEEME project, a Heritage Lottery funded community project where local people and organisations worked with Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Music Centre & Salisbury Playhouse to collect life story testimonies from Black, Asian & minority ethnic (BAME) elders across Wiltshire to ensure that their stories are recorded and archived for future generations.
Using these recollections it covers the story of the Windrush Generation in Wiltshire, from their reasons for leaving the Caribbean and their first impressions of the UK to their working lives and sense of identity. One of the key themes that runs through all of these areas is the relationship between the new, Black, arrivals and the existing, White, communities in Wiltshire.
For example Rollin, who came to Britain in 1956, remembered clear examples of experiencing racism at work. In particular he recalled “working with a bloke and we’re working, he's my work mate, two of us are working. And he says why don't you go back on your banana tree and all that sort of thing, and I thought why, why you have to say that, y'know? Cause it's stupid! I’d say it's so good I have a banana tree I can go back, but what did he have?”
Likewise Glenda remembered experiencing casual racism throughout her life here, even very recently. “When I first came, I remember someone asking me if we lived in trees, and if we had a tail like a monkey, and but eventually comments like that sort of tailed off. But work wise, I've had problems with work. I mean just before I retired somebody I worked with called me a "black bitch” … I experienced other prejudices, like not being encouraged to further my training … And those sort of things stay with you for such a long time, and you end up getting sort of fearful for how people are going to treat you.”
The racism that many experienced was not confined to words, either – many people we talked to remembered experiencing, witnessing or hearing of physical attacks. Even before coming to Britain in 1961, Sylvia remembered hearing “that they attack black people” in Britain. Whilst living here “I never experienced it, but people would be pushing their babies - black people would be pushing their babies in a pram and some white people would come up and spit on the baby.”
Scotch had a more direct personal experience with racial violence: “in those days there what you call Teddy boys and Angels they used to walk with bicycle chain, knuckle duster and knife and things like that, ready to fight the blacks we have to prepare ourselves to protect ourselves otherwise we wouldn't be here. My brother almost got killed where four white blokes beat him up badly.”
Not all racism was as obvious as this. Tom joined the armed forces and remembers a more subtle (relatively speaking) form of discrimination. “In those days, wherever you got posted, the first thing that would happen was you would go to the camp, hand your papers in and whoever was sitting on the other side of that desk would say ahhh, a West Indian, cricket! And I would say, I do not play cricket. And they couldn’t understand that, you know they’d continue, you guys can really play cricket, what are you, batsmen or a bowler? I do not play cricket. You really don’t play cricket? And that was it. That was me ignored for the next three months. That happened everywhere I went.”
Whilst Tom’s experience of cricket was a tool of exclusion, for others it helped to bring the community together. Bert recalled that “Where I first started off in the type of work I was doing, back in 78/79 actually, there was a police who was killed by a black man in Trowbridge. And it was underlying tension, so I formed the Cavaliers, which was made out of all black people, who played for the Cavaliers. And each year we have two cricket matches against the police, we bring the black community and the police together.”
Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.
An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.