Themes and Interviews
It is widely accepted that written historical records often reflect the interests and viewpoints of established authorities, those who have privilege and power. Governments, academics and the media have a public voice and status that means what they say about historical events is easily heard and readily accepted. Oral history practice challenges this. By recording the memories of those who directly experienced the past, it creates a space in the historical record for ordinary people, whose voices might otherwise remain unheard.
Oral history methods were central to our research. Immigration is often talked about in negative terms and those who have migrated to the UK can be marginalised and unheard. An oral history approach to our work gave some of those who have migrated and settled in Bexley an opportunity to speak for themselves.
Histories of migration become more democratic and much more useful with the addition of personal stories from those directly involved.
The project set out to preserve heritage and raise awareness amongst the wider community. We hope Minding Histories preserves the heritage of those involved and raises awareness among the wider community.
MIGRATION: FROM THERE
People migrate from one country to another for many different reasons. Some of the participants chose to come to the UK, hoping for opportunities to work for a better life.
I got a little letter… saying… we’d like you to come to the UK, for some UK training… for couple of years. How do you feel about that? So I said oh, marvellous, I mean, chance of a lifetime… I was very excited…I thought… oh gosh I’ve actually got a chance to go to the UK now, and see the Queen and all the rest of it. Mr. Windsor, from Burma, who arrived in the UK on Valentine’s Day, 1957.
Mr. Sian moved from the Punjab, India to live in Erith in September 1960. His wife and children joined him five years later. He said he came:
Mostly for the good life and money… Healthy life. Because, no much progress in India… I feel inside me I must do something and, that’s when I left home… To make a better life for my children.
Mr D from Ireland who arrived in 1984 recalls the pressures of leaving home in search of employment opportunities.
I remember I used to think I want to go home from here but I kept going because there were no jobs back home and also I didn’t want to go back as a failure.
Others were forced to leave their homes as they fled war and persecution. They came here in search of peace and safety.
We were the backdrops of Idi Amin, lost children should I sayour parents wanted to find a new way of life in the United Kingdom and they were hoping that it’d be better way of life than Uganda, the atrocities, the violence and everything, so we left all that and we came to a country where’s there no violence on that scale at all.
Mr Patel, who was born in Kampala and brought up in Thamesmead.
Many of those we interviewed spoke of suffering loss and trauma in the events that led to their migration.
I didn’t want to come because I was doing very well as a teacher in Uganda but… many people I knew were killed or they fled the country as well. I have seen people being shot dead right in front of me. So it was dangerous. It was dangerous… Asians were given three months to leave and 13th November 1972 was the deadline date…people just left their stuff behind and camewe lost a lot of precious things.
Mrs Babraa, Ugandan Asian.
When I came here, I came here as a person who is looking for asylum, to be allowed to stay in this country for the purpose of mere survival… The ’83 riots in July 23rd came about which was a shocking environment… people who you thought of as your neighbours and friends were seen as killers and looking…to kill you, so we had to hide and crawl through the bushes and run away…I felt the real fear of cold sweat…to see what, ten people coming with torches and knives and guns towards your home looking for you. That was an experience that I think nobody should undergo. That was a real life threatening experience… That will affect somebody for life
Mr Anandraja who fled the anti-Tamil attacks from Sinhala mobs that began in Sri Lanka on July 23, 1983.
….TO HERE: JOURNEY AND ARRIVAL
Whether it is by choice or necessity, migration from one country to another is invariably an emotional event.
“I was so excited about leaving I was unprepared for the emotions I felt because in those days you felt, when you left Trinidad to go to England, it was if you weren’t coming back, it was…so many miles away. It was a one-way ticket…I remember sitting on the plane and eating nothing all the way to England and crying and getting to England and not sleeping and missing my family.”
Anon, Trinidad. Came to study as a nurse in 1974.
The journey represents a significant transition, from a familiar place and way of life to something new and uncertain.
“In the plane, we still had trouble with knife and fork and things like that. We get by, two hand…I laughing now, people [were] laughing on us because we can’t use knife and fork, so we start, with hand…I didn’t feel ashamed. Because it was a new life to us”
Mr Sian, India.
Our participants commonly told us that their first impressions of Britain did not match with their expectations:
“everyone warned us you’ll be disappointed when you see London, because it’s not the same London you dreamed of!”
Mrs Rashid, Bangladesh.
Mrs Windsor, from Burma also spoke with us about the England she had imagined until her arrival in April 1957:
“Well I had, my main ideas about England from school and from picture postcards I always thought it would be lovely, thatched cottages with beautiful gardens. But when I came and we saw the reality it was a big shock you could see smoke belching out of chimneys, there was fog in the winter and it was freezing cold”
The physical environment was not the only source of surprise, as one interviewee told us who had grown up in Tanzania, East Africa:
“I mean my first…strange thing [was] driving from the airport and seeing white people digging the roads and doing the menial tasks that the Africans used to I can remember nudging my sister in the coach and saying ‘Oh gosh look at that!’ because it was just a sight we had never see the English and the Europeans who came there [Tanzania] had very exclusive jobs digging the roads was an African job for an African person. So yes, that was my first ever impression, when I was coming in on the coach from Heathrow.” Anon.
ADAPTING TO A NEW CULTURE
Project participants shared stories that highlighted the struggles involved in adjusting to a new and sometimes contrasting culture. The ability to communicate in English was often identified as key to successfully settling here:
“if you live in water you must know how to swim. So if you live in a country where English is the language, unless you can speak in English, you are socially excluded that’s simple as that. That’s what we thought.”
Anon, Bangladesh. His wife provides English classes to Bangladeshi women
Many told us that learning the unspoken language of social etiquette, norms and customs could also be bewildering. British styles of interaction seemed alien to many of our interviewees and people reported feelings of isolation.
“In the East, people always smiled and spoke to you and you could visit people without having an appointment you were always welcome to a cup of tea But here I suppose it was because of the weather mpeople tended to live within their own little family unit.”
Mrs Windsor, Burma.
“I was really yearning for a bit of recognition maybe a little bit of encouragement or comfort Because I was feeling terribly homesick to begin with, the whole experience of coming to the UK was overwhelming to say the least I just wanted a bit of reassurance but I didn’t get it in the church and I was terribly disappointed.”
Mr Windsor, from Burma.
At the same time as they worked hard to adapt to life in Britain, many interviewees kept in touch with their self-identity and cultural heritage through food and clothing.
“There was only one shop Patak’s which is now a big name and that was in Drummond Street, quite close to where I was working in High Holborn, It was only a grocer’s, not a restaurant. We had an office newsletter where I was working and we would write recipes using Patak spices.”
Mr Babraa who came to London to study architecture in 1957.
“now you can get almost anything you want in London. I remember when I first came there were hardly any sari shops. We used to go to John Lewis and buy material by the yard. Chiffon, you know.”
Mrs Westcombe, born in Calcuttta in 1945, arrived in the UK in 1972.
“we try to keep our culture and of course I cook Albanian food, but you know the children go to school, have school dinner or packed lunch … it’s different, they sometimes want to change it and we change it. Mix it! Mix the culture”
Anon, moved from Tirana, Albania in 1998.
RACISM AND DISCRIMINATION
Interviewees recalled experiences of racial abuse, violence and discrimination. Racism appeared in all areas of life and took different forms. Several interviewees spoke of the hostility they encountered as they looked for accommodation:
“You see in those days it was open people would say, quite straight, if they advertised, no coloured, no children and we had an added thing – no Gentiles, you see, in a Jewish area. So we had all sorts of things to contend with. I’d get to a place and before I’d get there I’d ‘phone they couldn’t probably tell from the voice…As soon as I turn up, bang, they’d slam the door in my face.”
Mr Windsor on his search for accommodation in London in the 1950’s.
“the person I was going to buy the house off, said to me, ‘I told a neighbour that a black woman was buying the house and he said, Oh why are you selling it to a black person?’ He [the vendor] said, ‘No, no she’s nice, she’s really nice, she’s a nurse and she’s really nice.’ But when he said that in such a blase manner, does he understand the gravity of what he just said?”
Others told us of prejudicial and racist treatment in the workplace.
“There was discrimination, the first discrimination was with us, who came from a Sikh family. I had to cut my hairs and shave and everything, and then I got the job, otherwise they were not giving the job with turbans… My hair was up to here…I was very, very disappointed…but I could not get a job…so… I said alright.”
Mr Hothi, who came from the Punjab, India in 1963.
“…a few years ago I had to take one of my employers to tribunal for discrimination and racism…I came through that experience because the people who supported me was the Council for Racial Equality…I couldn’t prove it because people like the doctor who knew it had happened…and had been subjected to racism decided that she wasn’t going to give evidence because she was from Sri Lanka, she said I want to stay employed by them, I know what will happen. I met her years later in a clinic…and she said…what I had complained about then, she was still experiencing it..”
Participants remembered verbal abuse at school:
“…The common thing was…’You’re a Paki kid, get out,’ and things like that and first of all obviously when we were little we came to accept it but sometimes…you didn’t accept it and you end up having a fight over it…the teachers explained to me, as you grow older you’re going to find this on a daily basis…you can’t have a fight with everyone every day so you just have to…control yourself and just walk away from things, that’s what we’ve learnt…we’ve learned to walk away from things as much as we can.”
Mr. Patel, a Ugandan Asian.
Others told of attacks on family members:
“The incident that has really had impact on my life is my son, when he got beaten up. Badly, his face was swollen for three days…and nobody did anything…. Why? Why wouldn’t anybody do anything…? I keep on asking that question, it’s been two or three years now but I still ask that question…I’m here but not here, my heart is not in this country, it’s gone back to Africa.”
“…on several occasions rotten eggs were thrown, our kitchen windows were plastered with mud, all sorts of things happened but we didn’t react. In some cases I didn’t even tell the police because that would have aggravated the situation further and people realised that we were calm people. We hadn’t come here to fight them or steal their rights for ourselves.”
And on places of worship:
“…in Woolwich the Sikh temple suffered from graffiti, fire, dirt being thrown into the compound, all these things. Although the police tried to tackle it nobody found out who these people were who were doing this, so people knew that they were being targeted as a community by the white people whether they were National Front or not. That fear was there.”
In contrast, others told of the support and warmth from neighbours and the wider community.
Having been verbally assaulted in the street Mrs Westcombe recalls:
“…there was a white woman, she turned around and she said to me ‘don’t take any notice of the stupid man love’… so she kind of apologised by saying don’t take any notice of these stupid people and gave me confidence in that you know, it’s fine you are different, so what.”
Another woman reflected on the positive impact of moving to the UK:
“…it was only when I came here that I started reflecting and realised that the African wasn’t beneath us and we were all the same and that it is something that England taught me. Which is unusual, isn’t it, when you think about it…of course I was still young but…it was England that made me realise that we had to accept all different nationalities.”
Impact on Mental Health And Well-Being
The processes of economic and forced migration may expose individuals to a range of stressful experiences, which may have a negative impact on their mental well-being.
The move to a new country away from family, friends and support networks can be an isolating experience.
“I struggled hugely when I came here. Really, really struggled. I was lost and isolated…such a huge city not like back home where it was small and everyone knew each other and talked and the community was small and very close…you know. Yeah, I’d really hate going back and closing the door to my bedsit… The loneliness…it made me very sad and depressed and it was very hard.”
Reflects Mr D, Ireland.
Loneliness and isolation was a reoccurring theme:
“It was difficult…I felt very lonely….when [my husband] went off to work, I just had [my young daughter]. So I used to take her to the local parks and just sit there…and put her on the swings and roundabouts…that’s how I spent my leisure time…nobody spoke to me and I didn’t really expect them to.”
Mrs Windsor, Burma.
Without English language skills a person can have difficulty expressing their needs or forming relationships.
Mr Sian describes the problems his Indiancolleagues faced without the language:
“…if they work with…Indian people they alright…but if they work with the English people, they all get depressed… If you can’t understand, can’t talk each other, it’s very difficult to pass your time. Twelve hour shifts you have to work, without speaking the word, it’s very, very…difficult...”
The new physical environment can take its toll:
“…we couldn’t get accommodation so we lived in a kind of bedsit and that was very difficult compared to the houses we lived in Africa… I remember my sister didn’t talk for a week because she was so shocked that we had to live in this room.”
Anon. Describing the first few months after leaving Tanzania.
“I will tell you what happened the first few weeks when I came, it was the worst winter we had for 80 something years…those days we had all the smog and the fog it was awful, really awful. The first morning I got up I started crying I said what am I doing here? Why am I here? Let’s get back home.”
Councillor Persaud who arrived from Guiana in 1962.
Loss of status at work can impair confidence and a person’s sense of self.
“You see, in the beginning stages it was a bit difficult to have worked as a production executive in a multi-national company and working here to carry bottles over your shoulder, it has been a bit of a difficulty because I was not used to that sort of physical work at that time for one thing, second thing is the status symbol…”
Mr Anandraja, Sri Lanka.
Prejudice can have wide-ranging consequences for health and well-being:
“…On the door was a sign: ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ it’s hurtful.”
Mr King MBE from Jamaica, a former resident of Bexley and Mayor of Southwark.
“…if you’re treated as inferior…whether intentionally or unintentionally…it sort of gets into your psyche….you…start thinking, hang on, perhaps I am not as good as the next guy…”
Mr. Windsor, Burma
“…I was off sick for months and went back to work and was crying at work… This was my first experience of something like that in all the years I’d lived in England… It was harrowing, it was awful, I tried to stay and work…but…I got very depressed, it was my first experience of depression like that…”
Anon, from Trinidad, suffered racism in the workplace.
In some circumstances it can cause extreme mental distress with devastating consequences
“…I was walking down John Ruskin street one evening with some Scottish friends…and these two English guys, 18 19, 20 years, who were very drunk and stoned out, started arguing for no reason and stabbed me in the stomach for no reason shouting F… Off Irish B… I ended up in hospital for two months with lots of problems and suffered very badly afterwards in terms of mental health. The police never got them and it left me scarred…I’ve never really got over it. It was 1987.”
Mr D from Ireland shares a life changing experience.
In some cases the political climate impacted on people’s sense of security, heightened by the presence of the National Front Headquarters in Welling.
One participant describes a friend’s experience:
“…I remember he had to go and pick up his son by car from Welling station, even though it was walking distance just because of the fear that he would have to go past the National Front head office and there could be trouble. And it created a kind of fear, you never knew when a brick would hit the window or the front door of your house, or in what disguise they could be.”
Mrs Babraa, Ugandan Asian.
Other Bexley residents remember:
“They were threatening, they were around, in Belvedere in the pubs and if there was an Indian they would have trouble with them, on the road as well. You see, that I was feeling sometimes when I see that, we are hard-working and not any grudge or anything with others, why are they doing such like things?”
Mr Hothi from the Punjab, India.
“I went a couple of times protesting ’cos I was living in Plumstead then. I made it my duty to say to the leader of the Labour Party if we get control of Bexley council the first thing I want to see is to close their offices…and we did it. We did it. It’s not right. Look, we’re here on borrowed time, life is short why behave like this?
Councillor Persaud, from Guiana reflects on his own campaigning against the National Front.
Overcoming barriers and Pathways To Success
Though interviewees often spoke of the barriers they faced as they tried to adapt and settle in the UK, they also recalled their resilience and tenacity.
“My eighteen year old sister went to St Giles Hospital for a job and was refused. She was wearing Jamaican clothes. My wife was a nurse in Sidcup and said ‘you need to have the right clothes, to look like them.’ Eighteen years later my sister had trained at Queen Mary’s and had seven nursing qualifications…She applied for the Matron of St Giles and got it.”
Mr King MBE, Jamaica.
People shared memories of their drive and determination to succeed.
“Ten years I worked, not a single minute I came late or not a single day I’m off, always…ten years! I have my record, they survey one year and then they give me my certificate for my attendance, you see that I hard work, no any complaint from my workmen.”
Mr Hothi, India.
“…while I was working, I thought I better…keep myself busy. So, I started making enquiries about what qualifications I could do… To have come from more or less zero, to get… the top qualification in accountancy, was something. I mean…I say this with some…humility but also with, I suppose, pride.”
Mr. Windsor, Burma.
Others remembered their parents’ determination to provide a good life for them.
“My father worked in Ford Motor Company, and I remember him working Monday to Friday there and then Saturday, Sunday he worked as a security guard just to keep us going…at that time I couldn’t see… but having looked back…now, I know why they had to do that…it was very hard for them…they got us educated and…got businesses and…it’s because of them, this is the fruits of their labour.”
Mr Patel, Ugandan Asian, who has run a business in Thamesmead for over 30 years.
“Dad worked… for the bakery and he’d do 18 hours on the go… he’s never had a penny off the state, and my Mum worked…all the ladies in that generation worked even though they didn’t know a word of English…body language, they made do with that. They worked and they worked all their life… My Dad came here with three pounds because that was all he was allowed to bring and we are where we are through our own hard work.”
Mrs Randhawa from the Punjab, India.
Many participants reflected that their children had benefited from these efforts.
“I’m very appreciative…that…my children were able to go to the same schools as everybody else…all my children have done well…They’re nicely settled….So, we, we were like the launch pad if you like…”
Mr Windsor, Burma.
“They happy, all happy. My daughter, her MBE, last year. My son is electrical engineer. My other daughter is a…solicitor’s secretary. The other one is a work in a bank…my daughter, she write books, it’s all good, all bella. My…granddaughter university, all three university now.”
Mr Sian, India.
Ageing in Bexley
Some participants had lived in the UK for most of their lives. They were able to reflect on changes they had observed and experienced. They spoke of differences in Britain:
“…Things have changed an awful lot in this…country. People’s attitudes…have changed….We’ve found…over the years there was much more tolerance.”
Mr Windsor, Burma.
They also commented on changes in their self-identity:
“As I get older I suppose I hold my culture more … I am prouder of it than I was years ago.”
“Actually, to tell you very frankly, we feel proud to be British, we also feel proud to be of Bangladeshi origin, so there is no difference.”
Many mentioned the importance of belonging:
“…that difference of them being hosts and we being migrants are still embedded in the psyche of people around here, however much you do. That has to improve. I think the belongingness is key.”
Mr Anandraja, Sri Lanka, Director of Bexley Council for Equality and Diversity.
“I’ll always be African, the passport is just a passport...Because in my heart, I feel like I’m missing something. I feel like I don’t really belong.”
Some interviewees told us that over time they had combined elements of British culture with that of their country of origin.
“You have to accept and there has to be a compromise that you are not living in your own country you are living in another country…you have to accept the culture. I always tell people that there are positives in every culture. Take the positives.”
Mrs Westcombe, who has lived in Britain for over 40 years.
“…we think that we are actually taking the best of the both world and trying to combine them. That’s, that’s how we feel actually…”
Interviewees expressed concerns about the well-being of their parents and the older generation in general. A changing family structure affects traditional patterns of care for the elderly:
“…now what has happened is – it’s become a common practice amongst the Asians – as soon as the children get married they move out of the family home…people have started accepting it but they miss it in their old age…the thought of going into a care home frightens them.”
Worries about the future care of older members of the community were matched with concern for the well-being of younger generations.
”I want to stand up for my children…but I made them aware so they could stand up for themselves.”
Interviewees anticipated change among the next generations:
“…They don’t know any different…and maybe that’s a good thing because part of us always felt we never belonged…whereas I think for them, they just feel Britain as their country, even though prejudice might occur, they might know they’re different, they don’t have that extra, thinking this is not my country.”
Anon, of Goan descent.
Younger interviewees commented on the differences they already observed:
“…it was a lot harder. Stuff they would’ve put up with and tolerated and wouldn’t have questioned we would. Absolutely we would because we feel we’re very much a part of this community in this country, so if we felt there was any injustice against us we would have a very different reaction…”
Miss Randhawa, daughter of Mrs Randhawa.
Past lives in unknown countries can however be difficult to imagine:
“… we do the talking to the young people to tell them…how we come here…but the young people aren’t interested about that…they was born in here… when we talk about life in Vietnam…they wouldn’t understand…sometimes they don’t believe as well.”
Mrs Ly, who arrived in the UK in 1980, having fled Vietnam in a small boat.
Curiosities may emerge later:
“…they feel they are more British than Chinese, or Vietnamese but when they getting older and older they start feeling where they belong to? Where the root from? Where their parents from? From Vietnam or from China? I think that’s very normal way for people…” Mrs Ly, who co-ordinates the Chinese and Vietnamese Well-being Support Club in Bexleyheath.
Journeys ‘back home’ may be made, leading to unexpected discoveries:
“…it’s quite funny because…if you go back to a village where my grandfather is from, back in India, you can see the same people that you would see walking around the town here! And for me that was quite weird…there we are millions of miles away over in India and we’re seeing the same people in the same village and they all live in Belvedere and Erith!”