Last year, late one evening, as I walked past a local hairdressers and barbers in Brixton, an incongruous row of photographs on display in the window caught my eye.
I walked past. Stopped. Doubled-back, and viewed the pictures that they had pinned up, ready for sale. My thoughts at first glance were confirmed; they were shots of SS Empire Windrush arrivals – many characters photographed on their day of arrival in England; at Southampton docks and Waterloo Station; 21st June 1948, fresh, destined for history.
The hairdressers wanted to sell the twenty pictures off one by one. I insisted that they should not do that. Two other images were already lost to this collection, ‘taken’ by the proprietors. One was of a young black man grooming his face in a distinctly cracked, beveled-edge mirror with telltale fingerprints from the pomade or vaseline – relevant to assume, on Clapham Common. The second ‘lost’ image, was of five well-dressed young men sitting outside a tent – contemplating their next move, perhaps to the Labour Exchange to look for work, or to search for more appropriate accommodation.
Similar images of the period can largely now be found on the internet, copyright owned by Getty Images or another conglomerate photo library. Similar images, but not the same. In the hairdressers’ window, these photo-boards with tattered edges were in need of being rescued.
The proprietor of nearby shop Diverse Gifts, Anita Thorpe, was instrumental in negotiating a lower price for me to obtain the pictures as a near-complete set. She recognised the value when I phoned her bright and early the following morning, and emphasised to her that she, “should not go straight to work. First, stop at the hairdressers to make sure we secure the pictures as a collection”.
I bought them all for a king’s ransom and allowed the collection to be displayed in Diverse Gifts first. I watched the public visit the gift shop, stop, and admire the exhibition. I noted the impact as some people left the shop in tears. The pictures stirred powerful emotions, of journeys, loss, injustice, joy, childhood, migration, immigration, great expectations and the complex issues that being uprooted from one continent and transported to another entails.
Working with AgeUK Lambeth, we appealed successfully for a Windrush Day grant, using the funds to run workshops enabling intergenerational work and inspiring contributions from youngers and elders, and to have the pictures digitised and framed. We have only recently identified that the pictures are by the photojournalist Howard Grey.
In an echo of the images captured by Howard Grey, I myself arrived at Southampton much later, in 1969 – now 50 years ago, aged 10, stepping off the gangplank of a Spanish liner, the T/N Monserrat. For the record, I pulled up in the road of our new home in Peckham and verbalised the following with much innocence. “In which wing of the house is my bedroom?” – I thought the whole terrace of houses in my new road was my new home! I was soon put right. That night and for many months since I had to share a room with my older brothers sleeping head to toe, three-to-a bed. The paraffin heater with the blue glow was somehow never enough to cut through the cold. The blankets were coarse and the new smells of new old things, foreign. All the trees in London had died.
We didn’t really appreciate that my dad, a self employed builder in Jamaica, in the three years since his arrival ahead of ours, had by his own, now rough-hewn hands bought three houses – all in great need of repair, at a time in the early 1960s when no one wanted the responsibility of owning their own home in London. My dad is well, aged 98, now living in Florida, growing mangoes. writing poetry, and still designing, blessed with an active mind and body.
Beyond Mum’s initial desire to leave and return to Jamaica the very night of our arrival – we have all been working hard in England, and more recently Florida, to make a difference for ourselves and our contribution to society. Now we are builders, lawyers, teachers, and a humble receptionist/community worker. At least, on the way here to catch up with Dad, we had had the pleasure of a three-week voyage stopping in three countries straight out of Kingston – the journey was our first ever ‘holiday’.
Mum died five years ago worn out from cancer after a lifetime of love and duty to dad, myself and my six siblings. These pictures, chanced upon in the barber’s window, stir up very deep, deeply cherished memories.
Receptionist, Age UK Lambeth
See the pictures exhibited at We Are 336, 336 Brixton Road, London SW9 7AA. 18th October – 15th November 2019 during office hours alongside contributions created at the intergenerational workshops – creating Windrush Memories for a new generation.
Find out more about Howard Grey via Autograph ABP
Thanks to workshop facilitators Dr Audrey Allwood and Tony Cealy, arts practitioners who worked with a few local schools and after-school projects, and the Woodlawns Black Elders group in Streatham. I acknowledge support from all my colleagues and in particular Tom Stannard, Community Development Worker, Age UK Lambeth for spearheading this initiative.