"I Had Never Seen A Train Before!" Memories Of A Windrusher Arriving In London

By Joan Harry Last edited 11 months ago

Last Updated 07 August 2023

"I Had Never Seen A Train Before!" Memories Of A Windrusher Arriving In London

CEO of The Windrush Generation Legacy Association Charity in Croydon, Deborah Klass interviewed her mother, Joan Harry — who arrived in the English port of Southampton, on 1 September 1960 as part of the Windrush Generation, aged 21. Here are Joan's experiences of immigrating to the UK.

A 1950s/60s style living room with armchair, TVB and groovy wallpaper
Mock-up of a typical 1950s/60s Windrush living room, at the Windrush Generation Legacy Association Charity in Croydon. Image: WGLA

I never wanted to come to England! I had a good standard of living in Grenada and lots of friends and family members that I was very close to.

I had turned down two previous offers, then my mother sent me to England to stop me from marrying my nine-month-old son's dad, Michael Harry. I travelled on the Ascania in July 1960. I spent most of the journey in the sick bay, with sea sickness. I made friends with a couple from Grenville, Grenada. They looked after me throughout the journey and we became life-long friends. We had fun chatting and dancing in the cabin.

An old passport with a young Joan's photo on it
Joan's passport from when she first came to Britain in 1960.

The weather was good at Southampton. I didn't feel the cold until weeks later. In Grenada when it rained, people on their way to work would stop and take shelter; when the rain stopped they would continue on their way to work. Employers were accustomed to this and it was not a problem. When the Windrush Generation stopped on their way to work to take shelter from the rain in the UK, the employer told them 'we don't do that here!'. They would have money deducted from their wages and they would get told off. I thought it was rather unkind to expect people to walk to work in the rain. Snow was a remarkable experience. I wanted to play in it but it was too cold. I had seen snow in films but thought it was not real.

A young Caribbean couple pose with a wedding cake
Joan and Mike on their wedding day

"Finding work was easy. I arrived on a Thursday, went to the labour exchange on Friday and started work Monday"

Social workers made sure we had the right addresses and our luggage was transferred to the London train. I kept asking, 'Where is the train?'. It was right in front of us; I had never seen a train before! At Waterloo station, I was met by my sister and brother-in-law, on his motor bike. I rode pillion to 3 Harts Lane, New Cross Gate, my first home in London. There were six rooms rented in the house, with shared bathroom and kitchen. I had a room, costing £4 a week, with extra for utilities and an extra shilling depending on how long we needed gas to cook.

Finding work was easy. People would walk in and out of jobs. I arrived on a Thursday, went to the labour exchange on Friday and started work Monday. My first job was at Fields of the Old Kent Road, a cereal factory where I packed tiny boxes of raisins. Then I was accepted to train as a nurse at Ladywell hospital. I happily looked after soldiers, geriatrics and other adults. The hospital was clean, organised and I had good colleagues from Europe and the Caribbean.

a smartly dressed bus conductor holds onto the pole at the back of the bus
Donald Hinds, a bus conductor from Jamaica, 1964-67. Many Windrushers took jobs with London Transport. © TfL

I remember sitting on the bus and white people sat nearly falling off their seat, so they would not have to be close to me. They would not make eye contact and sat with their heads looking up to the sky. They were very disapproving of Black people being on the bus with them. Some of the white people would say 'it smells around here.' I never paid any mind to this. I decided I was not going to give them permission to abuse me.

Michael followed me to England in 1961 and we married. He started work in London as a bus conductor and we began planning our future. I became ill with an ectopic pregnancy and left nursing; on recovery I took a higher paid job in a coat factory in Aldgate East. My boss gave me a lot of flexibility, which I loved.

A smiling Nigerian nurse
Nigerian nurse in Brook General Hospital, London, 1958. The 1950s saw increased recruitment from the Commonwealth and Caribbean as the shortfall in nurses grew. Image: Hoxton Mini Press

"In London, people thought we were mad if we greeted people freely"

Michael and I moved in with the couple I had met on the ship. We bought our first house together, in South Norwood, and rented rooms out, until both couples were making enough to buy houses separately on the same road. Michael and I continued to rent rooms to others, as our family grew to five children; he moved to work for the Post Office, then finally opened his own business in a local office. To this day, when I pass this house, I tell the story of how hard we had to work to buy it. The stained glass in the fan light window is still in place from when we owned the house.

My second child went to a good, private nursery. I taught my other children to read before primary school. The teachers were very welcoming and I took part in school trips, and cheese and wine evenings for the parents. The secondary schools brought some issues of discrimination, around low expectations, and excessive discipline, but I soon confronted these.

A woman singing in front of a small group of people
A show at the WGLA in Croydon. Image: Jim Grover

Strangers would greet each other freely in Grenada; in London, people thought we were mad if we did that. Some English people moved away from us and were particular about mixing with us. The supermarkets had different things, but no basics, like onion, garlic or chicken. We had to search for the few ethnic or West Indian shops. In Peckham we shopped at John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and the market, which had bingo!

Croydon, where I live now, used to be like a village, but it was busy and developing. We were able to get a foundation and educate ourselves; I went back to nursing, to lift myself up and help people. Things appear to have gone backwards. Opportunities for young people to build a future and own their own property seem near impossible without a lot of help from family. It is so sad to see what Croydon has become.

Joan's daughter, Deborah, who is CEO of The Windrush Generation Legacy Association Charity in Croydon. Image: WGLA

"We began to earn respect and were no longer seen as being from 'the wilds'"

It was wonderful that we came here. I became a woman in England. We had children and benefited from, as well as contributed to, society here. Many of us have spent more of our lives, living, and working in this country than where we were born.

Windrushers contributed to the environment, improving our houses, educational high expectations for our children and creating a high standard of work ethic. We worked hard in the civil service, NHS, Post Office, London Transport, and many other industries and professions. When the indigenous people saw how much effort we put into our work, we began to earn respect and were no longer seen as being from 'the wilds'. We helped in the war and went on to help rebuilding this country.

Close up of a sideboard in 1050s/60s style - with decanters, clock, radio and groovy wallpaper behind it
Image: WGLA

I would like my generation to hand down our experiences, so younger people benefit. Knowledge is power, so they need to read. I thank God for the knowledge and wisdom he has given me. My strongest belief is ‘'forward ever, backward never.'

The Windrush Generation Legacy Association (WGLA) is a charity with a mission to ensure the rich heritage of the Windrush Generation is acknowledged as an integral part of British history and culture.