Floella Benjamin on coming to England
I am very much part of the Windrush generation because I came to Britain from Trinidad as a 10-year-old in 1960. Many of my childhood experiences in that new culture and unbelievably hostile environment, were character building. They gave me the tools and fortitude to become the person I am today. Often people ask me why I chose the alliterative title of Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, when I was ennobled. Well it’s a tribute to my mum and here’s why.
I remember at least a dozen police officers stood poised by the ‘For Sale’ sign at the gate of the house my mother, accompanied by her six children were viewing. The neighbours had rung 999 saying black people were stealing the fixtures and fittings from the empty house in white middle class Beckenham. Thankfully the first policeman on the scene was sympathetic, he was married to a black woman and explained this kind of thing happened all the time. He waved his eager colleagues away, saying it was a false alarm.
My wonderful, determined and charismatic mother defiantly folded her arms across her ample bosom, stared at the group of neighbours who stood watching and said loudly, 'We are going to buy this house'. She and my dad lived there for 40 years until she died of bowel cancer, which is why I am patron of Bowel Cancer UK.
My mother, Marmie as we called her, oozed wisdom and courage. She was a great motivator and gave us so much confidence. Every day she told us ‘Education is your passport to life’. She believed that if we lived in a middle class area we would get the best schooling, health care and jumble sales! Suffice to say after much abusive behaviour, most of neighbours moved out, except the Polish family next door, who had had the same treatment bestowed upon them when they moved in. Oh how my life has changed since then in such a positive way.
Because that was in 1965 and ten years before that a chain of events meant life changed dramatically. The first eight years of my childhood were spent nurturing my identity in a country where I was a person, not a colour. But suddenly life took an unexpected and traumatic turn. My adventurous, philosophical father, Dardie, who was a talented jazz saxophonist, was becoming frustrated with the music scene in Trinidad where he found it hard to play the kind of music he loved.
Adverts frequently appeared in newspapers inviting Caribbeans to travel to England to help re-build the war ravaged country. He had heard stories that the streets were paved with gold and good money could be made playing in jazz bands. He saw this as a perfect opportunity to further his musical ambitions, as well as earning enough money to support his family. But Marmie, was not too happy with this idea, especially as part of the plan was to leave her children behind in Trinidad with family friends. Eventually Dardie decided to go to England alone and follow his dream of becoming a jazz musician, the plan was he would send for us all later.
We weren't too unhappy about him going because we still had Marmie and she poured love into us every day, something every child needs when they are growing up. School in Trinidad was formal but rewarding, the teachers were strict, no one ever answered them back and lateness was not tolerated. We would line up in the playground each day and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ because we were told we were British and part of the Motherland. We were taught British history and literature but nothing about our own African heritage, of how our ancestors were transported across the ocean as enslaved people. About the brutally inhumane treatment they had to endure. But at that time it didn’t matter, because it gave us a sense of pride, of belonging, we were brainwashed to believe that we were valued.
After Dardie had found work and a place to live he sent for Marmie and my two youngest siblings, Cynthia and Roy. This was the day our lives changed and my happy, carefree world fell apart.
Marmie had sworn she would never leave us, but she was persuaded by Dardie to join him leaving me, my sister Sandra and two brothers Lester and Ellington with the most cruel, wicked foster parents. It turned out to be 15 months of the darkest days of my life. Many children at that time were left behind in the Caribbean and did not see their parents again for years, leaving them with lasting emotional scars. My siblings and I all suffered harsh treatment, which still lives in our hearts to this day… that’s why I always say ‘Childhood lasts a lifetime’ and I have devoted my life to making a difference to children’s lives.
We rejoiced when the letter arrived from Marmie, bringing the long awaited news that we were going to be a united family again in England. Our epic two week journey, four unaccompanied children, sailing 4000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, was a daunting but exciting voyage of discovery. However when we arrived at Southampton we realised our pretty colourful dresses, thin shirts and shorts were no protection from the freezing morning drizzle. But Marmie was waiting for us on the quayside, gazing up at us like an angel and thank goodness she had brought some warm clothes for us.
My first impression of England was the myriad greens of the fields and trees as the train chugged towards London. Eventually they were replaced by grim looking buildings shrouded in fog. Waterloo Station was a thronging mass of rush hour commuters, the men in bowler hats, carrying umbrellas, the women in dark blue, grey or black coats. It was all so disorientating, but more was to come as Marmie led us down the terrifying escalators to the tube train. By the time we arrived at our new home, 1 Mayfield Avenue, Chiswick, we were well and truly traumatised.
But the final blow was the realisation that all eight of us were to share one small room in a house full of other tenants, with a communal outside toilet. And even worse was to come, because at school and on the streets we were subjected to humiliation, violence and racist bullying. I remember crying with disappointment and thinking of ways to escape back to the sun.
Then as winter set in something magical happened... snow arrived. I remember waking on a freezing morning, the smell of the paraffin heater still lingering in the air. The room was filled with a strange eerie, white light. I climbed out of bed, wiped the condensation from the window and there it was, a pure dazzling blanket of snow. I will never forget that feeling, especially how it seemed to obliterate the greyness and depression that had enveloped me in my new homeland. I had fallen in love with snow and the joy of nature filled my heart.
But life still remained a struggle. Every day was a battle and whenever I left the safety, comfort and security of my loving home knowing I would have to face insults and abuse, from adults and children alike, as I walked the streets. When Marmie sent me shopping I knew the person behind the counter would ignore me, as though I was invisible and serve customers behind me in the queue. There was no question of going home without the shopping because my mum would say ‘Go back to the shop until they serve you’. That taught me resilience, persistence and determination.
It was during one of those encounters that I had what can only be described as my first spiritual moment. I was 14 and had fought with what I called ‘the enemy’ almost every day since I had arrived in Britain. I was walking to the shops when a boy around my age started verbally abusing me. My usual reaction was to go on the offensive, as I just couldn’t stand the injustice of being racially targeted. I grabbed the lolly he was sucking and shoved it down his throat and he started to choke. But then I heard an ethereal voice in my head and it said ‘Floella, stop it… stop it now. You know who you are, you know your Marmie and Dardie love you, start respecting yourself too. You can’t change the colour of your skin and if this boy has a problem with the colour of your skin, it’s his problem, not yours. Start loving yourself Floella’.
That was a moment of enlightenment. I pulled the lolly from his throat and said ‘Yes, so what!’ It was then I stopped fighting with my fists and started fighting with my brain. That was the day I learnt to smile at adversity, which made me stronger and I’ve been smiling ever since.
My story is similar to many of my generation whose parents answered the call and left for a better life in the ‘Motherland’. Children who had to suffer in silence, carrying the huge burden of rejection, living with the hope that life would get better, although sadly for many it never did. An indirect consequence of this was family life broke down and we are still seeing the effects today after seventy years.
When we first arrived in England we had no access to a garden, which made my mother very sad as she was a great natural gardener. She was so proud of her garden back in Trinidad and as soon as we moved into the house in Beckenham, she set about creating one. This year she would have been thrilled because, for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I created a ‘Windrush Garden’, to celebrate the Windrush arrival 70th anniversary... And it won a Gold Medal... Who would have thought!
It wasn’t easy though, because two years ago I set about trying to raise sponsorship for the garden. But like the majority of the nation, most of the companies I approached knew hardly anything about the Windrush or the history behind it, so I wasn’t having much success. Fortunately Birmingham City Council came to my rescue. They backed the idea and began work on the fabulous design for the garden, which the RHS loved and supported wholeheartedly.
The purpose of the garden was to represent the vibrancy of the Caribbean, the epic sea voyage and to symbolise the contribution and influence Caribbean people have had on British life. I had wanted my garden to be seen as a celebration and acknowledgement of this part of our history and a legacy for future generations.
Then all of a sudden Windrush became a huge media story! It was catapulted into the headlines and overnight the British public became aware of the sacrifices and emotional torment the Windrush pioneers went through and the shameful treatment some were receiving.
In Parliament I had suggested a ‘Windrush Day’ but was told it wasn’t needed, because we have a ‘Black History Month’ but that’s missing the point. The arrival of the ship in Tilbury in 1948 is a focal point of great magnitude for the Caribbean diaspora. Yes we all know African and Caribbean people have been present in Britain for centuries, but the Windrush arrival marked a turning point, when Caribbeans came here to help re-build Britain, to work in the transport system, factories and the newly created NHS. So for those who to had to overcome so much adversity, it has great significance.
On arrival they were treated abominably, which in many ways, was due to the lack of information put out by the Government of the day, explaining why Caribbean people were arriving in Britain in such numbers. The most poignant memory many Windrush pioneers have, as they searched for accommodation, were the signs saying, ‘No coloureds, no Irish and no dogs’. But they bore the insults with dignity and resolve.
I am proud to say my pleas were answered and this year the government announced that 22nd June will now be an annual Windrush Day. But even more significantly the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has asked me to Chair a Windrush Commemoration Committee, to create a permanent memorial as a legacy to the Windrush Generation and I can’t wait to get started. I have always campaigned for equality and fairness when it comes to cultural diversity. It started back in 1970s when I was told by a television producer it wasn’t realistic to have Black and Asian people playing professional characters in dramas. I knew that was not the case and it became my mission to change that perception in everything I got involved in. I persuaded the producer of Playschool to have diverse representation in the illustrated stories on screen, as well as getting publishers to reflect diversity in their publications, especially in their picture books. Because I believe children needed to see themselves illustrated in stories to make them feel worthy, as though they belong and part of our great country. Despite being told over the last 44 years to back off, shut up or you’ll never work again, I still continue to campaign in the hope that society will grasp what I call the elusive ‘diversity nirvana’ concept. It’s a struggle but I will never give up until my last breath.
Twenty-five years ago I was the Chair of Women of the Year Lunch, back when its founder, the late great Tony Lothian was President. She was my friend and mentor who showered me with so much love, encouragement and advice. She was a phenomenal campaigner, a visionary and fighter for justice, equality and freedom. She would have been appalled by the recent treatment of some of the Windrush Generation. But also delighted that out of the scandalous revelations has come enlightenment, appreciation and understanding amongst the public of the Windrush story and recognition of the part played by those pioneers.
I often look heavenwards and imagine Marmie sitting looking down on this chaotic world and sending me messages in the form of white feathers, which I frequently find at my feet when I need strength and inspiration.
My latest mantra is, ‘Progress doesn’t always take us forward’. So as we rush blindly towards an uncertain future I hope and pray there are visionaries like Marmie amongst us. Inspirators who with sheer determination and force of character, will guide us along the path of common sense, togetherness and reason, and save this environmentally wounded, materialistic and socially unbalanced world from destruction, for the sake of our children.
Photographs courtesy of Floella Benjamin.