In July 2018 the British Library interviewed Judy Griffith, who came to Britain as a child in 1963 from Barbados. She is one of many of the Windrush generation who have had their status as British citizens questioned, despite having indefinite leave to remain as a Commonwealth citizen.
This photograph of Judy Griffith was taken by Alecsandra Racula Dragoi. (© Alecsandra Racula Dragoi)
In Part One, Judy explains what has happened to her, the effect it has had and her thoughts on the government’s response. In Part Two, Judy talks about coming to Britain, the relationship between Barbados and Britain and her experiences of racism in education and employment.
This is an edited version of a longer interview.
It was 2014 and I had been made redundant. I wasn’t really that bothered about it because I've never had a problem becoming employed. I started applying for work, as anyone else would. I was interviewed successfully for three jobs but then found I couldn't take up any of them. Basically, I was told that I was an illegal immigrant, which was horror, shock, horror, shock, more horror, you know. Having lived and worked here all my life, I was like, well, something is obviously wrong. Initially I didn't really take it to heart because to me it seemed like an impossibility. I just could not get my head around it.
Even before that, I had been writing to the Home Office because I had lost my Barbadian passport through the Royal Mail, which had my stamp of indefinite leave in it. From 2005, I’d been writing backwards and forwards to these people and they kept telling me that I could not be found on their system. I kind of gave up for a while. I thought, whatever this is, it’s going to pass. But then I realised, no, this is serious now.
Where did you turn to, and what has happened since 2014?
I went to see my MP. I went to the immigration drop-in place in Hackney. I think I went everywhere. It wasn’t so much as going but it was the amount of time that you have to spend in these places. At the immigration centre in Hackney, I was there from ten in the morning till half past four in the afternoon, just for the woman to tell me, ‘No, I can’t help you. You should go to the law centre in Camden.’ By that time that was like the last resort, and thankfully I found some help there.
I think I was fortunate regarding the fact that I was not without documents. I’m what they might call a hoarder of paperwork [laughs] and I kept all my payslips from when I started work, you know, my children’s documents, antenatal clinic, all this kind of thing. I had to prove that I had been in the country before 1973. That was the stipulation. I didn't even know then that you had to supply four different pieces of identification for each year. By then my head was so out of it that I was just like, here you are. Sift through that lot [laughs], you know. I brought two sackful. We sat and went through it together and she was so pleased, the lady that helped me. Annie was her name. I'll never forget her. She was so, so, so helpful. She was pleased to see that I had documentation because by that time she had said to me that there were people coming in with the same problem, but they had like nothing.
Once I was able to submit all the documentation to the Home Office, I got the biometric permit card issued. That was another day of waiting. I went up there on the 27th of December. At that particular time of the year, they weren’t fully open, so therefore no heating, nowhere to get a drink or anything. You can’t leave the building in case they call you over the tannoy, 'cause they kept asking you different questions about the paperwork, so I literally sat there and froze. When I came out of there I was just so cold it was unbelievable. I was seriously ill for about three weeks after that. At that time I really didn't even want to hear anything mentioned to me about Windrush.
I didn't even leave there with the biometric permit. What they did give me was a letter. Well, if you can call it that. A couple of lines on a page, more or less stating that my application was valid and I would hear from them, and I should call them on such-and-such a number should I have any queries – yet there was no number given.
I started work as soon as I got the biometric card. I started work and I lost the job. I couldn't cope with what was going on. One of the easiest jobs I've ever had, and I could not pass my probation because I could not get my head around it. I didn't feel like I fit in, felt everybody knew and everybody was looking at me. Do they think it’s my fault, you know. All these kind of thoughts are going around in your head all the time, you know.
Can you describe the effect this has had on you?
The thing that was so hard for me to get my head around is the sense of loss that came with it, which I’m still feeling today.
I've just received a certificate that tells me I’m a British citizen. But it tells me I’m a British citizen from the 12th of July 2018. What's happened to all the other years? Where have they gone? I phoned the hotline and they said, no, it can’t be changed, that's it. I felt that at least somebody should have discussed it with me.
If, as they claim, they'd have no idea of the dates when people came in because of these landing papers having been destroyed, then having stipulated that we have to prove we were in the country before 1973, then put the date from 1973. I didn't drop out of the sky into this country, you know [laughs]. I just didn’t. I’m not happy about that aspect of it at all.
Is this something that you feel you can appeal about?
Well, I don’t know. Quite frankly, I’m tired. I am tired and fed up till I don't even know what to do anymore. This thing has caused me to be ill. It’s caused me to be fearful, where I was not fearful before. Great damage has been done.
I can never feel a part of this country anymore. I loved England to the point even when I went to America for a couple of weeks, to see my sister, I found myself looking on the telly for the news, to see the red buses passing, 'cause you know, you miss it. It’s home. I don't feel like that now. I don't feel it’s home anymore. I feel as if everyone is looking at me and saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ And the sad thing about it is I can’t go back to Barbados and say ‘home’ either, 'cause they're going to tell me, ‘You're a foreigner.’ ‘Oh, you've come home to defrost, have you?’ ‘English woman.’ That's what they call you. It kind of leaves you thinking, well, what now? Where now?
There's been a loss, a great loss. That's the only way I can put it. I feel the sense of it, very much, very deeply, you know. I feel as if I had something taken away from me that cannot be replaced.
I still count myself blessed because it could have been worse. When I've read of some of the stuff that many of the other people involved in this have gone through, I just have to thank God. In fact, it’s made my faith stronger. I know without a shadow of a doubt, He brought me through all those things, you know, because when I think of people being deported, locked up… How can you lock up a 60-something-year-old woman? She hasn’t committed no crime. Don't tell me it’s your job, that you're going to do something like that without even questioning it or asking anybody above you, is this legal? Is this right? I think that that has gone past disgusting. It’s a good thing that God has preserved me and preserved me from that because that would not have gone easy with any of us. They would have really had to lock me up, in prison-prison.
How did it feel when you found out about how many people have been affected?
I honestly thought I was the only one, and that's why I didn't even really tell anyone about it. I told my neighbour, who’s a very close friend of mine and I sort of tried to explain it to my kids but they couldn't get their heads around it.
I was so shocked when this thing broke and I saw the amount of people that this was affecting. Even when the lady at the law centre, Annie, said she's had people come in, she mentioned one person’s name, so I thought, well, one person. But never on this scale. Never, ever, did I expect to see this on this scale. It seems very poignant that it is people in their 60s, people that are going into retirement, the vulnerable.
I understand what they were trying to do on a political level, because they have to know how many people are in the country, and who is rightfully here and who’s not. That is governing. That I understand. But this was not the right way to go about it at all, you know. This thing is a monster now. What's going to happen when it starts to affect somebody in your family? 'Cause it will, you know. These things tend to come back and bite you in the worst place.
Judy’s response to the Home Office’s July 2018 announcement of a ‘pause’ on the ‘hostile environment’ policy
What did they think, this is a video game? If you've paused it, how come nobody knows? Why is it not on TV, like ‘don't forget to get your tax credits in’? I think it should be known, considering you've made immigration officers out of employers, landlords, people that work in the hospitals. They don't seem to know it’s been paused, 'cause they're still asking you for your ID for everything that you go to access. This is the kind of things that I think are very backhanded and underhanded. Then the government wonder why people don't trust them, why people don't like them.
Judy’s response to the compensation scheme
As far as the compensation is concerned, I understand now, although I don't know how true it is, that they're going to put a cap on it. Well, I was only waiting to see the excuse that they would come up with eventually.
They're asking us all now for our opinion on who should actually be compensated, how they should be compensated and how much. According to these opinions they will then decide how this scheme is going to run.
Don’t act as if you don’t know the impact that this has had on people. You know the impact, particularly in employment. If you say to a man you can’t work, you can’t get anywhere to live, you can’t use a bank, you can’t access any social services or the NHS if you're sick, you've virtually told that man go and die somewhere in a corner. What is he supposed to do? All these things that you've stopped this man from having are the underlying basics that any human being needs to live. You've done a wrong and you've admitted it to the world, and still you don't want to compensate for that wrong, in a right and proper manner. I find it unacceptable.
How do you feel about Britain and your identity as a British citizen now?
I’m a citizen of heaven. Thank God for Jesus. That's the only citizenship I can really acknowledge now, quite frankly. I will go about my daily life and do whatever I have to do but like I said, there's been a great loss, mentally, physically and spiritually.
I'll be quite honest about it, I have considered whether I’ll remain living in Britain. We have a saying in the Caribbean: cockroaches don't go to chicken’s parties. What that means is, if you're a cockroach, you're not going to go to a party that a chicken is holding 'cause you get eaten, don't you? [Laughs] Basically, I don't feel like I fit here anymore. I don't. I’m uncomfortable in my home, I’m uncomfortable on the street. My thoughts are running, you know, around wondering what next. And not only that, there's a fear. I've seen my children encounter the same racisms that I have. Are they now going to encounter the same thing, even though they were born here? What is next for them?
My final thoughts are, compensate people properly. You know what they've suffered. They don't need to come and tell you over and over again. All your stories are in the newspapers. The loss of homes, the loss of employment, the loss of, you know, lives built. Lives stopped in the middle of whatever they were doing, you know. For instance, I’m due to retire next year. How? Where do I start?
I hope that some way, somehow, some kind of sincere apology would come forth. I know that MPs have stood up in Parliament and apologised and apologised. Of course they're going to do that at the time. Especially with all the heads of the Caribbean being here, what else could they do? I think some kind of event or something should be put on. We need the compensation because people have had to borrow money and run up credit cards and all those kind of thing in order to survive. But I think a sincere apology would be more greatly appreciated. I really do. I would appreciate it, for a start.
Arriving in Britain
Me and my sister came to Britain together on the same British passport. We came as British citizens. She was six and I was eight. We came July 1963 and I had my ninth birthday here.
My parents were already here in the UK. Some of my family were in America, but most of my family was here. My mum and most of her sisters, uncles, aunts. We lived in Bedfordshire. At that time, for the family getting homes, getting places to live, they were the ones that dealt with the ‘no dogs, no Irish’ situation. I didn't know what that was then. But I remember going with my mum and my baby sister door to door, looking for room to rent.
I would’ve missed Barbados terribly but for the fact that my gran was here, 'cause my grandmother raised me. She was here for a couple of years before me. She had to bring my little cousin, Junior. He came as a very young baby. Wherever my gran was, I was happy, because she nurtured me. Wherever she was, it was home, as far as I was concerned. But she wasn’t here for long. Then I started to miss Barbados. When she was going, I started packing my little suitcase 'cause where Gran goes, I go [laughs] you know. And they had to tell, ‘No, no, you're not going’. My heart just broke completely.
How did people in Barbados view Britain?
Through the family, where we lived, the people, the community, you could not if you were in your right mind, ever even think about saying a bad word about Britain. I would go as far as to say this country was worshipped. It was idolised. When the Queen toured Barbados, the whole school was brought out along the route to see her pass and wave.
When it was known that I would be going to this country, I was like the most important person in the street. Everybody brought their congratulations and said prayers over me and said you're going to become someone here, you're going to do this and do that and the other. I am still wondering what happened, you know [laughs].
Any little snippet of news that you could get about England, you'd have everyone around. We had what we called Radio Fusion. It was a box from the BBC. It was on my gran’s wall, with a little speaker in the middle. My gran had a rocking chair under there, so we’d sit and listen. If there was ever any news about England, oh, my God, you know, everyone would be on the Radio Fusion. Yeah, they worshipped this country.
My aunt told me about Mr Enoch Powell’s visit to Barbados. They set up a big projector on what we call the pasture, something like Hampstead Heath. This film, or whatever it was, told people how life would be so wonderful for them here. They would never have a problem to get somewhere to live, there was plenty of work, plenty of food, everything was going to be great, fantastic, come, come, come. So they came and then the next thing they heard was ‘Rivers of Blood’.
How did your parents view Britain?
I can’t even put it into words, the way my parents believed in this country. They believed that everything was here.
To them, they were coming home, 'cause they'd always been told they were British. Even now, Barbados is known as Little England. It was colonised by the upper echelons of British society, you know. All the mannerisms were there, even up to now. The Queen’s face is above the Crown bench still, even though we have independence, so that alone should tell you what the people thought about this country.
My parents progressed quite a lot, you know, 'cause that was what it was about for them. Despite whatever they were facing, this was an opportunity for them and they were determined to take it and make the best of it. By the time we came here my mum was still working in healthcare and my dad was a baker. A while after, they left those jobs and they were working for a company called Texas Instruments in Bedfordshire. They worked there for many years, until they established their home in Barbados, 'cause all of my family returned back. They built their own homes out there and they all own property here in Bedfordshire. I looked at education as progression. For them it was a very physical thing.
School years and first job
I've got to admit, my school years were some of the worst years of my life, because at that time there was not a name for racism but you knew something was there because it felt bad and it hurt you. I experienced a lot, a lot, of that. Being of the age I am now, and also being a Christian, has helped me to understand and process those behaviours, because those behaviours came from adults as well. To me, even if you didn’t like the child, for whatever reason, it was your duty as an adult to make sure that that child was nurtured under your care. But we weren’t. I think there was about three or four of us as black children in my junior school at the time. More came after.
That was still better than when I went on to secondary school. Oh, my God. That was hell. That's the only way I can describe it. I could not wait to leave that school. I left just before my 15th birthday. It was a case of you leave school, you get a job, you know. For us in particular, we already knew, because when the school welfare people came along then, you know, the certain batch were supposed to leave at a certain time. Before we walked through the door they would already be telling you what factory you were going to go in. Or for the ones that they deemed a little bit more, how can I put it, more astute or what they deemed intelligent, well, you know, you might get to go into nursing. Nursing wasn’t for me. I hate the sight of blood [laughs].
So for me it was from factory to factory to factory and a case of total boredom. I remember the first factory I worked at was a clothing factory. I was earning £4 and 12 shillings. That went to my mum, with immediate effect, 'cause that's why you went to work, to help with the house. But I had a job even before that, when I was in junior school, 'cause I used to do a paper round. That went to my mum too [laughs]. I had a lot of friends but I didn't have the school life that I would have liked to have had, 'cause I had to go and get my sister from nursery, make sure she got home safe and all the rest of it. You know, wash up and do all kinds of chores by the time my mum and dad came in from work.
Experiences of racism in employment
One job that I had that I loved, was when I worked as a Metropolitan Police traffic warden. I really wanted to extend that job and I just couldn't because of the blockages that I faced. During that time I worked at Trooping the Colour. Yes, with Her Majesty. I've worked at Ascot, you know, all these big events, we were there. I was very proud to wear that uniform, I must say, because I loved the job. At the time it wasn’t just a case of ticket, ticket, money, money, like it is now. It was more about helping people, you know.
I progressed from there afterwards to Camden, with brass. I worked for the London Borough of Camden in the capacity of a parking control officer. That was another place where I could have excelled had it not been for the racism that I experienced there.
Everybody knows you get more with sugar than you do with vinegar. I think a lot was missed out on for many employers. This kind of behaviour in the workplace is still here to this day. That is the sad part of it. You know, I keep asking myself when is this two-headed, ugly snake going to die? When is someone going to kill it? It needs to die. It really does. Because who does it benefit? How does it help anyone?
Thoughts on the contributions that people of the Caribbean have made to Britain
My parents have already passed. My mum passed during this time and I could not go home to the funeral. Up to now I don't even know where my mum is buried. I haven't been able to grieve because I've had all this in front of me and, you know, I've had to kind of put me grief to one side now. And I’m not looking forward to returning to my country to go and search for a grave.
For the contributions that people of the Caribbean have made here, I think they've been so disrespected. Not even so much me, but the older generation like my mum, my aunts. My aunt was a woman who did not have a day off work. You could not get her to take a sick day. I have seen that woman go to work with her arm in a sling. I said, ‘What are you going to do with one arm?’ ‘I have to go to work. The people are depending on me.’ She worked for a hospital service in Bedfordshire all her life. My parents didn't know what dole was. They worked and worked and then worked. I’m ashamed for them. I feel sad for them 'cause I know that in their hearts of hearts, they thought bringing their children to this country, they had done the best for us. I know that they're turning in their graves now when they see all this going on.
It’s like your wife or your husband having an affair, isn’t it? It’s a total betrayal. That's what it is. That's how I feel, for them and myself. Betrayed. That's the only way I can put it, really.
Interview © Judy Griffith.
Read a response from David Lammy
Read an account by Amelia Gentleman