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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

225_29ed3757-faf0-4fb0-bb75-754d4e344742Most people, I would suggest, associate post-war black immigration to Britain with the passenger ship Empire Windrush in 1948. While that event is a hugely important – and indeed symbolic – part of the story, the approximately 800 passengers of Caribbean origin on board represent a tiny fraction of the West Indian migration in the decades following. Also, the Windrush story is primarily a Jamaican one.

This new exhibition at the London Transport Museum not only tells us about a large section of London Transport’s immigrant workforce, it relates their experience in London society. The difficulties – for they were many and severe – and also the triumphs, the feelgood stories if you will. How these new Britons gelled into a distinct community.

The opening section of the exhibition features the backstory of the British Caribbean: the sugar plantations, the slavery, the exploitation and the colonial period. There is a large map which literally flags up the nations that make up these islands. Most reasonably well-educated people could cite Jamaica, Barbados, perhaps Trinidad. But could they place them on the map? No. There are, in fact, the best part of 20 former British colonies in these seas. Plus Guyana on mainland South America. All of them helped plug the gap in the British labour market.

There follows a timeline which includes Britain’s collaboration – initially with Barbados in 1955-56 – to encourage migration from the area, interspersed with immigration legislation through the same period (making it tougher, of course). The display covers the past century but the focus for us here is Windrush 1948 to the Immigration Act 1971. What actually happened, when and how: nectar to the historian. I have to confess complete ignorance of these things until faced with this excellent exhibit.

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From here the show becomes more experiential, mostly not good. The cold and the drab winters of post-war London. Being far from home, separated from families. Long hours, hard work. Racism. Life as a minority when that meant tiny minority. For most this was genuine hardship by any yardstick.

In contrast to today, most jobs were divided by sex. Men did the train and bus driving; women worked in the canteens; there was a bit of overlap in the bus conducting.

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Out of this emerged sports and social clubs, groups of mutual support, glimmers of fun, happiness and camaraderie. I particularly enjoyed the story of the C.R.S. Cardinals cricket team, virtually unbeatable on the club circuit.

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It’s important to remember that this exhibition is a celebration of London Transport’s Caribbean workforce, now in its third generation. The curators have achieved this very well indeed. As important, is to leave your visitor wanting to find out more. For me, they have ticked that box too.

More information here. 

Don’t forget that London Transport Museum runs the enlightened policy whereby your ticket is valid for 12 months.

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