Home Oral History Interview - Roy Beckles

Oral History Interview - Roy Beckles


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Audio recording of an interview with Roy Beckles, who was born in Curaçao in the Caribbean and moved to the UK in 1961. Topics discussed include their Caribbean background, London social life (shebeens) and employment with London Transport.


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Q: Can you tell me a bit about life in the West Indies before you came to Great Britain? What, for example, did your parents do for a living?

ROY BECKLES (RB): First of all, I was born in a place named Curaçao, which is a Dutch Island in the West Indies, the capital is Willemstadt. My father worked for the Shell oil refinery. I went to two schools in Curaçao. One is Emen School and the other is Hendricks school. From there, this is all a long time ago, 1955, I left Curaçao and went to the Caribbean Union College, which is in Trinidad, Maracas Valley. I don't know if you have heard of it? It is a 7th day Adventist College. I sat my exams there. That was the last year for the Junior/ Senior Cambridge exams, and I left there, went back to Curaçao, and started woking for Shell. My father, who was going to Guyana on holiday, decided that all the family should go to Guyana on holiday too. I went to Guyana and loved the place so much that I decided to stay in Guyana. I joined the Prison Service in Guyana and in 1961 I came over to England with the intention of studying penology [prisons].
However, I have never got to Parkhurst, where I should have gone. Instead I came to London and got a job on London Transport and that is where I stayed for the last 30 or so years. In the West Indies, however, I had one of the most privileged upbringings because my father worked for Shell. Every three years we went on a 2-month holiday_ We went to Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil. I went to Puerto Rico, San Domingo all those places with my father on holiday, as a child.

Q: Is there a history of military involvement in your family?

RB: No.

Q: What proverbs do you recall from your Caribbean years that may have helped guide you through life, if any?

RB: The only one I can think of at the moment is the upbringing I had from my parents i.e. respect for property, which they particularly instilled in me. I did not appreciate it at the time. Also, during the time when I boarded at the Caribbean Union College, it is now that I am older and wiser that I realise that this was part of my training for life.

Q: What was happening there specifically?

RB: Well, it was a church school and I had to follow the 7th Day Adventist rules, I am not a 7th Day Adventist. My parents were not 7th Day Adventists, we only got involved with the church through some fellows who came to Caruso selling bibles. These chaps got their cases of books and my father allowed me to use the car to take these fellows around with their cases to deliver the books. My father had bought some from them and I had just qualified from Hendricks school in Caruso. They said, "why don't you come over to Trinidad?" and that is what I did.

Q: What prompted you to leave for Britain and how much did you subscribe to the notion that you were coming to the "mother country"?

RB: No, I never thought of it as the mother country, I just thought of it as an escape from the West Indies, in the late 50s and early 60s, especially in Guyana at that time. I had already married a Guyanese lady in Guyana and I was considering coming back to Guyana. I was going to come to England, do my studies in penology and then go back home to Guyana because at the time I was to become a cadet officer in the Prison Service. However, due to the political upheaval in Guyana at the time, in other words Burnham and Jagort, I decided that it was either best for me to come to England or Holland. England was the easiest to come to at the time because I had other friends, working together with me in the Prison Service in Guyana, who were coming to England. They said, "let's go to England", and that was it! At that time, I didn't ever intend to stay here for 31 years, I never had that notion.

Q: What is/ are your strongest memories of the journey to Britain?

RB: My strongest memory of the journey to Britain was aboard the boat. As a matter of fact, the boat that I came up on ...Darcus Howe was on that boat, a gentleman who is part of Centerprise, he opened up a set of bookshops, a Trinidadian chap, John Le Rose.

Q: John Le Rose? You came up with John Le Rose?

RB: Yes, it was this same gentleman, a fair-skinned fellow, me and Darcus Howe. He opened up some black bookshops.

Q: New Beacon Books?

RB: Yes.

CQ: What boat did you come up on?

RB: Marquis de Comelas

Q: Tell me a little bit about your journey?

RB: I enjoyed the trip.

Q: How long did it last?

RB: About 2 weeks. We picked up the boat from Trinidad, Port of Spain. I think that we stopped off at one of the other islands, perhaps Barbados, on our way upto England, then we came across to Spain. We had formed a committee aboard the boat, to complain about the food.

Q: Is there anything else about the voyage to England that you can remember? [08:45]

RB: The only other thing that I can remember is that when we arrived at Southampton, we had to take the train into London. I did not realise that we would have to take the train into London and when we got into Waterloo, it was depressing. It was really really depressing because it was October and everybody had coats on. My aunt was living here, she has died now and she came and brought coats and so on for me. The next day, a Saturday, we went to Marks & Spencer's to buy cardigans because I hadn't anticipated the weather conditions. Anyway, it was depressing and as I said, I did not intend to stay in England as long as this. It was never my intention but what motivated me to be here up until now was that I started a family here and my wife came over about 6 months after me and we settled down and bought a house. We bought a house in Haringey in 1963 and that was basically our life.
I decided that if I was going to live here, I would have to pay rent. At least if you bought your own place, you pay the rent to yourself and my house only cost £3,400 in 1963.

Q: Where in Haringey did you live?

RB: Off Black Boy Lane, on Clarence Road.

Q: What kinds of expectations did you have when you arrived? [10:42]

RB: The expectations that I had, yet another disappointment, was when I arrived here. I said okay I will see if I could study Economics rather than going into Penology. I started working for London Transport and I had a difficult time getting into a college where I could do a degree course to suit the qualifications I had. The first place I went to was North West London Poly at the time, it was on the Prince of Wales Road. When I went there, the person said that I required A Levels etc. before I could start studying for a degree. Therefore, my Junior Cambridge and my Dutch qualifications were not enough for them. They said I had to do my GCEs as GCEs had just come out at the time. So, I wasted roughly three years until 1965 when I decided to leave London Transport and went to work for the Post office where I could have had more chances to go to school at that time. That is where I met some very interesting fellows. Anyhow, I did not last in the Post Office; I worked at the King Edward building in the city, because the job was too...

In 1965 I started doing my FIND in Business Studies with a Day release class. The reason I could do this was that I was working nights at the Post office. So, I started that and I only lasted about 18 months at the Post Office because I never did any hard work in my life and at the Post Office, I had to lift bags etc.. On my first day, I was told by the inspector that I had to lift bags etc. but the Union man told me that I shouldn't have been lifting bags as I did not have protective clothing. Anyway, since then the inspector was on my case and so after 18 months I packed it in and went back to London Transport. Fortunately for me, I got into a gang of fellows in the stations where I used to do certain shifts with Frank Bernard, Johnny Prescott and Tony Godwin so we could exchange shifts and I liked doing the dead earlies when you go in at 5 O'clock in the morning. By 10, 11 O'clock I was finished and I could still catch classes for the afternoon. That lasted until 1968 (I failed the first year) when I got my HND and was still working at London Transport. They offered me a job at 55 Broadway, but it was not as good and I preferred to stay on at the station where I could earn more money. I had a young family and a mortgage to pay and there is no sense in you having glory saying that you are big, working behind a big desk and you do not have the money, I still maintain that. The last year I worked for London Transport was in 1992 and I earned £27,000. A lot of young fellows out there earn degrees etc. and they do not earn that much. So that is why I stayed with London Transport, because I could earn the money without hassling myself.

Q: How easy was it to find work when you first came to England? [15:29]

RB: It was easy, very very easy. You could have walked out of one job and straight into another. Especially, those small factories that they had around the place. Jobs were easy to get then, not today.

Q: Once you found work, how difficult or easy was it to progress up the ladder, if that was your ambition? [16:21]

RB: Yes, it was my ambition. I started off as a guard on the Northern Line at the depot in Barnet. Pascal and I were there.

Q: Alex Pascal?

RB: Yes, within 9 months I was the youngest qualified driver in the depot in service. So, if I had stayed at London Transport, if I did not break my service at the time when I did, I would have gone higher up the ladder to get a bigger pension. However, I was content to stay at the inspector grade, really for money, because at the inspector grade, you get enhancements for the work you do. For example, the time from I-6pm was a basic wage, from 6PM onwards was a different amount and that was where I used to make my money. So, I did not want to go in for promotion to Station Manager etc. because you would get a basic wage. Although their pension could be bigger than mine, I used to get a bigger wage than they did. So, I was content to stay where I was.

Q:: What was the housing situation like for you? [18:20]

RB: Housing was difficult. When I first arrived here, I stayed at my aunt's and she was living at Kentish Town. It was one big house, an African man's house, Mr Farden. My aunt had three floors on Fortis Road, other families lived on the lower floors, we had the three upper floors, and we made a house out of it until I got a flat for my wife and myself. When we decided to send for the children (I had two children at the time and we had left them at home with my wife's parents) I decided to buy property at Clarence Road.

Q: When did you first become aware that colour mattered and are there incidences which might have brought it home to you? [20.57]

RB: To be honest with you, when my kids started growing up because, me personally, I have not experienced such things, even working on London Transport. Then, you got your promotion by merit and seniority. Once you had the intelligence, you would get the promotion. The only thing was that there were certain jobs that were kept aside. Generally, though, we did not have much of a problem so I can't say too much about that. Although some people, especially on the buses, had it hard because on the buses at the time, it was nothing to do with seniority, it was if your face fit, which is what they have on London Transport today. If your face fits, you'll get the job. If it doesn't then you won't. For instance, another reason why I am glad that I left London Transport is that I was a facilitator briefly and people that I trained got promotion ahead of me. They did not know anything except the basics about the job and that sickened me. So, when I got early retirement, I decided to take it and move on. Nowadays, London Transport is very prejudiced but when I was there, it was nothing like that. Promotion was there, once you had the qualification you would get it. Not today, today is a different story. Today is suitability.

Q: How conscious were you of different kinds of natives, for example, the Scots, the Irish, the English and the Welsh? [22.30]

RB: Well the accent gave them away right away. I had a very very good friend who was a Geordie from Newcastle. I did not even understand what he was saying but he was my good friend, he was my very good friend. Also, in Queensway where I was based for quite some time, I got to know some Australians because many Australians used to frequent there and I got to know some Australians. I even bought an Australian car and when I wanted spare parts for the car, this friend used to organise to get it cheap for me. Anyway, once I was drinking with one of them and he was saying "Eh digger, eh digger" and I thought he was saying "nigger" and I reeled up on him and he said, "No man, we call it digger, people in Australia". He turned out to be a good friend as well. You get to know them through their accent and how they speak and so on but otherwise... The most prejudiced ones were the Greeks and the Turks. I found that you could not get through to them at all. I speak four languages. I speak Dutch, English, Spanish and a bit of Portuguese, because my father was Brazilian by birth but he grew up in Guyana. He was born in a place called Monoush, in Brazil, in the Amazon, north of Brazil. Yes, so it was fin though. I got on better with the Spanish and the Jamaicans than I did with some of the people that I got to know from Guyana. The Guyanese are very clannish, but they are alright.

Q: How much social mix was there between Black and White? [25:15]

RB: Social mix was always there because we used to have Shebeens, where we used to go. Especially the White women, they would mix more freely than the White men would. You could go to a pub and speak with a White man and he would call you "friend" but he would never take you home with him. Whereas the White woman would more readily take you home than the White man. That is the only thing I could say about the Whites, the men especially, they were clannish, not clannish but more prejudiced than the women. At work, however, once you could do the work they respected you for what you could do. I had nothing but respect from all those I worked with on London Underground. If they talked about me behind my back then I do not care, but I didn't have any prejudice at work. Social mixing was there and in those days, the early 60s, I used to have a big car and I used to go down to the "Rolling 20s" and right down Cable Street where they had a club where a lot of American bands used to come and play. Another place where I used to go quite a lot was the "Johnny Small" place in Paddington, off Concord Place and in those places there were mainly Black people there, there was only the token White.

Q: Where did you go for entertainment and what did you do?

RB: I used to go to Blues places in those days. In the old days, we could not find Whiskey like that. Even back home we used to have a little get together, myself, my cousins etc., his wife and we had other friends who used to come over once or twice a year by me and that is the way we mixed, as family together.

Even Alex Pascal, when he left London Transport he went into the music business and many times when I was working late, I would see him and give him a lift home when he came out from the clubs. There was a Spanish Club on Tottenham Court Road/ Charing Cross Road, it used to be next door to the Astoria, called Costa Brava and I had a friend who still plays music today. He used to play music there at one time, I do not know if you have heard of him, Dicky Quayle, a Barbadian boy, who used to play Saxophone. I am going back to the 70s now. There used to be plenty of entertainment.

Q: How did you get on with local women? [30:10]

RB: I.e. the local White population? Yes, we got on okay with them. No complaints there. You got a few which were quite brash and so on but other than that, we got on okay with them. There was no prejudice as far as I was concerned.

Q: What brought you to Hackney?

RB: That is the $1,000 question! I took early retirement. I used to run the ACP, I even left my diary at work with my name Roy Beckles, co-ordinator for the ACP, which was Seven Sisters Road, just next to Manor House. The chap, who was running it first, you may have heard of him. His name was George, "yellow man" we used to call him. Do you know Councilor Lewis? George made her a Councilor, and he made her mayor of Hackney at one time, it was due to George that she got to where she is today. She lives up by Pallantyne Road.

I was running this organisation, the ACP, after the death of Mr George but before he died, he was getting a whole heap of trouble for the two years before his death from the council. As you know, the Government used to give out grants and we used to get a grant for the Saturday School, we had a Saturday School and we used to get a grant for running the offices etc.. The grant that we used to get from Hackney Borough Council was the equivalent of £130,000. Haringey Borough council used to give us about £10,000 and we didn't get anything from Islington. The only thing that involved Islington was the Police Committee. Before that, we had the big project in Finsbury Park, where they were making a road from here to Crouch End. We did part of the job and the job that we did there, even Prince Charles came and visited us. At that time, it was the GLC, which was giving us the funding and, as you know, Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC and all our funding. A year or so before the demise of the GLC, they started cutting down on everything and so our funding went down to nil.

Hackney Borough Council was cutting down our funding and Mr George was getting a hard time and so when he died we only had about £50,000 left in the kitty. Mr George had set up a private company, the City Trading Link or something and we were subcontractors to another City Trading company, but they have closed down now because all of the funding has now stopped.
We used to take people and put them to work for Social Services and that is where we used to get our money to run the project until we didn't have anymore. We ran into trouble and so I did that for about a year and a half and at that time I was going on holidays to the WI and coming back and so on and I got myself involved with somebody else, not romantically, and I brought this person up here for a holiday and that is where my life changed. Life was not the same anymore. In those days, we had houses that the council was giving us, short-life houses. I did not intend to kill myself to go round to umpteen meetings to get funding. We could have got the European Social Fund but Hackney Borough Council would have had to guarantee that we would have got a certain amount of money from them and they would not guarantee anything. This is how I got into Hackney.

Q: What sort of things did you do for domestic entertainment?

RB: Family parties.

Q: How much did the attitude of islanders to each other change after coming to Britain and to what extent did you see yourself as belonging to a specific island as opposed to being someone from the West Indies?

RB: Once you came here, you were pigeonholed. I can remember the first day going down to register in Kentish Town. The gentleman said, "you were a prison officer in Guyana but I do not think that you will get a prison officer's job here" and he made it sound as if you would have to climb a mountain to get what you wanted. I didn't bother with that because the next Monday I went out and I got a job right away and so that did not register with me.

Coming back to the communities, the Guyanese, we had our own. My aunt moved from Fortis Road. She bought her own property and every Saturday or so we went there and played dominoes, that was the Guyanese section. The Grenadian section who were getting on very well too, had their own things going on. Robbie used to live at the bottom of the street to me, he has gone back to Grenada now, they used to have parties, as we did, they had their own organisation. The first one that I went to was with a good friend of mine, called Bob Smith; he died in a train crash at Tooting. We went to a Grenadian party held in Hornsey Town hall and that is way back in 1962, that is one of the occasions that we had. Other small islands formed groups and did their own thing but we normally mixed. Here in England, I do not know many people from Curaçao, I only know one or two, and as a matter of fact one of them, I must get in touch with her, her name is Evadne. Another guy is Woodrow Williams and I don't know how to get in touch with him now. He was the one who told me that Evadne was here and I have not seen him for more than 10 years. We do not have many
Curaçaoians over here, so I found myself mixing more with the Spanish, and I used to go to the Costa Brava. Since I lost my driving licence and I do not have my car, I do not go out that much but the last place I went to was to see Tito. Fuente, a Cuban band, at the Costa Brava. Celia Cruz played at the Hammersmith Palais, so that was my entertainment.

Q: How do you think families operate here compared to the Caribbean?

RB: Well, as people came over here to England, I believe that they either expected more from society here with respect to their children. Some of them had to become latchkey children and where respect is concerned, it is non-existent. I can't talk; I should not be so rude as to talk about others. Even my own kids, since I left home (I have separated from my wife) one of them is still living in my marital home and one of them has just got married. They do not even ring me as they used to before. I don't know. I learnt respect from my friends and you get respect where respect is due. I have never abandoned my children since I have been in England. I have given them the best of education that they could have got. Some took it, and some did not. The only ones that took it were the girls, surprisingly! I have two daughters. One is in America, she used to be a secretary. At that time, she was secretary to the Chairman of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society Association at the Strand. Now she has married an American serviceman and she is living in America. Roxanne went to Mcmasters University in Canada in Ontario where she did a course in Food technology and now she is working for Kraft Industries in Quebec. The two boys... when one started to become a big man, he said "Dad, I am not working for London Transport, I will become a billionaire by the time I am..." I said, "Okay, boy. He started working for London Transport and then he got another job but has messed it up. Kenneth is drifting from here to there. I got him into a job where he started an apprenticeship but he messed it up. That is where I started to drift away from my family. However, as I say, the kids in the W.I. have more manners and are more mannerly than the kids up here.

Q: To what extent did you see a difference in the attitudes in the 2nd and 3rd generations from your own at similar stages in your life? E.g. When you were young did you perceive yourself as being completely different to the young ones in subsequent generations?

RB: In what way?

Q: For example, you said manners. When you were younger, were you required to have more manners?

RB: Yes of course, I remember in Curaçao, where we were living. The entertainer Quayle used to come to our house. My father was a fellow who always had friends come over and anybody who came by us, I had to call Mr or Mrs. I could not just come bold-faced and call them Bob or Stanley. Today, these little kids want to come and do that. Not that my kids were as bad as that at the time, but kids perceive themselves to be different to us from the West Indies. First of all, they feel that they are not going to put up with what we had to put up with. For a start, I have never even drawn a penny from Social Security. I worked for my pension and when I took early retirement I was told I was not entitled to anything. I had to wait until I was 65 before I could get a state pension to go with my other pension but I do not take anything from them. The young ones today, however, assume that the world, the contributors, owe them a living.