Home Oral History Interview - Mrs Rigg

Oral History Interview - Mrs Rigg


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Audio recording of an interview with Mrs Rigg, who moved from Jamaica to the UK in 1954.


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Q. How old are you?

MRS Rigg (MR). I’m 87.

Q. When did you come to England?

MR. 1954

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about life in Jamaica before you came to England? What, for instance, did your parents do for a living?

MR. Well. My mother was a housewife, my father used to do farming and when we grew up, she sent us to school, as usual. We had to go to school every morning, she made sure of that. She had three boys and I was the first girl, she didn’t have another child until 11 years after me, when my other sister was born. The boys had to go to school and when they came home in the evenings, they had to help our grandfather to rear the cows, horses and goats. The boys had to take care of that. As a girl, I did not have to do anything like that. I stayed indoors and studied until my mother said that I should go to bed. When the boys got up in the morning they had to tend to the animals before they went to school. My mother always used to say “the boys are going to run you too much to go to school” so she used to send me off ahead and told me to take my time as they would catch me up. They would have to run to catch me otherwise they would be late, and they often were. My mother felt that if I left together with the boys, the boys would run and leave me and I would cry.

Q. What part of Jamaica are you from?

MR. St Elizabeth

Q. Do you remember much about life there?

MR. Yes, I remember that the same teacher that taught me in school taught my mother, Mrs Miles. She taught my mother in school and I managed to get a few years out of her before she retired.

Q. Do you know much about your family, were there any soldiers in your family?

MR. Soldiers? I do not know about that, but I do know that my grandmother had 7 boys and 4 girls and all of them had big sons. Some of them travelled and some stayed home and had families at home. I know a great deal about my grandmother.

Q. Tell me a bit about her.

MR. She was a very nice old woman, very kind and very gentle. She went to church every Saturday, she was an Adventist, and I remember Mama (all the children used to call her Mama) used to look over her glasses, when she used to read. She used to make bedspreads out of patchwork and she used to sew. She used to look after us when we visited. I used to love that old lady very much.

Q. Can you remember any proverbs from the Caribbean that you can recollect that helped to guide you through life?

MR. I remember that my grandmother, as a Christian, said that you should always do things gently. “One stitch in time saves nine”. She used to repeat that one often. However, I used to always take things easily, as I was the only girl in the family for some time and I didn’t’ have to work hard.

Q. You say that you came to England in 1954. What was it that prompted you to come to England?

MR. It wasn’t really me. It was my husband. He was a young man trying to get work. He was a carpenter and had just finished his apprenticeship. There was not much building work in Jamaica and he was good at his trade and so he decided to come to England for a better life. We married shortly before he came away and we had two children. Life was hard. He said that as soon as he had reached England, he would send for me, which he did.

He went to England in 1952 and he sent for me afterwards. He said that he did not want me to travel by the boat as he saw the conditions of people travelling by boat. It was overcrowded and men often behaved badly and so he wanted me to travel by banana boat. At that time you had to have somebody to represent you in order to travel that way. I managed to get it and I think there were 14 of us that came by that boat. Most of the people who travelled by that boat were students who were coming to England to study. People said that it was bad, but it was really a good boat, SS Biana, banana boat.

Q. Where did the boat dock?

MR. Avonmount.

Q. Avonmount, in Bristol?

MR. Yes and then we caught a train to Liverpool Street and people met you there.

Q. On coming to England, how much of a sense did you have of coming to the “mother country”?

MR. Well, they were recruiting people from the West Indies to come over here at that time. They didn’t actually recruit my husband, he came on his own steam, but I heard that they were recruiting people. As I said, we came here to find work, make some money and we had the intention of going back to Jamaica but unfortunately we had to say longer than we had planned. My husband had to work hard for a living at that time because we had planned to save money to go back home for our future. You had to put in the effort to see what you could get. I can’t say that life was rough.

Q. How easy was it to find work when you came?

MR. Well when I came over, you had to go to the Labour Exchange at the time and I went to work with a man called Mr Paradise. He had a coat factory that made overalls and other items. I worked there for a little while but I did not like that job because it was in the Winter and you had to press clothes with an iron, such as in Jamaica. After this, you had to go out into the cold weather to go home and I didn’t like that. So I went to work in Grape Street where they made the Queen’s guards’ hats. I sewed, making the lining inside and I worked there for 6 months. After 6 months you could get a holiday. I had a friend that got a job with Lever’s opticians in - -- Rd and she got a job there for me where I inspected the glasses and packed them. I worked there for 6 months and then I sent for my children. Once they were here, I had to take them to and from school. At that time, the children were not accustomed to life in England and they were 6 and 5 years old and so I packed in that job.

The little money that I got was not enough so I left it and I had to come home and do childminding and a little sewing at home until the children could go to school on their own. When I felt that they could do this, I used to make sure that some one would help them to cross the street, and I would work and go home and prepare for them to come home.

Q. What about housing?

MR. Oh God! That was hard. You could not get a house because they did not want children. The first house that I got was with an African man. Luckily, he knew the difficulty for coloured people in getting houses to rent and he rented us a room there so that I could send for the children from home. But unfortunately we dillied and dallied so much that my husband said that he could not stand for that and that we had to get a house of our own so that the children could run freely. That is how we started our life here. We now had a mortgage to pay. My husband, alone, was working. I had to cut back to help, but we did carry our life right. We had a happy life.

Q. Was this in Hackney?

MR. Yes, right in Stoke Newington.

Q. So you came straight into the country, and into Hackney?

MR. Yes.

Q. Because your husband was already living here?

MR. Yes.

Q. When did you first become aware that colour mattered in England?

MR. Well, when we first came into the country! Even on the buses, they did not want us to sit beside them and if you sat beside them they scorned you, they drew away from you. It wasn’t like nowadays when you can sit freely anywhere on the bus. The biggest experience that I had was at work. When I was working at the Lever opticians, there were two white men and two white women that I used to work with and I remember that one of the men was nice. Len would speak to anybody. Reg, however, showed you if he liked you and showed you if he didn’t. One day Reg said to me, they called me Violet, “When you were at home, were you jumping from tree to tree?” As he said this I knew what he meant. We do not have monkeys in Jamaica but I knew that he was calling me a monkey. I didn’t like this but he constantly repeated this. One day I told him that I was going to fix him and I was going to show him my tail and the evening I told him that, Reg went home early. We usually stayed at work until we were given the signal with the hooter, when we went out through the gates and went home. When I went down I was surprised that Reg wasn’t there and he had gone. I had meant what I had said and I was going to show him my tail that afternoon, in the worst sort of way However, he was gone and the next day at work, he brought me an apple. He said that he had a tree at home that had grown and was now bearing apples. I told him thanks, and from that day onwards, we were friends, I worked there for about 5 years after and he didn’t call me names again. I didn’t get to show him my tail but I was going to show him my tail the wrong way, I was going to whip him.

Q. Were you aware in those days of the different kinds of white people in this country, i.e. the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh etc.

MR. I didn’t really know that much about different types of people, as I didn’t work in a factory with different nationalities. I worked with mostly English people and I got on all right with them. They were nice people. I worked with a Scotswoman and she was very nice. I got on well with most people anyway.

Q. Was there a lot of mixing outside of the workplace, between black and white in those early days? Did you visit people’s homes etc.?

MR. No, the coloured people and the whites kept to themselves. I personally, kept to myself I did not visit white people’s houses until we had our own home and were living beside a couple. They were very nice. I did not have a television at first and the couple used to invite the children who used to go over to their house to watch the television. The gentleman used to look after my children as if they were his grandchildren. Their children used to be quite nice to my children also. One day, however, we went out and when my husband came back and saw a TV in the house, he was surprised. I decided to get a TV so that the children could stay at home and study while watching the TV, as they would not be able to take their books over to our neighbours.

Q. Apart from the TV, what did you do for entertainment when you were not working? Did you go out to night-clubs?

MR. Oh no! 1 have never been to a night-club, from the day I came to this country. I haven’t even been to a pub to buy a drink. My husband was the kind of man, that if he wanted a drink, he would buy a bottle of beer or whatever and bring it home and he would have it after dinner. He was a man who loved his newspaper, the radio and the television. He would be watching the TV, listening to the radio and have the paper in his hands! I remember the insurance man and one of our next door neighbours (the first coloured woman to become one of our neighbours who used to come and visit in the evenings. I used to look after her children until she came home) came to our house. The insurance came in and saw my husband doing all three and had to laugh.

Q. What about you, you’re talking about your husband. What did you do for entertainment?

MR. Well, I used to come home and look after the children and prepare things for the next day. Even my husband’s sandwiches I had to prepare them for him to take to work. I didn’t really have much of a social life, such as going to the pictures, going to dances. The only time we went to dances was if we went to a friend’s wedding or a birthday when we would all get together and have a good time.

Q. We talked about this a bit beforehand. When you came to England, your husband was already living in Hackney?

MR. Yes.

Q. It must have been a big contrast moving from St Elizabeth to Hackney. How did you adjust to that very different kind of space?

MR. Well, you know that you were coming to England and, whether you were a man or a woman, you had to rough it. It was hard but we had to make the best of it. I didn’t fret or worry. I had my husband beside me and I had my two children and so I just had to take life easy. I looked after the children though and made sure that they could take part in school activities. I was willing to send them but I did not have much time for myself I had to be a housewife and maintain things at home while my husband worked. We made life comfortable.

Q. How important were the savings schemes like Pardner, in Trinidad they called it Sou-sou. Did you ever take part in those?

MR. Yes the club, or Pardner. I used to run one because I used to have tenants in my house and we used to put in a certain amount of money in each week and when that money came around, we used to draw on it. We used to run a pardnership all the time, there were 8, 9 or 10 people in it. If they wanted to draw the money in advance, they would tell you before, a week in hand. When we ran it smoothly, it was all right. We didn’t have any trouble.

Q. Was that scheme good in terms of helping you to pay off the mortgage?

MR. Yes, it was a good savings scheme. It helped me a lot because when I got my hand, I could pay a lump sum on the mortgage and this helped people to buy homes.

Q. One of things was that people came from different parts of the Caribbean. Some of the early descriptions are that there was some conflict between people from different islands. Jamaicans were accused of having a big-island mentality and Barbadians, a small island mentality. Did you experience any of that?

MR. No, we agreed with everybody as I have already said. I know that Jamaica is big but we all came from a region and we were united. The first house that I came to stay in was an African household and a Trinidadian was living there. She was expecting a baby. When I came off the banana boat, they gave me two hands of bananas to take home with me. In the evening, when I was going to empty the bins, she saw me with the banana skins and she asked me where I bought the bananas from. I explained that I had just arrived in England. She was the first person I had met and I was going to talk to her as a different island person. You could not get bananas to buy in England at that time and I went back to my apartment and I brought her down some of the bananas and she was in heaven. She was expecting a baby and she said that that was what she was craving. We became friends until she bought a house and moved away. I planned to buy a house in the same street but I bought another elsewhere, but they were not far from one another. She used to leave her children with me when I was childminding. We remained friends until she and her family went back to Trinidad. Unfortunately, my friend died. Her husband came back over and told us that she had died. She was a young woman but she was such a nice person.

Q. After all these years here, do you still feel very much like a Jamaican?

MR. Yes, I am a Jamaican! I can’t avoid that. I grew up in Jamaica. I don’t feel that I have ever left my country, I have been back several times. I get on with everybody; I could live with the devil in hell. I know my place.

Q. How long after you arrived in the UK did you bring your children over?

MR. It was about four years after I came that I could send for them.

Q. Did you find there that were differences in the ways in which families operated in this country compared to back home?

MR. I would say yes, as I didn’t have anybody to help me with my children over here. I had to do everything on my own. I had to stand on my own two feet to bring up my children in the way that I wanted to bring them up. We didn’t have nurseries like you have now and so you just had to find a way to look after your children and to find time to go to work and do everything on your own. At that time you had to do everything on your own.

Q. It is said by some people that that was one of the prices to pay in coming to the UK, that you had to work so hard that people did not pay as much attention to their children as they should have done. Do you ever feel that at all?

MR. Well, yes. Sometimes people did neglect their children because they did not have anybody to look after their children but I did not intend for anything to allow me to neglect my children. Their welfare would come first. I would have to find a way to do things so that I would be able to demonstrate a certain amount of love and kindness towards my children. They would go to church, school and they would come home. I didn’t allow them to play far from home. They were only allowed to play from my doorway to the end of the street.

Q. Did that cause any clashes, as they would have been mixing with local children?

MR. I did not find any trouble with my children, as in the evenings when they were coming home from school, I would make sure that they came home safely and again in the mornings, I would take them to school before I went to work. I did not leave them on the street, I know that sometimes I saw children on the street but mine were never allowed to do that. If I saw another child on the street, I would ask them where they lived and if it was in my area, I would take them home and deliver them to their parents.

Q. That’s what they would do in Jamaica as well isn’t it if anybody saw a child out alone so late, so far from home?

MR. Yes, that’s what they did. We weren’t accustomed to leave our children like that, we always tried to protect them the best that we could.

Q. When you look at the younger generation in this country, do you think that attitudes have changed?

MR. A lot.

Q. In what directions?

MR. You see, in the care that you take of your children and how you would be strict. The mothers of today are not as strict with their children. They will leave their children to come home on their own. I didn’t ever do that. I do not know much of what the younger generations do today because all my efforts were in trying to protect mine. What I can see today is that the mothers of today do not care about their children. You see children straggling along and wandering the streets all of the time.

Q. So they’re not as strict?

MR. No, they are not as strict as before.

Q. What do your children do now?

MR. Well my daughter is a nurse, a qualified nurse. My son works as a mechanic and he has been in this type of work since he left school. He began as an apprentice and he has been with the same firm ever since. He is now in his 40s.

Q. Are you very proud of your children, of their achievements?

MR. Yes. My daughter left school and trained as a nurse and still works as a nurse and my son has remained with the same firm until today and so I can not give them a bad name. They have never been in any trouble. They have never done anything wrong. They grew up as a loving sister and brother and they are still together. So I do not have any regrets.

Q. Just to go back a little bit. When you first came here, you came to England with expectations and your husband came looking for work and you planned to make life better here. Have you realised those expectations, and achieved the things that you set out to achieve when you left Jamaica?

MR. The thing that I wanted to do was to retire and go back to Jamaica and live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, I was put off track as my husband died. I couldn’t continue with that dream as my children would be over here and I would be in Jamaica alone. So, I decided to remain in England for the rest of my time so that I could see my children and they could see me. I go to Jamaica regularly and visit but I couldn’t go back and make a life as I thought that I would do. I miss my husband very much and he would have been my company in Jamaica. Most of the generation above me have now died, aunts and uncles and my parents and so I would be, as it were, lonely to live away from my children and their children so I decided that I would have to come back and live in England and so that is what I did.

Q. So, you actually went home for a while?

MR. Yes, but unfortunately my husband became ill over here and so I came back to stay with him. He then died over here and I buried him over here. It was then that I decided that I could not continue to live in Jamaica alone. I had to stay here.

Q. You say that you miss the native food. What do you miss most about the native food?

MR. Well, we used to cook a lot of food like yams, potatoes, cocoa, green banana and things like that. Earlier on we couldn’t get that food here but later on you could. We used to eat all types of fish. Now you can get that variety here. At first it was only chicken and beef or pork but you can get anything that you want now.

Q. So in those early days in England, what did you most miss about Jamaica, apart from the food?

MR. The friendliness of the island. We had our little activities such as dancing and picnics when we went out. At first we couldn’t really enjoy those activities here in England. It was hard to get the traditions that we were used to at home.

Q. You also said that your social life more or less ended when you came here unless you went to weddings and friends’ parties. There was little social life outside of being a mother and working.

MR. A great deal is different but, nowadays, it has brightened up again because whatever activities we used to enjoy in Jamaica, we have over here just the same now. We have the carnival. I don’t miss it now, like when I first came to this country. At that time we really missed our homeland and the activities, but now everything is here.

Q. And was there a point when you resigned yourself to staying in England as opposed to going back to Jamaica?

MR. Well, in all walks of life, you have disappointments. Sometimes, your plans do not work. So as a human you just have to take it in your stride.

Q. So that is what you did?

MR. Yes. I didn’t ever plan to make a fortune. I take life easily. Starting from scratch, I take one step at a time until I get what I want. Some people coming to this country, even now, feel that you are just going to come across their fortune, get it and go but you have to work hard for your living, very hard too.