Home Oral History Interview - Caxton Holder

Oral History Interview - Caxton Holder


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Audio recording of an interview with Caxton Holder, who was born in Barbados and moved to the UK in 1956. At the time of recording he was working voluntarily with Caribbean elderly groups.


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Q: Mr Holder, could you just tell us a little bit about your life in Barbados before coming to Britain; what you thought was important about your life over there?

CH: Well, I had a very happy life in Barbados, I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a district where my parents materially were better off than the people in the surrounding area, so I did not experience any suffering. My parents understood the value of education, and, erm... they ensured that my two brothers and I had Grammar school education, and my sisters went to secondary schools, because in those days, women did not really work - there wasn't any work for women, so they were just taught the niceties of life, you know, so that they can be a complement to a man, and it would help if they had a secondary education.

So my childhood and growing up years were very very happy years. Unfortunately, what one learns from growing up in Barbados, is that, the whole family either gains, or fails. So as, er, a child, you are not... gauged by your own merits. You inherit what is er, already established in the family or you suffer by it. So if, if my parents were highly respected, that was handed down to the children, and therefore put pressure on them to be someone else other than themselves. So in the 50's when it became possible for people to escape, and become themselves as individuals, they took this route out to escape this constant censorship of the parents. And that was primarily my reason for coming here.

Q: So why was it specifically Britain that you chose to come to?

CH: Well because the West Indies at that time was part of the Empire, and we were all as British as British can be. In those days it was an offence even to bring in imports or anything from the States without Britain's permission, so coming to Britain was like coming home.

Q: Were there any sort of restrictions imposed on people who came over at all?

CH: Yes, in that you were not permitted to travel if you had a criminal record. So you had to be passed by the law, before you were given a passport, actually to travel to Britain.

Q: But anyone who didn't have a criminal record was free to travel?

CH: Oh, yes if they could afford a passage.

Q: And was there any sort of assistance given to people?

CH: Yes, in the middle fifties, there was an acute shortage of labour in the service industries in Britain. And to that extent, London Transport, British Railways, and the government... went primarily to Barbados, to recruit... people to come and work in the health service, London Transport, and British Railways. And they were given 'assisted passages', which I think they had to repay. But it didn’t cost them anything initially to come here, just probably writing a promissory note. And err, London Transport built up its staff y'know through just hiding Barbadians. Barbados was always more favoured by England than any other West Indian, and that is because there was never a European fight over Barbados - Barbados was, from the beginning, English, so Barbadians grew up not being able to speak any local languages, patwois or anything else. So Britain looked more to Barbados than anywhere else to get her labour. Plus the standard of education in Barbados at that time was... was, and still is pretty high.

Q: OK, I mean, over the course of the 1950's and towards the end of the 1940's, but particularly in the 1950's, there was quite a considerable migration of labour away from all West Indian countries. What sort of effect do you think this had on the population of the people who remained?

CH: It had a devastating effect, on all the islands... simply because those who came were those who thought well... they can make, or decide their own fate, you know, they were literate, and thought well, big place like England, and they'll be able to earn a better livin' and progress much faster thatn they were in the West Indies. And of course, the West Indies lost a lot of good labour because of this, you know I mean the hospitals were devasted because there were actually nurses who were packing in the jobs and coming up here to work. I mean nurses who were already qualified and I remember clearly that erm it took five years to train a nurse in Barbados in those days. So the country would have felt the loss of that nurse coming up here. Secondly, I personally feel guilty myself in that Barbados had to cater for my education and I offered nothing back in exchange because when I should have been working towards erm… progression in Barbados, I abandoned it all and came to Britain.

Q: And this was because of your motivation to sort of get away from the families.

CH: Well, that was singularly my motivation. I know that others came up here with the hope of getting.. job and some what but that would not have applied to me because of family connections and so on. Plus my, my father had a business which I could have been part of, if I needed to fall back. So it wasn't a question of a job, it was just a question of getting them off my back, as to how I should live and should not live. The friends I should keep and so on and most young people go through this.

Q: Were there any other reasons that you left or was that it?

CH. That was the only reason.

Q: Could you perhaps explain or describe what the voyage across was like. Do you remember anything of it?

CH. The voyage across was memorable for me. I was born within eighty yards of the sea. So as a kid I treated the sea like some people treat the land, I was always fishing and swimming and doing things and the sight of a big boat and travelling in waters did not cause any awe for me and .. while I got aboard I met so many different people and it gave me an opportunity to... talk to other people and find out you know, I made quite a lot of friends on the boat and it was hilarious experience for me, I enjoyed myself.

Q: So, I mean did you keep any of those friends or did you lose touch with them?

CH: Well, I kept some for a few years, but then as we started to make families we disappeared from each other and erm one of the reasons for this is that working in the service industry you are doing shift work all the time and so you can never really mesh with other people you know. Your friend is off when you are on and eventually you grow away from each other. I have erm.. I kept ....about ten friends who came about the same time and well most of them have died off you know, but until their death we remained constant friends.

Q: Moving on to your actual arrival in Britain. What were your expectations of life here when you first stepped off the boat ? What did you think it would be like?

CH: Well, although the schools taught British history and geography. I think I knew more geography and history of England than I did at Barbados when I came here, but.. and I really didn't really know what to expect I know what was really surprising. And that was to come here and find the diversity of people in that although there has always been six percent English in Barbados, I think I came here expecting to see all the English living more or less at the same level. And you stopped.. looked.. and stared when you saw an English man sweeping the streets and doing the menial jobs you never expected, you know, and that took a while getting accustomed to, and I think everybody who comes here from the West Indies especially in those years many expected to see something different meaning. My mum who came in '63 to visit me was shattered that White people were sweeping the streets and picking up cigarette butts off the streets and so education, but erm... I like life too much and started a family too early so that became my main priority, but initially I didn't have any particular or specific plans for England is as is I said that erm... where work is never been a problem, even now, I mean when I retired I was offered a job in Barbados so it has never been....and this is one of the disturbing things about it too, is that in Barbados we don't have.... white and black problems. We have social problem social ladder coming up here to work. I mean nurses who were already qualified and I remember clearly that erm it took five years to train a nurse in Barbados in those days. So the country would have felt the loss of that nurse coming up here. Secondly, I personally feel guilty myself in that Barbados had to cater for my education and I offered nothing back in exchange because when I should have been working towards erm… progression in Barbados, I abandoned it all and came to Britain.

And this was because education, but em..l like life too much and started a family too early so that became my main priority, but initially I didn't have any particular plans or specific plans for England is as is I said that erm.. where work is concerned, it has never been a problem you know even now, I mean when I retired I was offered a job in Barbados so it has never been....and this is one of the disturbing things about it too, is that in Barbados we don't have.... white and black problems. We have social problem social ladder er.. you stay there you can go higher but you seldom...you seldom failed, unless it was by your own doing and this was disturbing because people who came from the lower rounds of the social ladder found it very difficult to penetrate the ones above. And life in Barbados then depended not on what you know but who you knew, and today it is the same.

Q: You say you have never had trouble finding a job. How quickly did you get a job when you arrived in England?

CH: Well, when I arrived in England I had no set plans. Fortunately,.... a number of Barbadians also came upon the ship to work with London Transport and the liaison officer who met them was a family friend. And when he saw me he wondered what I was doing up here or whether I had come to study. And I told him I had come for no particular reason, to show you how naive I was at the time. And, he said well stay with me, I'll find you somewhere, and if you want to I 'II send you to work with London Transport. So... I was covered. I went to work with London .... as a matter of fact he even gave me, I think, ten pounds, because I think they were all entitled to ten pounds on landing. However, I erm... I went to live in Seldon street, this was in Edgware road. And erm... Went on an induction course the following day at Birkbeck college to work with London Transport, and I stayed with them for eight months and then struck out on my own.

Q: So what other jobs did you do?

CH: So after that I became a commercial salesman. I used to travel the country, work door to door and erm... that was quite rewarding but it took me away from home for long periods and I just started making a family and erm.. it was causing me some personal problems and erm.. at that time my dad was putting pressure on me since I landed here and hadn't made any efforts to study . Was trying to put pressure on me to go to Canada and study. because having had a brother there who had just gone he thought well he would be able to keep an eye on me and make me reach my full potential. So I abandoned that and took what I considered to be a safe job working with British Telecom and stayed with them for the next twenty-nine years.

Q.: When you first took your job with London Transport you obviously had to find yourself accommodation. How easy was that?

CH: Well, this was already provided, because when London Transport brought the bulk, they had reciprocal agreement with some West Indians who had been here previously. I....l actually think they were funded by London Transport to buy and run these houses 'cos West Indians were expected to know more about West Indians than London Transport did. So you would get as many as twenty people living in one house. There was a resident caretaker who would cook. That didn't really mean a lot because if you are doing shift work, it would always be too early or too late for grub. So you hurriedly look for a place on your own, and erm... it wasn't too difficult for a single person. It became extremely difficult when you had a kid, and a family and erm.... this is something for which I would never forgive the British Government. You know you can't entice people in their early twenties, fit and healthy of both sexes to come here without thinking where they are going to go. Because.. I mean some of them were have... getting pregnant before they even landed. If there was no..no planes in those days you travelled by boat and it took.. if you were coming from Jamaica something like five weeks to get here. Barbados which was the usually the last stop before sailing to Britain it was twelve days. You know, so people started actually having families as soon as they settled in Britain and never fully recover from that experience, and the British government actually did nothing to help West Indians with accommodation.

Q: So when you moved out, you say you moved out fairly quickly from the accommodation provided by London Transport, what sort of accommodation would you then be looking to move into? Would it be a room or a house?

CH: Oh! One....one room, that was all erm.. anybody could expect.

Q: And would that be the same for if whether you were a single person or a family?

CH: Because in those days a room accounted for half your earnings, fortunately was exceedingly cheap and er.. we managed that way, but.... from six pounds a week you paid three pounds for one room.

CH: Yes, sometimes you were exploited by landlords, who if there was more than one occupant usually double the cost. But in those days everybody was always looking for somewhere better to live. In other words, there was always a run down shack which you could get for one-fifty or two pounds a week, but then you were always looking for somewhere better. Then you were pestering erm.. the council to provide nursery place for you, so tended to stay where you were in the hope that you would get council accommodation and a nursery for your offspring so that you can plant some roots and no, but it was chaotic in those days in that could be living in Notting Hill Gate one day and Kentish Town the next because accommodation in Kentish Town was a little bit better than it was at Notting Hill gate. So you were running from exploiter to exploiter.

Q: How easy was it to get a Council accommodation?

CH: It wasn't easy at all. I mean black people never really qualified because it been worked on, on a point system they could never really accumulate enough points to get to the top. Secondly it wasn't strange to switch from one borough to the next, loosing whatever points you had accumulated in that borough. So the..they were more or less completely ignored. And that was overcome by there being a system that has always been prevalent in the West Indies where, twenty or thirty well meaning people decide to... pull so much per week. And then one person takes it, so over thirty weeks say for instance we were pulling five pounds each. Every person in that group will receive a hundred and fifty pounds every week that enabled some of them to..to crawl out of the fix they were in and deposit on a house.

Q: Do you have a particular name for that system?

CH: Well, depending what country you come from. Barbados, we call it 'm-meeting' other islands call it 'throw-in-a-hand', Jamaicans call it 'Soo-soo' you know so depending where you come from it is known, but it amounts to the same thing, because it was..it was the only means and ways West Indians ever accumulating anything.

Q: So that was common right across the border?

CH: That..that was common not only here in England but in the West Indies as well you know. People put away a little bit and..and..one respectable person was responsible for collecting and sharing it out. And there was some flexibility 'cos if hard times hit you in between, a good word to the person who is organising it could ask you to shift, ask you to wait a little longer for your hand, while I get out of trouble and so on. So, it worked admirably and it still does.

Q.: Obviously one of the issues surrounding the large scale immigration of West Indians to Britain is the issue of racism. When you first came here did you suffer any form of alienation or did you feel racial friction when you first arrived ?

CH: Well. I personally did not..find it, although I mean in a I had to have had first feet, because in Teddy boy era, you know, you are always been chased that was what you got accustomed to, but I know of many friends who are more dosile than I am who have suffered a hell of a lot from racism, but I used to actually go out and look for it. I used to go in pubs, get in debates, and go to Hyde park and say what I have to say and encourage erm.. comments and descent. And to go out as a commercial salesman in those days was also a very brave thing to do. So, I gained in confidence and learnt pretty fast about the..the thoughts and feelings of the English. And I discovered that, even if I only you can stand on your own, they left you alone and picked on somebody else. So although 1 know th..there was a lot of racism and drove a lot of people to mental problems. I personally did not meet any.

Q: So, of your friends that did suffer it, what form would that racism take?

CH: Well sometimes, I mean, people would walk and make insulting remarks and you would be standing on a.. a tube platform and somebody comes and says..'Why not do us a favour and jump' you know or 'You black bastard' well er...er..1 ..I had a car went with my job in 1957, so obviously , I mean I was a target for the police and every other Englishman, because its not seen a black man driving a motor car, you know, so sometimes people would kick it, the policeman would stop me everytime I was seen. And I would suffer a hell of a lot of abuse, but I just saw that in economic terms and not necessarily in racial terms. I..I sometimes couldn't go in certain streets and park because the ...the owner the building would..would try and tell me that they own that parking spot and I can't park there. Pull up at a garage and you try to reverse, they tell you don't reverse on their premises, and things like this so you know there was a..a racial connotation behind it, but only because you seemed to be progressing and..and it belied the idea some English people have that you crawled out of a tree and came up here. And it was shattering to discover that you can communicate to them in English, you know. That proves that then you are absolutely not in the book, where in History or Geography. So in a way I..I felt more compassion than anger. So anytime my car pull by, I say I live here and I know more about England than you do and yet you know nothing at all about the West Indies, so you tell me who is ignorant and who is wise.