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Oral History Interview - Mavis Stephenson


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Audio recording of an interview with Mavis Stephenson who was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK in 1952.


MS. My name is Mavis Stephenson and I come from Linstead, St, Catherine in Jamaica. I came here in 1952 and I have been home two times. I was married and I have four children in London and three that I left home. At least two are in Jamaica and one is in Florida. My mother and father are dead and I have one sister in Jamaica. There are other relatives, but my sister is the closest one to me together with my children. Raymond is the first child I had here in Britain he was born in 1956; Leonard was born in 1957, my daughter Denise was born in 1961 Clifford was born in 1960

Unfortunately I didn't know my father because my mother told me that he left and went to Cuba and when he came back to Jamaica he was working in Kingston and was knocked down by a truck so I didn't know him. My mother used to buy and sell things, what you would call a higgler, and my stepfather used to be a labourer.

Q. Military involvement?

MS. None. One of my sons is in the police force though.

Q. Proverbs?

MS. I remember that once when I came home from school, my mother was at the kitchen door. I said 'oh no dinner isn't ready'. I said it to myself, because if you said anything and they heard you, you got a whack. Anyway she asked me to do something for her, because her head was hurting her. I must have muttered 'her head not hurting her you know'. She must have heard me and so she called me. I went up to her jolly like, because I didn't realise that she had heard me. She turned on me and said when you grow up you will see'. That is something that I won't forget and have told my daughter this. I always remember that.

Q. Why did you come to Britain?

MS When I came up to England it was because of a pen pal. This young man who knew my mother and my sisters must have said that he knew me, although I didn't really know him. He was a conductor on one of the buses I used back home. I had never spoken to him or him to me. He had spoken to my mother and my other sisters. He sent for my sister, the one that is back home now. My mother sent and told him that unfortunately she was under age. He sent a letter stating that he would like to help, because you were very nice to my wife and me. My mother wrote back and asked him 'what about the one in Linstead'. He told my mother to ask me, and that if I was to come up to England, I could work and pay him back the fare, because it wasn't a wife he was looking for. That way if I was to come to England, I would be able to help my mother and raise the family.
My mother asked me about it. I was very excited about it because I'd never heard of anyone going to London or anything like that. He had told my mother not to mention it to anybody except the close family. I thought I would consider it, because I was in my early twenties. I came up, but in my mind I was picturing him as the type of man I would really like, but when I got his picture which he sent, although I thought that he was good looking, he wasn't the picture I had of my type of man. When I came here, and saw him, I thought don't think I love you, and up until the day he died, he always teased me and told the children about how we met.' I thought that I couldn't go back home, and we couldn't live together. We could live in the same house in separate rooms but not as man and wife. Those were the rules. He and his sister were living in Hampstead, and I lived with the sister. I came here in July 1952 and I got married in November 1952. Because he didn't want to break the rules if we hadn't gotten married I would either have had to go on my own or return home. I thought that going home might be the better choice, but he took me to his solicitor who always called me Mavis. The solicitor said to me 'Mavis, try it out for a month and if you don't like it, you can come back to me and I will pay your fares to go home. Albert can pay me back in time.' I have never been back to him since. So I've been here since. I didn't have bad live, because I worked and he worked. When I had my first child here I stopped working until the youngest left school and after that I worked for only ten and a half years before retiring.

Q. Strongest memories of the voyage?

MS. I didn't like the voyage. The ship was an Italian ship called the Gras something. I didn't enjoy the journey because I didn't know that people could behave in the way that I say some of them, especially the women were behaving. I asked myself, how comes they didn't behave like that at home. I usually say the women dressed properly going to church, looking nice. Here they were swearing, drinking and falling down, and the white sailors were seeing it all. I actually cried until I reached to Southampton, where he and his sister came to get me. I was only too glad to get off. They used to tell me that I think I'm this and that, they used to believe that I'm something special, but that is the way I grew up. The men them were all right because the men the always drink and gamble and so on, but the young women like me was behaving in a way in which I had never seen happening.

Q. Expectations?

MS. I didn't know that it was going to be so cold, even though he had sent to tell me that it was going to be cold. I had never seen snow or smog. You couldn't see in front of you. I actually passed my gate here and went two doors down the road, and asked if he knew where my road was you bumped into people.
We lived in Hampstead for a while when I came here. It was a residential area and there were hardly any black people there. It was very nice. My first boy was born at the hospital in Muswell Hill, the Alexander Maternity Home, where rich people went to have their babies. So when I went there to have Raymond, they probably didn't even know that black babies born like white babies. When they put him in the ward, people must have come off the streets to see Raymond, because they were probably looking for a little tail. It was after a while that I realised why people were being so curious. People, including the nurses and the Matron said to me that they had never before seen a black baby where they could touch it. He was so chubby and nice as well. However, I can't complain about the treatment I've had in Britain although I head from many people that they had it very rough.

Q. Work?

MS. I was not working when I was in Jamaica. I was between my mother and the rest of the family including my father's parents, who looked after me, because their son was not there to do so. I was their only grandchild, and they gave me everything I wanted. When I came here I could get a job every day if I wanted to. At lunchtimes when we went out there were always notices asking for people to work?

I often wished now that I had made use of the opportunities to train for something, but I always thought I wouldn't be good at these jobs. I worked in a cigarette factory for three and a half years and all I had to do was to sit down and put the thing in the machine and it came out wrapped and all I had to do was to pack the. I could have gone somewhere else to learn some other things. Then I went back again to work in another factory for ten and a half years. This was Metal Box. It was in Upper Clapton. That is where I retired.

Q. Promotions?

MS. No. I didn't push myself into those sorts of situations. It was mainly the African girls who
went for the office jobs and supervisor jobs. One or two of the West Indians did also, but I think on the whole they were seen as being more troublesome, always arguing. So even though the African people did the same thing, they didn't do it at work they did it outside. The West Indians did it inside the factory, so when there was a promotion going it was hard for them to get it. Maybe I would have sought promotion if I thought I had the full qualifications or the confidence.

Q. Housing?

MS. My sister-in-law and her brother had two rooms in the same house. When I came we wanted to get a place for ourselves because the housing situation was quite bad. When you went to look for homes, it was already gone, or they were not renting. They never said go away, but the rooms were never available. After a while my husband said he couldn't take it anymore, and so he decided to buy his own. The first place was in Highbury. He was looking in one road, and he passed a Turkish man who called him and asked him if he was looking for a house to buy. My husband replied yes. The man showed him the inside of the house. The man told my husband that he would not need a big deposit, and should just get a lawyer and he would get his. They would sign the paper and every month my husband could pay the money into the bank. I wasn't even aware that my husband was paying the money, until he told me he had finished paying for the place By that time you had a number of black people coming in. Being that it was a big house, we rented out the top floors. One room was let to a black man with a white girl. He never used to work. We had meters then, and we used to put money into the meter, but as fast as the money went in they would take it out again, and then we would have to find the money for the bill. He started to get nasty and the police came and told my husband that he would have to give him notice to leave, because we couldn't just turn him out. He still wouldn't leave, so they had to evict him. On his own, I don't think he would have been that bad, but the white girl was always pushing him. She was always ready to quarrel and said to us that because we came and got a place we must think that we are better than he is. My husband said that he didn't like to live anywhere where there is problem, so he sold that house and bought this one in Hackney. We took that money and bought this one.

Q. Colour?

MS . When I was in my first job, I came to realise that white people looked on us black people as being different. Although it was explained to me afterwards I was very upset by an incident at work. In the factory one evening I was going home, and we were all rushing to get our coats I was rushing to get mine when a white Irish girl said 'come on Mavis, come on Mavis or I'll cut your tail off'. Now I'd already heard it said that white people thought that black people had tails I was very upset, but I didn't say anything at the time. The next morning when I went back to work and I was really angry with her, and the supervisor called me inside and explained to me that it wasn't anything, it was just something which people said to their children and so on. I said to her that the reason that I was so upset was because white people said black people have tails like monkeys, and the only time I had seen a monkey was when I came here to London, at the zoo. I had never seen one in the West Indies. I had seen pictures of them in books; I had seen them on film, but never in Jamaica. As time went by more black people came into the country. But, in the early days when I went to work I was the only one on the bus, when I went home I was the only one on the bus. People would get up to give me their seat, conductors would help me to get off the bus. When I went into the shop and sometimes people would try to get served before me, but I would tell them that I was waiting to be served and although you could see that they didn't like it, they had to tolerate it, but I would get serve and come out. In the 50's they did have some problems in Manchester and Notting Hill, but I only heard about it and read about it. I didn't witness it personally.

Q. Irish Scots?

MS. I could tell by their accents that they weren't English, but what nationality they were I didn't know immediately until later on.

Q. Social Mixing?

MS. I didn't mix much except at work. Most of the social mixing was between the black boys and the white girls. For me, I didn't mix much. I didn't go to parties, or pubs. Even up to today I don't tend to socialize very much. Even my three boys and daughter in this country don't mix much. My husband didn't much either. He died at 80 from bronchitis. Last July was eight years since he died. If someone invites me to a wedding I would go, but I come home early. Not one of my children has ever gone into police station for anything. One of my sons is in the police force. He has been it for over twenty years as a part time special constable, but he works full time for Guinness the breweries. He is a manager now. His wife was also in it until she got pregnant and had to leave.

In the whole of this street at this moment it is only me and an Irish woman who is living here since the 70's. All the other people moved in since I moved in, so I don't really know them. There have been a number of going and comings in the street. Only a very few people have lived here for some time.

Q. Saving schemes?

MS. That was going on a lot because that was the only was that black people could save to buy their house. I didn't go into one, nor did my husband. I think they are still going today.

Q. Islanders?

MS. I feel very much Jamaican. But things have really changed because when I was over there noticed lots of differences. The first time I went out and I visited my daughter in Spanish Town, there was a dead body on the side walk with flies all over it, and the water was running in the gutter. Further down there was a dog that must have been knocked down by a car. I was very shocked by all of this. There are beautiful houses and nice cars out there but nothing else. The peoples attitude to you who come out there is very bad. They would take the shirt off you. They overcharge you if you have an accent from England or you are well dressed. I was scared when I was out there. Once I fell asleep on the verandah one night and my daughter said to me next morning 'mum you are lucky that you are alive, they would just see you and shoot you'. I said what, 'when I was in Linstead I could sleep on the verandah any time I wanted to'. She said, mum, now is not the time, sometimes they would come straight into your house and shoot you'. I am really scared to go out there. Maybe if it was in the country, it would be different, but I don't know anyone in the country no. Most of my schoolmates have died. I am now resigned to dying in England. Unless I win some money to build a house like Fort Knox, because all of the houses there are surrounding with iron bars, which is very depressing, because they are more like prisons. If you value your life you have to do it.

Q. Family?

MS. Changes are terrible, shocking, and they don't only do it at home they do it in the market place and on the buses. Sometimes you can hear all that happened last night, last week Saturday night and last Wednesday night. Sometimes I think to myself, don't these people know that white people can hear everything they are saying? It really annoys me, and I feel like saying to them `woman shut up". As for the children, it is the behaviour of the parents why the children is like this. Some children see the attitude of the mother on the streets, and then you can't really expect anything better from the child. The children are having children very young, and before the child can say 'mum' she already have another one. Fortunately my husband I was around until the children were grown up. If you want to see a lady, my daughter is one. She is a Jehovah Witness When she comes in and the door is locked that is it, until it opens again in the morning.

Q. Second generation. Children?

MS. There is a lot of differences in the younger generations to how we were in the West Indies. They are more aggressive; their clothes are very odd. They also do't have the manners which one would expect them to have.

I remember one day I went into the bakery to buy bread and they just wanted to hand it to you like that. When I asked the woman behind the counter to wrap it, she said to me that 'no dear we don't wrap bread here. She turned to another woman and said; " did you hear that Ivy, Miss Lardy Da wants her bread wrapped. I told her to leave it there and I went home, because I wasn't living too far from the bakery and got a doiley to wrap it, but she was even making fun of the doiley too.

Chips at that time was wrapped in newspaper. Hygienically it wasn't very nice at all. The tables in the shops would be dirty with stains and the people often seemed as though they didn't bathe properly. But as more and more people coming in, there was a gradual change. The men they never dressed properly, their suits would be very shiny because of the ironing. When the West Indians and the Italians came in with their suits looking sharp and nice, it was only then that the English men began to smarten their appearances. I remember they had a contest in either the late fifties or early 60's, I think it was in the Angel, for the best-dressed man. A black man won it, and the English men were mad. They wanted to know how he won, but he had to win because they were wearing mismatch clothes. The man looked as though he had come from America and was wearing a cream suit, matching suit and tie.

Sometimes walls would be covered with newspaper, floors would be uncarpeted and the fireplace was used to make toast with crumbs and so forth on the floor. Everything was dirty and mucky and often the place would be smelly. I think they often wondered how comes we could live in one room and keep it like we did, and they would have a big house and could keep it clean.

It was black nurses who ran many of the hospitals. Now you go into the hospitals and you would not see as many as before. You never had many problems with nurses giving people wrong injections and so on before, but these days its very different. I don't think that these girls are as well trained. Now they have gotten rid of all the black nurses, and the one or two who are left are doing the hardest work.
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