It’s weird but it was only after moving here to Sweden that I realised I had never asked my nan when, why and how she moved to England.
For the last 25+ years, I sometimes wondered what it was like for my nan travelling by boat to England in the 1960s. Was it like a scene from Titanic? – but without the love stories, fun, and glamour. Or maybe more similar to recent horror images of boats coming into Greece crammed with people, scared of the journey they had just made. It’s so strange but very heartwarming to know she had a very different experience thankfully, although not all on board were as a lucky as her.
Listening to my Nan recount one of the most pivotal moments of her life was amazing and better than I ever could have imagined. She has such a good recollection of that time and I am so pleased I took the time to record it for her and our family. So here is part oneof our two-part interview:
… they didn’t know what waited for them in England it was their way of saying they were not coming back.
Funnily enough, sitting down to hear nan talk about her story was like the scene from the Titanic movie except my grandma was talking in a cool Jamaican accent, laid back on our corner sofa, smiling to herself.
After her mother’s sister had moved to England, she wrote back and suggested my nan join her in England to train as a nurse as the money was good and so were the future prospects. At that time nan was one of ten siblings. She was interested in Commercial at the time – (bookkeeping and typewriting computer skills) and had studied at Roe College of Commercial in Jamaica.
“I left home 1st August 1961, we travelled to England by ship, arriving at Southampton dock 20th August.” The ship was called the Ascena, it had picked up passengers from all of the other Caribbean islands and the last pick up was Jamaica. She was a refitted Italian liner that carried 183 first class passengers and 932 tourist class, passengers. From there it was non-stop to England. Nan still remembers the loud sound of the ship’s horn as it pulled out of port. She said as people boarded the boat they picked up rocks and threw them behind them into the water. When I asked nan why she said: “they didn’t know what waited for them in England, it was their way of saying they were not coming back”.
It was smooth sailing on the seas but the same could not be said for on the boat.
Nan sailed across the Caribbean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean with her eldest brother, her uncle and a family friend. Her cabin was for two so she shared with a female stranger, which was fine. However, one evening she went to meet her group to go and watch a movie when a guy grabbed her by the arm and said: ” your roommate said you is free and ready.” Nan said “I am free … but not for you!!” When her brother noticed she seemed shaken and she told him what had happened, a strict warning was given to the man – A combination of overboard and sharks!
My nan was in, what we today would call, standard class, maybe even premium class. Up on deck level, she had a view of the swimming pool and ocean. Not “the hole” which was third class. The ship had a dance every night, concerts, movies, gambling etc. Nan said at night you would always hear one or two “Kingstonians” heckling “I’m waiting for the number 1!!!” and the reply of “yea man I’m waiting for the number 4”. In relation to their dating prospects that night. Nan said: “While it was smooth sailing on the seas, the same could not be said for on the boat.” By the time they reached Southampton, England, there had been lots of celebrations, drama and even some horror stories –
- Seven weddingshad taken place been performed on board.
- A baby was killed due to being thrown out of a porthole by its younger sibling. It was believed the mother constantly shouted at the baby “if you don’t stop crying I will throw you through the porthole”. She had left the children unaccompanied while she went up on deck and the older brother aged around 10yrs took her words literally. By the time the crew was alerted it was too late.
- A man committed suicide after gambling every penny away at the tables, despite being warned to stop multiple times. When he realised he’d lost everything he jumped overboard.
- When the boat pulled into Southampton, a girl was pulled out on a stretcher after being gang-raped by approx 14 men. Thought to be the result of them believing she was a prostitute who had blown hot and cold with them throughout the journey.
“The experience on the boat was enough to make you turn around and go back home,” Nan said. When they arrived at Southampton they made their way to Waterloo by overground train.
They had the money ready as Jamaica had the same currency – pound, shilling, and pence. But then they had to get from Waterloo to Paddington in order to get the overground train to Slough – “We had no idea about the underground, there was nothing like that in Jamaica”, Nan recalled. Some people at the train station didn’t even know about Slough at that time.
For various reasons, it was a very long time before nan went back to Jamaica. During that time she developed a love of cooking; became a mother of four and a high serving chef at British Airways. In part two of her interview, she talks about the biggest culture shock for a Jamaican girl living in England, her journey into the culinary field, how she ultimately ended up regularly cooking for the Royal Family, as well as her favourite English gotos are fifty years on.