Riaz Phillips explains how Windrush migrants created new social spaces that British society thrived upon in the second article of a series for Windrush Day curated by Kiri Kankhwende
Earlier this year saw the Caribbean community as a whole at the forefront of the international media, as new immigration rules left individuals of Caribbean descent who have resided in the UK for decades at risk of deportation due to many of them not formalising or lacking documentation of their voyage.
At the centre of this furore is the Windrush generation, named after the HMT Empire Windrush, one of the first large convoys that carried Caribbean people from the island nations to the UK from the late 1940s onward.
Following the Second World War, the UK, in dire straits, needed labourers to fill the gaps left by the many lost in the wars and thus looked to its formerly colonised nations. Advertisements by the NHS, British Transport and scores of other employers were placed in Caribbean newspapers and on the radio, calling people to serve their “Mother Country”.
As such, the legacy of black and Caribbean nurses, doctors, bus drivers and so forth can still be seen today. And this is in addition to the many Caribbeans and Africans who were asked to serve in the army in return for British citizenship.
As well as these promised jobs, many were assured of a better life with more opportunities in the UK, which turned out to be a stark opposite to reality.
On arrival, many found themselves ostracised from wider society. They were effectively barred from public spaces such as pubs and nightclubs and thus had to create their own social spaces. Missing family and sun, many sought to recreate elements of island life in the cold climate of the UK, which more of than not centred on music and food.
With few public places accepting patronage from black people, the sound systems of Kingston, Jamaica saw a recreation in basements and houses across the UK from West London to South Manchester. Here, parties centred on pulsating Ska rhythms of the day accompanied with Rice & Peas, curried meats, fried dumplings and rum ran deep into the early hours of the morning.
The popularity of these parties in the communities bubbled from the underground and eventually moved to the streets as carnivals in London, Leeds and Bristol, which emerged as a response to maltreatment. With makeshift steel barrel Jerk drums, Trinidadian Rotis being made out of the back of cars and Caribbean kitchens being recreated out of the back of vans and car boots for revellers, arguably the street food phenomenon we see today saw some of its early foundations.
As times progressed, scores of enterprising individuals were able use the food from their home islands as the basis of sustainable businesses that not only were able to provide jobs for their communities but also to provide spaces of gathering for displaced people.
The first notable wave of eat-in establishments came in the late 1960s as youths of the Windrush generation era started to come of age. Places such as Frank Crichlow’s now-closed Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road in Notting Hill, West London; Roy Shirley and the Johnson Family’s “R& JJ West Indian” in Hackney, East London; Dougie’s Hideaway Club and West Indian Restaurant in North London; and the infamous Black and White Café in Bristol’s St. Pauls all opened within a few years of each other. Other places across Britain opened by the first generation of immigrants have seemingly become folklore, in lieu of documentation.
While these places often competed with active community centres, bookmakers, bars and so forth as places of congregation, Conservative government cuts from the 1970s mean that today, these food eateries are amongst the last vestiges of those public spaces.
Areas like Notting Hill, London and Moss Side, Manchester, which were completely derelict and defunct after the Wars, were illuminated with a vibrancy that frequently saw Caribbean food eateries at the centre. As more people came over from the Caribbean islands, they gravitated towards these areas with an established Caribbean presence and thus these areas were built up from the debris of the wars.
The Windrush generation’s legacy runs very deep in the realms of healthcare, education and much more – though for those within the community, it’s clear to see how Caribbean food has provided the basis for rebuilding neglected parts of the UK – and in the process, lighting the fire of street parties and street food (both ironically now turned into multi-million pound industries today). Praise and adulation seems apt – not deportation.
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Riaz Phillips is founder of Tezeta Press and author of Belly Full, a social history of Caribbean food in the UK.
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Image from Belly Full.