When London was the place

Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, London Transport faced a labour shortage. The solution? Recruit employees in the Caribbean to run the city’s buses and trains. James Ferguson explains how these migrants survived difficult times, and changed the old imperial capital for ever

Illustration by Rohan MitchellA West Indian conductor on a London bus in the 1950s. Photo by Corbis Images

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between, published in 1953. And how foreign that decade, the 1950s, now appears to us. Bleak postwar Britain was a monochrome country of bomb sites, rationing, and social conformity. Entrenched in the Cold War and still traumatised by conflict, it had lost much of the optimism that accompanied the end of the Second World War. Youth culture, freedom, diversity were yet to blossom.

Yet amid the gloom and fatigue there was a sense of something new. Discontent was growing throughout what remained of the British Empire (India had gained independence in 1947). Meanwhile, the task of rebuilding the damaged country meant there was full employment, and more workers were needed in public-sector jobs such as nursing and transport. Where could Britain look to fill these jobs? The answer was simple: to its colonial territories, and particularly to those where unemployment was high.

That is how a gentleman named Charles Gomm found himself at a health clinic in Enmore, outside the Barbadian capital of Bridgetown, on 7 February, 1956 — sixty years ago. A photograph shows him sitting in front of a public health poster advising about tuberculosis, dapper (and presumably rather overwarm) in a black suit and white bow tie. A group of young men are gathered around him, listening attentively.

Gomm had been sent to the Caribbean in his role as recruitment officer for the London Transport Executive, and his mission was to hire Barbadians (men only, it seems) to work on London’s buses and in the Underground. They were offered the prospect of steady pay, evening classes, access to the National Health Service, and a place in a hostel at £3 10s per week for board and lodging. The Barbadian government would lend successful applicants the money to pay their fare. In return, they were expected to have “good colour vision” if railmen, explained the Barbados Advocate, and if bus conductors, “an ability to cope with all types of passengers without getting flustered.”

Charles Gomm was clearly persuasive, because seventy men signed up after this first visit; more came from Barbados every two months, and by late 1961 some two thousand Bajans were employed by London Transport, rising to 3,787 twelve years later. Such was the success of the scheme that it was rolled out to Jamaica and Trinidad in 1966. In 1968, London Transport estimated that it had about nine thousand West Indian staff employed in a workforce of seventy-three thousand. This included around two thousand in departments such as catering, many of whom were women.

 

Workers came to Britain from the Caribbean to do many other types of jobs. In his monumental book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Peter Fryer writes: “The British Hotels and Restaurants Association recruited skilled workers in Barbados. And a Tory health minister by the name of Enoch Powell welcomed West Indian nurses to Britain. Willing black hands drove tube trains, collected bus fares, emptied hospital patients’ bed-pans.”

Most of the newcomers to London Transport were skilled workers, but were prepared to accept low-status work in the hope of promotion — which often happened. Because of the organisation’s size and resources, training was an important route to advancement. Underground station staff might aspire to become guards, drivers, and eventually inspectors. Those who stayed climbed up the career ladder.

There were obstacles and problems, however — not least the attitudes of many British people, who offered a chilly welcome. Caribbean immigrants often found it hard to secure accommodation, and faced differing sorts of prejudice. Bad weather, sordid digs, and even racist violence were some of their daily ordeals. Winters were particularly painful. “I was so cold I slept in pyjamas, trousers, and socks,” recalled Sam Springer, who came from Barbados in 1959 to work as a station man. “The only thing I didn’t sleep in was shoes.”

Trinidadian Samuel Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners, published in the year of Charles Gomm’s trip to Barbados, is a bittersweet account of the struggle for survival (and indomitable sense of humour) of Caribbean migrants in 1950s London. Jamaican Alvin Gladstone Bennett also took an ironic look at British racism in his novel Because They Know Not (1959):

Since I come ’ere I never met a single English person who ’ad any colour prejudice. Once, I walked the whole length of a street looking for a room, and everyone told me that he or she ’ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid . . . Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country.

But not everything was doom and gloom for London’s new communities. Solidarity was strong between migrants from the same island, and even across the old island divides. Caribbean culture and tastes became implanted in the capital, more strongly in areas such as Brixton and Notting Hill than in others. (I well remember the sensory exuberance of Brixton Market in the mid 1960s, before the inevitable gentrification of recent years). Churches found their congregations increasing, cricket clubs eagerly snapped up talented Caribbean players, and house parties attracted young Londoners of all backgrounds (and annoyed many others). In a booklet produced in 2006 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Barbadian recruitment scheme, Sybil Campbell, who came from Jamaica in 1961 to work as a canteen assistant, recalled:

A friend of a friend got me my room and it was easy to make friends. There were loads of house parties. You had ska, twist, and blue beats. Cars would pull up to you and they would ask if you were looking for a party and you’d say yes and they’d take you out and bring you back, with no strings attached. You were drinking your Cherry B, VP wine — you’d get up with a headache but you’d still go to work!

The cultural impact on London and other British cities was profound and long-lasting. Government policy changed and immigration was restricted from 1962, but a generation of migrants from the Caribbean had already put down roots and were looking to the future. The 2011 census reported that 4.2 per cent of Londoners (344,597 in all) defined themselves as “Black/African/Caribbean/Black British: Caribbean,” with Croydon the most Caribbean of boroughs.

As for Charles Gomm, he was awarded the MBE in January 1967. History does not record whether he ever returned to Barbados, but his visit there sixty years ago played no small part in the transformation of London into today’s polychrome multicultural city.

  • Lowes1

    An excellent synopsis of life in London in the 50s and 60s. I know, I was there during that period but returned to Guyana in 1961. Left Guyana in 68 and have resided in Canada since then.