“One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in a blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.”
With these haunting words, Samuel Selvon’s iconic work of fiction, The Lonely Londoners, begins. Written in Creolese and first published in 1956, it chronicles the experience of the working-class West Indian as Selvon’s rich cast of characters arriving from the “boat train” hustle for jobs and accommodation in an alien and sometimes hostile city.
The experience of those in The Lonely Londoners is familiar to my Guyanese father, Eddie Singh, and many of his generation; a generation that is now, sadly, dying out.
Now 80, my father remembers leaving a balmy Trinidad on a clear night in November 1961 aboard the SS Ascania, watching from the deck as the island’s rainbow-coloured lights receded into the distance. Three months later, he arrived in a frosty Southampton in the brutal and unforgiving winter of January 1962. (The boat’s propeller had broken down and what should have been a two-week journey ended up taking three months as the voyage went via the Caribbean island of Martinique and Funchal, Madeira.)
It was minus four degrees Celsius and he remembers his fingers sticking to the metal guardrail on deck. “It was extraordinary cold, like the inside of a freezer. Your breath misting and making shapes,” he says. “When we disembarked, people were so cold, they were covering their face with towel and using anything they had to wrap around their head to ward off the chill. We had no scarf. One elderly West Indian lady was walking around cussing us. ‘Take that off your ears,’ she was saying. ‘They will photograph you and it will appear in Trinidad and Guyana about how y’all behave.’”
The press attention around the new arrivals was largely hostile, with articles describing “the flood of migrants” threatening scarce housing and jobs all-too common. At the time my father was travelling, the mood in Britain had shifted largely against the ‘open-door policy’ of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which had heralded the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush and subsequently a large wave of migration from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean.
Many of those who travelled were citizens of the UK and colonies, held British passports and equal rights of residence. But as numbers grew, from 46,850 in 1956 to around 140,000 in 1961, the reception that greeted them became less than friendly. Ugly race riots erupted in London’s Notting Hill and Robin Hood Chase in Nottingham in 1958, and in 1960 an increasingly jittery Conservative government sought to restrict entry.
The same month my father departed Trinidad, a Commonwealth Immigrants bill had started making its way through the House of Commons, becoming law on 1 July 1962, and ending the automatic right of people in the British Commonwealth and Colonies to settle in the UK.
On disembarking the boat, my father, wrapped in the woollen herringbone coat he had purchased in Spain, tried desperately to stop the wind slicing through his thin seersucker trousers and clutched his cardboard grip tightly. Nestled inside it, among a change of clothes, were the dregs of a bottle of El Dorado rum that he had bought to celebrate his 21st birthday on board ship, and three prized second-hand Newton textbooks in Maths, Physics and Applied Maths, their spines cracked and broken after years of use.
He had travelled 4,500 miles from the small village of Maria’s Pleasure in Essequibo, Guyana to study and work in England, where it was rumoured there were plenty of opportunities. His dream was to be an engineer. There were no universities in Guyana, and the US had clamped down on immigration from the Caribbean with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, and my father, the eldest of 10 children, rejected the notion of backbreaking work on the family farm.
“I was very stubborn. I had my own ideas of what I wanted to be. I wanted to support myself,” he says. “I knew with an English education, I would be accepted anywhere in the world.”
In his pocket he had a scrap of paper scrawled with the name of his friend, Winston Bacchus, in Ladbroke Grove. He had no idea where Ladbroke Grove was. All he knew was that it was somewhere in London. “I had no clue about life outside Georgetown,” he admits wryly.
His parents had reassured him that if he was unhappy, all he needed to do was write and they would somehow find the $2,000 fare to bring him home. In that first year, my father composed a letter three times on that thin, transparent blue airmail paper familiar to so many West Indians. Every time the letter remained crumpled in his pocket.
At Southampton, my father cut a forlorn figure as bodies milled around him intent on getting to their destinations. All he had on him was a £28 traveller’s cheque and nowhere to cash it. A young Trinidadian nurse took pity on him and loaned him the money to get to Waterloo.
At the station, two acquaintances from the same district in Guyana, named John and Simon, were there to meet him (to this day, he has no idea how they knew when he was arriving, the boat had been delayed after all). His friends had arranged accommodation for him for a few days in Lawford Road in Kentish Town while he found his feet. He remembers being bundled in a cab and an address being shouted at the driver.
Listen: Colin Grant discusses tells the stories of postwar immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
As my father stared out of the cab window, he could see huddled figures forking snow off the roads and “four-foot drifts on the streets of Kentish town.” It felt like the world he had arrived in had had all the colour drained out of it: the sky, a dishwater grey; the landscape, a ghostly white – “like someone had taken a pack of flour and buss it open, covering houses, trees and everything. It was the first time I had seen snow”.
The Victorian house on Lawford Road had been divided into a labyrinthine series of rooms, all of which were rented out. My father stayed in a “fellow named Bob’s room”, a distant relation of one of the men who met him at Waterloo, and he recalls four new arrivals huddling around a two-bar electric fire while a blizzard wailed outside the battered sash windows.
At the house, he met a good friend from back home, William from Wakenham, known as ‘Boy’ on account of his cheeky personality. Boy was 10 years older, had already been in London for two years, and had a job as a cleaner at the British Museum. He seemed savvy about big city life and convinced my father to leave the cramped premises of Lawford Road after a few days and get a paying room in Campbell Road. “We can sweet-talk the landlady,” he urged my dad. “And get cheaper rent.”
My father obliged, but four weeks after finding a place Boy changed his mind as he had been dating an English girl named Ann and decided to move in with her. That left my dad unable to afford the room on his own and so he found himself on the streets – homeless and jobless, with just £26 left of the traveller’s cheque. Those days he believes were his most anxious in London.
It’s an experience that the Trinidad-born Samuel Selvon captures acutely in The Lonely Londoners with the disorientation of the new arrival Sir Galahad: “He forget all the brave words he was talking… and he realise that here he is, in London, and he ain’t have money or work or place to sleep or any friend or anything, and he standing here by the tube station watching people.”
My father’s first point of call was the noticeboard at Tufnell Park Underground station, where accommodation and jobs were regularly advertised, but underneath the script advertising rooms to rent were written the words: “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.”
“You would turn up with your cash in your hand and they would say: ‘Sorry, the room has gone.’ But the advert would be in the station the next day,” he recalls.
That night, my father wore shoe leather, pounding the streets looking for vacancy signs. Again, the kindness of strangers helped him when a West African family took him in to their home at 7pm at night and allowed him to stay in the cupboard under the stairs.
He resumed the search for proper accommodation the next day. It was then that the loneliness of the big city seemed to crush him. “We were so lonely when we arrived. We didn’t have family and friends,” he says. “This was a place where we didn’t go to school or university, there were no networks around us.”
His luck eventually changed, and he got a room from a kind Polish landlady on Patshull Road in Kentish Town for £3 a week. Here, he also found work as a warehouseman for a family firm called Harrison that supplied baths, sinks and toilets for the council. He was paid £10 a week. The work was hard, physical labour and he noted that he had to remain in the back room, lifting and loading lead pipes on a pulley to prepare the orders. He was never allowed at the front of the shop.
It is this invisible immigrant experience that Selvon relates – that of living and working in the underbelly of the city, of turning its gigantic cogs while others sleep.
After finding work, life became better for my father. He became good friends with an Anglo-Indian boy called Richard, who lived in the next room and worked for a scientific instruments firm. “He thought he was Elvis Presley always combing his hair backwards and dancing around the mirror,” is how my father described Richard. Boy and Ann also bounced back into his life.
Richard tried to get him a clerical job, as he could see how worn out my father was working at Harrison. Ann even took him to Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office to sit a clerical exam to get work as a postman. “I must have applied for 300 jobs,” he says.
When the cost of a can of spilled paint was docked out of his wages at Harrison, my father’s search for labour intensified. He got a job as a van assistant on school meals delivery, which was easier work and better paid – £13 a week. His English manager Mrs Abbott treated him “like a son” and would cook him full English breakfasts.
At work he met a Trinidadian nicknamed Big Derek, whose friends shared rooms in a large house on Caversham Road in Kentish Town. Derek loved music and the walls of his room were lined with records (“all the jazz greats Nat King Cole, Satchmo, Brook Benton…”).
Derek and his flatmates would host open house at weekends. Everyone would go there, not just West Indians, according to my dad. “English people as well who work in Woolworths and Marks & Spencer, and anyone who found the dress codes and expense of the West End nightclubs too much would come there and lime in the afternoon.”
It took two years for my father to settle into life in London, and he recalls those early days as “mental, a story of survival, always striving to get rent and food”.
Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners was groundbreaking. It illuminated the struggles of a generation of West Indians, who arrived in Postwar Britain, at a time when their voices were rarely heard. As that generation is slowly lost to us, their stories matter now more than ever.
Yvonne Singh is a journalist, writer and editor