Stevenage: The Story Of A Small Town Community
These days, when people hear of Stevenage they automatically think of our world motor racing champion, Lewis Hamilton, the town's most famous prodigy; but the town also boasts a few lesser well known black names like footballer Ashley Young and Patrick Younge, who is Chief Creative Officer at BBC Vision Productions. Growing up in the town during the 1970's, I can recall always seeing Patrick and his two brothers with their mum, but would not have remembered them had it not been for the local talent show Celebrate. This began around 2004 as a tribute to their mother Reba who was a vocal activist in the community.
Not too long ago, I befriended an elderly member of my church who invited me to her home in Biggleswade across the border in Bedfordshire. As we chatted it turned out that our lives were more intertwined than we realised.
The Caribbean community in Stevenage hailed mostly from Islington and Haringey. Scattered across the twelve local areas, everyone seemed to know one another or of each other. The majority worked in industrial factories in Gunnels Wood Road while us children were just a sprinkling in the schools. My friend and my mum shared the same car mechanic, an entrepreneurial Barbadian who supplied our families with trout from his fish farm. They had worked together at the same factory and her children went to the same primary school as my brother and I. Until then, I thought I knew every black and mixed heritage child at my school. There were two classes per year with generally two black children in each, yet I failed to remember her daughters. We lived within close proximity of each other in Bedwell, yet our families never connected. We must have passed or ignored each other in the playground, around the lakes and the adventure playground. Even at the community centre, which was a hub of activities for us children, hosting Saturday morning pictures, holiday play schemes and regular jumble sales, my only recollection is that her eldest daughter, at 16, the same age as myself, somehow ended up in our living room plaiting my mother's hair.
Coming to Stevenage in the early 70's, my friend's story echoed that of my mother, leaving London in 1969 for good and with no regrets. My mother arrived as an 18-year-old from St Vincent in the early 60's to train as a nurse, whilst she, four years younger, arrived at the end of the 60's from Jamaica, also as a trainee nurse. They, along with many other single parents and married couples, desperately sought a way out of the slum. Some found jobs at Kodak, while both these women managed to secure work at Mentmore pen factory; this enabled them to move their families out of their one room dwellings. Life changed drastically for these families and they adjusted quickly to their three-bedroom terraced houses and gardens. The modern shopping centre was accessible with close amenities and the children had clean air, and green and spacious areas to play in. As the first new town built in 1946 after the Second World War, Stevenage, famed for its roundabouts, also boasted a safe cycle path system to rival the Dutch.
At school, children like myself who joined my mother at the age of 10 from the Caribbean faced the challenges of reconnecting with our long-lost parents, alongside the shock of acclimatization and the different accents. We were instinctively treated as dumb, classified as ESN (educationally subnormal) or kept back a year. My mother fought against this unfair perception and won.
She did the best she could to help others during hard times and as a youth worker at the Bowes-Lyon youth club and Burydale Children's Home; she tried to keep the boys from ending up in police cells. She chose the educational route out of factory jobs and trained as a social worker, retiring after 30 years of service in 2008.
Throughout those years, the Afro-Caribbean Society was active. Some members like Sherma Batson, who became a Councillor and later Mayor, transformed the dynamics of the Society from the late 1980's until her sudden death in 2017, turning it into a vibrant multicultural forum and launching Celebrate as an annual cultural event. Within twenty years of settling in Stevenage, however, the second generation had all but merged into a cultural melting pot of blended families.
Over time some made their own way (back) to London as I did in 1981, with a one-way train ticket to a life in reverse. Housing conditions which my mother had escaped awaited me in a damp bedsit as did 'punching' coins into the electric meter and cooking and hanging my washing to dry all in one room until I was fortunate enough to secure a council flat. Meanwhile, back in Stevenage, 1989 saw another population shift as the town twinned with Kadoma, Zimbabwe, and welcomed migrant workers from Africa. Affluence-seeking families of Ghanian, Nigerian, Asian and Eastern European origins discovered the town en masse and by 2019 this influx had added to the dwindling Caribbean community.
In 2006 after 25 years in London, I return to Stevenage. My mother was planning to retire at 65 and my daughter, then 4, was chronically asthmatic. I'd heard that the 'country air' worked wonders for asthma sufferers but at 18, my daughter is still asthmatic so I can only assume the quality of air in these parts is not what it used to be...After more than fifty years, my mother still lives at the same address.
I no longer live in Stevenage, though I'm still in Hertfordshire and it feels like I've gone full circle. Having lived in London almost four times longer than my mother did, I can now say that I completely identify with her decision to leave, and feel quite settled and contented as she does here in our relatively quiet, sedate neck of the woods.