Reflections: Emigrating to England in 1961

Shutterstock image from Margaret/SACCO account
Reflections: Emigrating to England in 1961
Margaret Creavalle came to Britain as a young woman from Guyana in what became an adventurous and interesting learning curve…Image: Shutterstock.

Leaving Themeri Airport in Guyana in April 1961, smartly dressed in a fully lined tailored linen three-piece outfit; nylon gloves & smart little hat, all colour coordinated! Sad about bidding farewell to family and friends who gathered around to wave to the BOAC Charter Flight plane waiting in view in an open field nearby. These Charter Flights were then a regular but periodical event, mostly monthly. There were many good wishes and hopes for future prosperity.

On arrival I was met by my brother & his wife who had emigrated a couple of years prior and settled in East London where they found suitable jobs relevant to their qualifications and experience; i.e. my brother, a technician, and his wife, a nurse.

My experience on the train journey from Gatwick Airport to London Victoria and onward to Forest Gate, East London, was very daunting. I was cold and surprised that a warm cardigan over my smart linen suit did not keep me warm, then from the glimpses through the train window the atmosphere seemed dull and gloomy and houses seemed dark and dank.  

Although I knew about the Seasons, I was expecting Springtime to be a lot brighter & warmer!  In my first week I pleaded with my brothers back in Guyana to book me a return ticket on the next available flight, as I did not want to stay in such surroundings. However, they convinced me to persevere for a while before returning so soon. The only good incentive was watching the ''Telly.'' I especially loved the Cowboy films like Raw Hide!

During my first week I was taken to the ''The Labour Department'' to register for employment. During my registration process, based on my experience, it was suggested that I could take a written test for entry into the Civil Service which I did and was successful both at the test and the interview. I was then given a posting and have to say that the staff and Welfare Section could not have been more caring.

Settling down and trying to get acclimatised to weather conditions, environmental changes, cockney phrases and other sayings such as ‘Bob's your uncle’, 'Cor blimey' now seldom heard; not forgetting to mention the repetitive questioning regarding why did you leave a sunny country? Also, did you live in a tree house? I daresay the latter was due curiosity and a lack of knowledge.

The most challenging of experiences was finding suitable, comfortable and stress-free accommodation. I remember my family back home frequently stating ''You change address as often you change your clothes.''

I often reflect on the number of skirmishes I've had with landlords/landladies and still wonder how I found the strength to hold my own trying to argue about someone using up my shilling slotted in the metre for hot water, or someone using up the gas before I could get my turn to use the cooker! Or worse still, the disappearance of my week's pay package from my room! This was often the landlord entering & searching as soon as I went out!

In reporting the loss/theft at the police station, the police found the time, without hesitation, to come round and investigate, questioning all occupiers of the house. The police also followed up on any results. Results were often very rapid as I only had to go out to the shops and on return would find envelope re-appear in place, intact!

After settling down and getting to grips with situations, and accepting the strange weather conditions of fog sometimes suddenly obliterating your vision on your way home, especially walking over the Thames’s bridges, or in a park…very frightening and often lead to tears as there was no telling when the fog would lift & if you would be able to get to your destination without freezing!

The task of going outside in the dark to gather coal from the Bunker was another strange experience: the coal storage shed where the coal was kept to fuel the coal fire in the grate was something else! I soon mastered the art of twisting the newspaper in tight twirls to lay under the coal to start the light up. The resulting soot was evident around the fireplace and corners of the room. Little wonder why I later suffered from bronchitis every winter!

To this day I still carry hurt against my then Boss who had an affluent home with her very successful husband in a penthouse overlooking the Thames: this relates to the fact that during one of my very bad attacks of flu and bronchitis, I was so poorly and living alone I was unable to go out to a phone box on the main road to Report in Sick.

My boss never understood my dilemma and consequently I suffered a real dressing down! Of course, sub-letting a room in a dwelling and a private telephone was unheard of.

After a few of years I managed to return home for visits on the BOAC charter flights: the main air line in operation at that time to that region. I sometimes now wish the airfields were like they were in the Sixties: wide open fields with just a couple of planes ready to take off, and friends were able to stand outside and wave. That was such fun! This activity applied to both London Gatwick and Primetime, Guyana.

I look back and very much appreciate changes that have been made, which benefit women in their own right. For example, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when after I had had enough of inconsiderate landlords and landladies, I tried to buy my own property. Having found a small place in East London I thought I could afford to buy, to my disappointment, even though my job and earnings were secure, I was refused a mortgage purely on the grounds that a woman was not allowed a mortgage on her own! A ''man'' had to be a joint mortgagor! Similarly, I could not buy a gas cooker from the Gas Board without a ''man'' signing for it regardless of his financial earning capacity. Thank goodness such obstacles have been removed and many of the darker & dingier sides to the Good Old Days have been surpassed.

I still reflect with fondness on hearing the sing along from a nearby pub before closing time; the numerous Cockney songs like I'm getting married in the morning & the good old Knees up Mother Brown! I also recall the traditional Sunday Roast & the most popular dish on the Cafe' menu: Egg & Chips or Bangers & Mash.

Not only the climate has changed & seems to have warmed up, but with now such a diverse population, one no longer has to make a long journey to Shepherds Bush market to find foods or anything to which they are accustomed to from their cultural origins. Times have moved on!