House proud

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Christine Lalumia and Eleanor John consider living rooms created by African-Caribbeans in London in the 1960s and 1970s

Michael McMillan

Born 1962? Michael McMillan is a British-born writer of Vincentian parentage. His plays and performance pieces have been produced in the UK and Holland. Core themes in his work explore post-Second World War immigration and settlement, identities and gender, hidden histories and the family.

Previous projects include work shown at Slough, High Wycombe and Manchester.

"You weren't allowed in this room unless there were guests, but it's Sunday, Jim Reeves's 'The Distant Drums' is blaring out of the Bluespot radiogram and big people are chatting news from back home. Mum is drinking Babycham. I pass her the plastic pineapple ice bucket and listen quiet as a lamb, my skin sticking to the plastic covering the PVC imitation leather settee. I smell of rice and peas and the paraffin heater competing with the air freshener and polish from the drinks cabinet filled with glasses that are never used. I touch the painted glass fish and plastic flowers on fanciful sugar-starched crochet on a gold-rimmed fake marble coffee table.

Sunshine beams through pressed lace curtains onto the colourful patterned carpet. The front room looked so good, that it didn't matter how poor we were, we were decent people."

So writes guest curator, author Michael McMillan, explaining his vision of the traditional "West Indian" front room, drawn from memories of his parents' and relatives' homes in the 1960s and '70s. His recollection of being a young boy in his parents' front room evokes the textures, smells and sounds of that east London home.

The installation shown here, based on his vision, forms the centrepiece of an exhibition of the same name at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, which specialises in the history of the homes and home life of Londoners since the 17th century. It includes a range of possessions popular in African-Caribbean homes at the time, which McMillan believes had special resonance for their owners.

In this exhibition, the curators chose to explore such front rooms created by African Caribbean settlers who came to Britain in the 1950s and '60s.

The front room is rich in meanings for that first generation of settlers, and for their children, who grew up with the front room's particular atmosphere and rules in their homes. A well-groomed front room was a symbol of respectability and decency, a special space for Sundays and significant occasions.

Britain has long been a destination for immigrants. War, religious and racial persecution, famine and the need to find work have brought many different groups to this island over the centuries. The story of immigration from the Caribbean is part of this history. In 1948, the ship Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on the Thames estuary, carrying about 500 passengers, most from Jamaica. They had come to Britain looking for work and were the first in any numbers to take advantage of this opportunity in the "mother country". A trickle of immigration followed, but it was not until 1954 that people arrived in larger numbers from the Caribbean: 24,000 in 1954 rose to 190,000 by 1962.

Many African Caribbeans in the British colonies thought of Britain as the mother country. This reverential view was taught at school where a sense of being part of Britain was promoted. Men and women from the Caribbean fought in the armed forces for Britain in the Second World War, after which the Caribbean economy was particularly depressed. Post-war, many jumped at the chance to come to Britain, which offered work and financial rewards far beyond those at home. Initially, most people hoped they would work in Britain for about five years and then return to the Caribbean with enough to set themselves up in work or home. High expectations were often met with disappointment. The settlers were a skilled workforce, but were mostly offered only lower status, unskilled work.

There was a general ignorance in Britain about the Caribbean and little direct experience of black people. Men formed the majority of the early immigrants and, even though their numbers were insignificant, they were met with fear and hostility. Finding accommodation was particularly difficult.

Signs saying "no coloureds" were commonplace. Initially, workers shared single rooms, and as families arrived, they too were accommodated in one room. A shared cooker on the landing and an outside toilet were typical of arrangements.

Difficulty in finding rented accommodation led to the use of the "pardner"

or partner system, which by pooling resources enabled people to put together deposits to buy houses. A group of people, with one acting as the banker, would contribute a sum of money each week, taking it in turns to receive the bank. With the purchase of a flat or house came the opportunity to make a front room. The front room was an important part of establishing a respectable home: it provided a safe space in which to socialise for people often excluded from pubs and clubs and was a marker of achievement and resilience within an often-hostile environment.

In common with new immigrants from other parts of the world, many settlers from the Caribbean found setting up home in England worth the effort of overcoming adverse circumstances. Creating a home in London helped them put down roots and created a sense of belonging.


Creative writing

Imagine you are a new immigrant and have just arrived in your country.

Write a postcard or letter to a friend or family member and tell them about the journey, your new life, the people you have met, your first impressions. "The Men from Jamaica are Settling Down" by Benjamin Zephaniah might provide a starting point.


Think of the things you would miss very much if you went to live abroad.

Drawwrite about one thing you would take with you. Discuss links between objects and personal identity. Can objects hold meaning? Do our belongings give us a sense of identity? Do our possessions tell others about who we are?

Look at a map showing the Caribbean and Britain, divided by the Atlantic Ocean. What sort of things attract visitors or new immigrants to this country? Why did people immigrate to Britain from the West Indies in the mid-20th century? What do you think they expected to find here?


Imagine you are a West Indian looking for work in England. Describe the challenges you face, the racism you encounter and your feelings on your identity and culture.

New immigrants to England from the West Indies faced signs such as "No Irish, No Dogs, No Coloureds" on shop windows. Discuss the racism they faced and whether or not racism has declined since the 1950s in Britain.

Use present-day cases to develop your argument.

Christine Lalumia is deputy director and Eleanor John is head of curatorial services at the Geffrye Museum

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