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“I was coming out of brilliant sunshine”: Women’s stories from the Roots Family History Project

By Jo Manby

In the 1970s, the oral history project that became the Roots Family History Project was born out of a volunteer management committee, of which Marie Noble and Elouise Edwards were members. It originated in the need felt among Manchester’s Black communities to record for posterity the experiences and life histories of Manchester’s ongoing African and Caribbean diaspora.

image of Roots History Project logo
Roots Family History Project: ‘A people without history is like a tree without it’s roots’

This two-part post will give an overview of the testimonies of the women involved in the project. Although there is a fairly even balance gender-wise, it’s important to acknowledge the contribution of these women to Manchester’s Black communities as well as to the wider UK society.

The women interviewed mainly arrived in the UK during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, some of them recruits for the newly established NHS. Specifically which part of the Caribbean they came from varied. Jessica Smith was born in St Ann’s, Jamaica; Varona Nurse and Edith Stanley in St Kitts; Daisy Shortman in the parish of Portland, Jamaica.

Louise Da-Cocodia, born in St Catherine, near Spanish Town, Jamaica, and Ruby Inniss, born in St Vincent, both primarily came to Britain to train as nurses. Ruby recalls how all the nurses back home were white and from England, and there was no chance of her becoming one there.

Schooling in Jamaica was practically devoid of reference to West Indian or African culture, history or identity. Edith Stanley said:

we were more under the British way… All literature and everything came from England. I learn about Africa like it just something I see in a reading book, nothing in-depth.

At school, said Dorothy, ‘we were supposed to aspire to the English way of life… anything else just wasn’t on’.

So what greeted these young, aspirational women when they arrived? How in fact did they get here?

As Jessica Smith explained:

My teacher, he was an agent for this travelling service in Jamaica. So he get your birth certificate from Spanish Town. Then you would take the birth certificate and get the form from the passport office. Then you get it sign by a JP or somebody… You would go up to Kingston… The tax office would give you a date and then you would go a buy a ticket.

Varona Nurse tells us that it cost about £75 to come by ship. She recalls mistaking the houses for factories as she didn’t realise what the chimneys were for. Dorothy was shocked when her husband lit a fire in their room, asking him what he was doing. Louise Da-Cocodia thought that much of London’s housing looked prison-like.

Dorothy arrived on a cold, rainy day:

I had on just short sleeves, open-neck short blouse. I wasn’t dressed for this weather, and I was coming out of brilliant sunshine. I was never so cold in my life.

Edith Stanley remembers ‘a lot of frost and a lot of fog in the fifties… we had to get a couple of woolly skirts for the winter.’

Guidelines were set out for the team of Roots oral history interviewers and all respondents were asked about various aspects of their experience. Even the food of course was foreign. Dorothy lost quite a lot of weight initially:

it took me an eternally long time to get adjusted to the taste of food – every damn thing was frozen, and I thought, “what am I going to eat?” Back home we shoo the hens off to get the eggs. You can milk the milk out of the cow and blow the froth away and drink it. It was still warm from the cows. So you can eat Ethiopian apples, you can pick oranges… all fresh.

In the next post we will look at the women’s experiences of the job market, housing, health, welfare and Black activism, as well as their opinions of levels of discrimination and the question of whether they would want to return to the Caribbean permanently.

In the Resource Centre collection you will find the Roots Family History Project interview transcripts in bound volumes in our glass cases.

You might also like the Roving Reader’s series From Jamaica to England, the first post is here.

Elsewhere on the shelves you will find books to compliment aspects of these lives and times. Take for example the collection of short stories, Just Lately I Realise: Stories from West Indian Lives (MAN/HI.3.GAT), written by Manchester-based West Indian men and women who recount their childhood in Tobago and Jamaica, and their struggle to make their way in England in the late 50s and early 60s. Or Chris Searle’s Forsaken Lover (AR.2.06/SEA), in which the author recounts from his own experience of teaching English in the Caribbean just how skewed the Caribbean child’s education was by cultural imperialism and how they were effectively denied information about their own arts, literature and history.

In our History section, Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain (HI.1.04/JAM), edited by Winston James and Clive Harris, is just one of many collections of essays that attempts to unravel misleading stereotypes and explore the impressive struggles of Britain’s Black communities.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

3 replies on ““I was coming out of brilliant sunshine”: Women’s stories from the Roots Family History Project”

Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

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