1 June 2017
Catherine Browne was shocked by Hackney when she first arrived here from Barbados, she tells Hyacinth Wellington, in an interview originally recorded on audio. Catherine and Hyacinth are both members of the Connect Hackney Senior Citizens’ Media Group
When did you come to England?
I came here in 1955 from Barbados – I leave on 10 May and arrive here 13 May. I came in at Plymouth and took the train to Paddington and then my husband picked me up from there.
How did you travel?
I travelled by boat, the SS Columbia to Plymouth. We stopped at three places, but I didn’t get off at Haiti because every person I saw in Haiti either they had one big foot or two big foot [from the disease elephantiasis], so I didn’t go walking about. I don’t know what Haiti was like because I never went. I came back to the boat.
What were your first impressions of Hackney in the 1950s?
Oh... Hackney was like a dump. It was terrible. My country was better than Hackney. You see all these derelict places and things, you couldn’t believe that this is England, that they call the Mother Country. And my little place was better than Hackney. Yet I lived here all my life in Hackney.
How did your husband find work?
They recruit them from home, on Barbados to come here and brought them here to various kind of jobs. So he was a guard on the tube. And then he was promoted to driving.
What was your housing like in Hackney?
Oh it was terrible, it was about ten people living in one room. When one lot going out on mornings, the next lot coming in, on afternoons. And we had to share the cooker and everybody come with their pot to put on the stove and it only had three holes. It was five of us in there so therefore you had to wait till I take off my pot to put on yours. And we had to punch money [in the meter]. That time it was a shilling and a shilling would last you a long time. But some of us come from work and it don’t have no money in it and they wouldn’t put no money in it. But as soon as they hear you drop the money in they run out with their pot to put on the fire. It used to cause a lot of worries, especially with my husband – he never put up with it.
What kind of jobs were available?
There were so many different kinds. When I came here they sent me from the Labour Exchange to the laundry in Richmond Road and I was there to fold clothes when they come out of the colander. And after they see I could work fast they put me on the colander with the dirty clothes – oh, it was terrible. So when I go home I used to tell him about how women went to take off their [dirty clothes] and put it in the colander. He said to me, “If you don’t like it, you’re going to have to go back [to Barbados].” And when I go home at night I had to wash my hands before I could do anything.
Would you return to the Caribbean, to the island of Barbados to live?
No, I wouldn’t. I would go and visit. If my mum was alive, yes. But she’s not there and it’s not the same. So I will not go back there to live. My family always make noise at me, “When you coming home? When you coming home?” I say, when I’m dead. Not even then. If my mum was alive, I wouldn’t be here, I would go home. But my mum is not alive and it’s not the same. So I don’t go. I have a little, I call it a hut down there and I told my niece she can do whatever she likes with it ’cause we are not coming back to live there. Even if I die, I say don’t take me back there – throw me in the river or somewhere.
Is England your home now?
For all them years... England had my youth, you know. When I came here I was 23 years old – yes, and now I’m an old woman – 23, and my husband was 28. So I’ve nothing back home, only the little hut. But there’s nothing there. It’s not the same. I use it to rush home at Christmas time – Christmas day was lovely. But not now... Christmas is no better than here. But if my mum was alive, I wouldn’t be here today, I would be back sunning myself on the beach. I have a niece and a sister. Every time I phone she says, “When are you coming?” I say, “I’ll think about it.”