Recording Oral Histories with Poplar’s Windrush Residents

V&A East
November 10, 2023

For decades, St Matthias Community Centre has been a pillar and source of celebration for residents of Poplar, east London – from organising Summer Fun Days and seaside trips, to gathering residents to plant hundreds of trees in the gardens of their estates. Earlier this year, to mark the 75th anniversary of HMT Empire Windrush arriving in the UK, they celebrated the impact of its Caribbean community.

Two people sitting on a sofa
Interviewer Wendy Shearer (left) with Poplar resident Theresa Lewis (right) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the run-up to their celebration, a group of Windrush-generation residents from St Matthias’ community invited us to their homes to record their stories of arriving in east London from the Caribbean. To care for the V&A’s collection, we need the help of people with lived experience to share their knowledge and expertise, which will help us uncover new aspects of the collection and make it relatable. This is part of our ongoing work at V&A East to create meaningful relationships with our local community ahead of the V&A East Museum and Storehouse opening in 2025.

We interviewed four residents: Jean Frith, Serena Mondesir-Paul, Helene Modeste and Theresa Lewis. The oral history recordings explored three main topics: hopes and expectations of coming to the UK; first impressions and experiences; and lasting memories and legacy.

“St. Lucia was poor, but everybody was one”

Helene talks about life in St Lucia before migrating to England

 In search of promised opportunity in England, many parents left their children with their grandparents until they were ‘sent for’.  The children left behind became known as ‘barrel children’ after the large barrels of supplies they were sent by their parents in the UK.

Theresa, Jean and Serena talk about their journey to England

Theresa and Jean both missed home, where they were spoilt by their grandmothers.

“I used to cry because I really missed home” – Theresa and Jean share their first impressions of England

 Serena was eight when she left her grandmother in St. Lucia. She described not recognising her parents when she arrived in England. Her mother had a new partner, and not long after arriving, Serena was separated from her mother and went to live with her father.

“Do you know who I am?” – Serena, talks about meeting her dad
two people sitting at a kitchen table. one person is holding a recording device
 Jean (right) migrated to Poplar from her home in Belize to meet her parents in 1950 and has lived in Poplar ever since. Here she sits with interviewer Wendy Shearer © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“You think you’re coming to some really wonderful place… but it wasn’t like that at all!”

Residents laughed when we asked about their first impressions of England.

Serena, Jean and Helene recall their shock when arriving in England

West Indian markets were reminiscent of home.

“The white people had absolutely no idea what to do with a green banana!” – Helene talks about the emergence of West Indian produce in markets

Difficult experiences dealing with racist teachers and ‘curious’ peers made school a challenging time for Serena.

Serena talks about racist teachers in school

Jean and Theresa attended night school, from which Jean got her first job as a Spanish teacher. Making dresses and coats in rug factories, Theresa describes forming close friendships with some of her English co-workers, sharing her rice and peas and soup.

“My mum used to give me dinner to take to work…” Theresa reminisces about working in the rug trade
woman smiling
Helene was sent by her parents to meet her brother in London Victoria from St Lucia © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early years of their arrival, Caribbean families flocked together. Kids played next-door as their elders’ played dominoes and drank spiced rum. Afternoons were spent hunched around auntie’s friend’s boxy TV watching a young Shirly Bassey. Neighbours stepped in to support with childcare whilst parents worked. The community grew up and grew old, together.

Serena, Theresa, Jean and Helene share stories on community spirit

“I used to sit there and I could see the top of St. Paul’s”

Markets disappeared. Skyscrapers appeared. Passing friends migrated back to the Caribbean, whilst new neighbours didn’t hold the same bountiful warmth. Residents described significant changes to Poplar since their arrival in London, spotlighting the magnitude of gentrification in Tower Hamlets since the redevelopment of the London Docklands in the 80s.

Theresa and Jean talk about new neighbours
Jean talks about how markets have changed
Helene and Jean talk about changes to council housing and new buildings

Many residents still have family in the Caribbean. Theresa regularly visits her family in St Lucia with her two daughters.

Bringing Objects to the Windrush Celebration Event at St. Matthias

In July, we were invited to support St Matthias’ Windrush celebration. Across two tables, alongside the oral histories, we displayed a selection of objects and reproduction prints that showcased a range of Caribbean and British-Caribbean makers within the V&A’s collection. From the vibrant floral dress fabrics of Trinidadian-born designer, Althea McNish, to the unusual form of a 19th century Jamaican fan, intricately laced from the bark of the Jamaican ‘Legatta Legatto’ tree. We also displayed reproduction prints from iconic photographers Charlie Phillips and Armet Francis, the 18th century painting of the Jamaican mathematics scholar, Francis William and Hedley Briggs’ ‘Calypso’.

three people listening with headphones
Serena (left) listening to oral history recordings whilst looking at display of Charlie Phillips and Armet Francis reproduction prints © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the photographs stirred up fond memories of London during the 70s and 80s. Everyone remembered the living room bars, reserved for special occasions and portraits. Althea McNish’s dress fabrics evoked stories about scouring Aldgate Market for similar fabrics to inspire residents’ own dressmaking. One person recognised the lacebark fan as similar to one that her grandmother had had in St Lucia. We even discovered that the plants on the lacebark fan had been used by children to create temporary tattoos!

a display of fabrics and two people looking at them
Georgia (right) and a St Matthias community member (left) looking at a display of Althea McNish dress fabrics and Jamaican lacebark fan © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We would like to thank all of the contributing residents – Helene, Jean, Serena, and Theresa – who invited us into their homes and shared their stories. We owe a huge thank you to Sister Christine, who leads the community centre, introduced us to the residents we spoke with and invited us to join the celebration event. Many people across the museum – technical services, security advisers, learning experts and curatorial staff – also worked on this project to make it possible.

This final recording from Helene encapsulates the love and pride that Helene and each resident we spoke with, holds for Poplar.

“I love it, can’t leave it” – Helene shares her love for Poplar

Further Reading

Wendy Shearer – Recording Oral History For the V&A Museum
Stuart Hall – Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
Paul Gilroy – There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack
Peter Fryer – Staying Power: The History of Black People In Britain
Rui Da Silva – A Quick Ting on: Plantain
Jennifer Sweeney Tookes – “The food represents”: Barbadian foodways in the diaspora
Flinn and Mary Stevens – ‘It is noh mistri, wi mekin histri.’ Telling our own story: independent and community archives in the UK, challenging and subverting the mainstream

London-based exhibition spaces and collectives exploring Caribbean/Windrush legacies

Autograph Gallery (Armet Francis: Beyond The Black Triangle exhibition, 22 Sep 2023 – 20 Jan 2024)
Black Curatorial
British Library – Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
Stuart Hall Library (Shifting The Centre: Anticolonial Ways of Seeing exhibition, 26 Sep 2023 – 12 Jan 2024)
The Twelve30 Collective
198 Contemporary
948 Collective

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