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My grandmother’s Windrush experience

22 June 2020: this Windrush Day, ICAEW’s Communities Manager, Marcia Dyce, shares the story of her grandmother’s journey to the UK from Jamaica in 1952, and the life she built for herself in Britain.

Iris, fondly known as Sis Iris, arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1952, part of the Windrush generation. She left her family, husband and teenage son behind.

Scared and alone, she stayed with a black family in North London who – unusually for the times – owned their own home.

She found it very difficult to adapt to the freezing weather and smog; she always said she couldn’t see her hands in front of her. She missed her Caribbean food but added the taste of Jamaica to British food.

A Christian woman, she, as a black person, wasn’t welcome in a church, which sadly kept her away from ever going to church in England during her lifetime.

She found work as a seamstress in a factory, working herself into the ground to send money for her family. Finally, she was able to send for her son (my dad), which filled her with happiness. Sadly, Grandad decided he didn’t want to leave Jamaica, which left a hole in my grandmother’s heart for the rest of her life.

She worked relentlessly, supporting my dad as he studied, and was able to save enough money to buy a home in Brixton (where I was born). The house had to be held in my father’s name; in those days, women were not allowed to buy property.

Through her strength and resilience, my grandmother became a self-employed seamstress, and in her quiet times enjoyed “marking her Zetters and Littlewoods pools”. She made many lifelong friends who shared the same values and experiences. She became a mentor to many. This is just a tiny piece of the life of a great woman during the Windrush years.

My Grandmother was fearless, no-nonsense, strong and loved unconditionally. She was my matriarch, my storyteller, my teacher, my mentor, my love. My Grandmother.

Small Island – Based on the novel by Andrea Levy

If you weren’t able to see this incredible story on TV or in the theatre, now is your chance to watch it through the National Theatre at home programme. The play follows three intricately connected stories: Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots. Hope and humanity meet stubborn reality as the play traces the tangled history between Jamaica and the UK.

For further Black Lives Matter resources, please see the ICAEW Diversity and Inclusion hub. For further resources on the histories of African and Caribbean people living in Britain, please see the Black Cultural Archives.