BLACK HISTORY MONTH: “We came as immigrants but made our contribution”
PUBLISHED: 14:29 22 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:29 22 October 2020
Beverley Dowdell, Chairman of Southampton’s Black Heritage Centre, shares her journey from the Carribbean
Six months before the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, in June 1948, a group of Jamaican people quietly disembarked from the SS Almanzora in Southampton. Many moved on but many also remained, establishing a thriving West Indian community in the area.
That community has grown up and moved on, too, but the contribution it has made to life in this Hampshire city is still celebrated by its Black Heritage Southampton Centre and its spirited chairman, Beverley Dowdell. She arrived at Heathrow Airport in the chilly January of 1971, a highly-qualified midwifery nurse from Jamaica, on her way to take up a post-graduate position at Southampton General Hospital.
“I landed at Heathrow and looked up to the sky and saw this orange glow. I thought I could look at the sun without glasses and suddenly wondered if I could hijack the plane back to Jamaica!” she laughs.
It isn’t hard to see why she instantly missed the place she calls ‘home-home’ in the town of Mandeville on an island noted for its warmth, colour, chattering parrots and tasty food.
“You’d get up and hear the dogs barking and the birds singing, the parrots especially would come in flocks,” she remembers. “It’s brightly coloured and everybody wears brightly coloured clothes. It was rural with lots of farming and everyone knew everyone else’s business.”
Jamaica was also a place which placed enormous emphasis on education, with strong competition for the grammar schools in which children such as Beverley, who was born in 1944, learned all about Shakespeare and Henry VIII as well as speaking, “the Queen’s English”.
She recalls the class asking their teacher if they could learn more about the history of Jamaica and the Caribbean region and so, “He did one hour a week on British and European history and one of that of Jamaica and the Caribbean,” she says.
It isn’t hard to see why stories such as the hideous execution of Sabina, after whom the famous cricket ground is named, remain in her mind. (A slave, Sabina drowned her child, not wanting it to become a slave too. She was prosecuted and hanged for depriving her ‘master’ of his ‘property’.) But there were inspiring tales, too, such as those surrounding the legendary free woman and fighter, the splendidly-named Nanny of the Maroons, who is a conferred National Hero of Jamaica.
The eldest of 12, Beverley was the daughter of a tailor who, she says, made bespoke suits and so tended to dress his offspring in trousers, even the girls. To this day, says Beverley, “I always feel more comfortable in trousers.”
She wanted to be a teacher but got an offer from the University of the West Indies to study nursing and midwifery and then obtained an offer of a post-graduate course in Southampton.
“I didn’t know there was already a West Indian community here,” she says, explaining that she picked Southampton for one, simple reason, which makes her laugh now.
“I took a map and decided that this bit in the north must be cold and the south of Great Britain must be warmer,” she says. “When you are young you are a bit naïve!”
Even though she’d, “done my homework”, and bought a coat, gloves and boots, nothing prepared her for the cold. “It never got warm,” she says. She also noticed that, “All the houses were joined up together. There was smoke coming out of them and I thought at first they might be on fire.” She was deeply unimpressed with the “bland” food but was tipped off about a shop in Shirley which sold “international
food” where she could buy some familiar spices, fruit and vegetables.
Within her first week she had met the man who was to become her husband. “Matron would put on a dance once a year for the nurses at the dance hall on the Pier at Southampton,” she remembers.
Mystified by the English women who, “danced round their handbags”, she accepted a dance from a man called Alan from Liverpool who, she was amused to hear, “Spoke just like John Lennon.” He worked at the museum and “pretty soon we were engaged”.
They had one daughter together before Alan sadly died in 1975.
As a single parent Beverley didn’t have time for politics but she did start visiting the West Indian club in Southampton’s St Mary’s, which provided a place for people from the Caribbean to socialise and exchange news and conversation, although all communities were welcomed.
She remembers the place as, “Busy, and noisy and full of activity; someone playing dominoes, someone playing music, people having a drink, people playing cards.”
One of the comforts of this place was the opportunity to chat in Jamaican Patois, the language which developed out of rebellion, as slaves from different tribes and parts of Africa had to learn how to communicate.
“Even now I’ll still use Patois - it reminds you of home,” says Beverley.
Unlike many of those who arrived in the early years, who found that the St Mary’s and Nicholstown areas were the only places they could rent, Beverley lived in Shirley, then Hythe and, finally, the north of Southampton.
Like many of her black colleagues and others in the community she encountered some racist attitudes.
She was denied the opportunity to rent one house but, after getting a white nurse friend to call the landlord for a viewing, was told it was still available. When she went to buy a home in Hythe she was aware of complaints that having a black family might lower house prices and so, when she moved to Southampton, she ensured she was the first resident of her new development. “People buying would
then know I was there and could make up their own mind,” she explains.
In 1980 she met Ken, her second husband, and they remained happily married until he sadly contracted Covid-19 and died earlier this year.
One of life’s busy bees, Beverley, who has a life-long interest in crafts, became a member of the Guild of Spinners and Weavers and in 2002 she was asked to assist a new initiative in Southampton.
“Someone had said they had formed this new group and needed people to help out,” she says. “The next minute I was voted in as chairman!”
The Black Heritage Southampton Centre on Northumberland Road remains open and has outlived the West Indian Club, whose building at the old Trinity church was put up for sale in 2014.
Originally, says Beverley, the BHSC, which is a registered charity, started as a support group with a focus on elderly Caribbean people who were living in isolation, to encourage, remember and share experiences. “Unfortunately, quite a few of us are passing away so our numbers are going down and this year we’ve lost four members.”
Over the years BHSC has contributed to the life of the city, creating a beautiful quilt as well as their own, crocheted wreath of dark purple poppies, which they were invited to lay at the Cenotaph in London.
They also collaborated with students from Southampton Solent University to produce a book, We Dey Yah (Patois for We Are Here) with memories, old recipes, poems and reflections on their lives.
On the first day of the centre’s re-opening after lockdown, Beverley gives a guided tour.
There is a group room with chairs and a table and an office featuring a number of dioramas of members lives, made with old photographs, some showing West Indian nurses from Beverley’s era. They also have a small kitchen, a back room for games and their pride, a small garden or yard, as Beverly describes it.
The yard is friendly and sunny and contained many plants before the enforced closure. Now it needs some love and, like the rest of the building, money spent to keep it pleasant for members to enjoy.
The title Black Heritage creates the impression the charity is only for black people but, says Beverley, the centre is open to all ages and people from all backgrounds to enjoy socialising, group crafts, games, parties and, of course dominoes. (“Although I couldn’t tell you why Jamaicans love dominoes”, she says.)
“There will always be dominoes in the other room but we need and welcome more members; people who want to do activities and share camaraderie.”
Lockdown “put the kibosh” on their planned re-design this year but Beverley insists it will happen although they need money.
“We get no money apart from what we generate – we’re volunteers and we apply for grants to do projects but no one gets paid here and we have to pay business rates,” she says. “Our Jamaican expression, ‘you wash the money and drink the water’ meaning you try to use the money twice applies here!”
She explains that, “West Indian community people are moving away. They are just as ambitious as anyone else and a lot of them, when they came to Southampton, were placed in this area. People felt and thought that as soon as they were able, they would be out of here.
“Most immigrants, and it’s a broad statement, want to seek a better life, what Mrs Thatcher called economic migrants. Why would you leave your comfortable country if you couldn’t see the grass was greener on the horizon? We came as immigrants but made our contribution, this is undeniable.”