The Afro-Caribbean Community in Post-war Stepney
History of the Afro-Caribbean Settlers
There are records which testify to the presence of Afro-Caribbean residents in Stepney for at least several centuries. One such example is this extract from the Parish Registers of St. Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. On the top right-hand corner can be found the record of a christening of a John Wilkes, 'a Negro Black of M.E.O.T. Aged about 28 years'. This christening is dated 10th of September, 1780.
Afro-Caribbean Settlers in Stepney before the War
Before World War Two, there was a relatively small Afro-Caribbean community in the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney (created in 1900 as part of the County of London – in 1965 it became part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets), mostly occupying the area around Golding Street, Greenfield Street and Cable Street. The majority of this community were men who had come to England aboard trading ships.
When huge swathes of the population were mobilized for the army and hundreds of civilians were evacuated, the population of Stepney fell from 200,000 to 60,000. The availability of unoccupied housing coincided with the revival of the shipping industry and a gradually increasing influx of Afro-Caribbean seamen. Many seamen only stayed for the duration of their shore leave, but an increasing number stayed to seek employment. As World War Two came to an end and hostilities ceased, many were left jobless in their own countries. As British subjects, West-Indians and West-Africans thought they would be welcome in Britain.
War-torn Houses as Homes
The Afro-Caribbean’s who opted to stay in England, mostly seamen and stowaways by all accounts also chiefly male, naturally chose to settle in the Cable Street district, where others had before them.
This part of war-torn Stepney was an impoverished and working class neighbourhood. The houses, many afflicted by bomb damage, were neither comfortable nor clean.
An article from The Times outlines the effect of World War 2 and the conditions new settlers endured:
“Before the war there was a large Indian population in the area, but it disappeared during the bombing. About 1943 the immigration from West Africa began, the men occupying the empty houses. Coloured American and Canadian troops went there on leave and since the war stowaways from West Africa and the West Indies have tended to drift there as well as the seamen who are casual residents. There is now a fairly big male colony of different nationalities, and they do not all mix well. A great many are unemployed and all are living in squalor”
['Coloured Men’s Needs' published in The Times, on 31st January 1950].
Due to the bad condition of their housing, the new Afro-Caribbean settlers often met in local café’s and bars during the evenings. These venues were often frequented by young English women hoping to assist the seamen in the spending of their wages.
An article from The Sunday Dispatch, of 27th February 1950, highlights further the friction between different ethnic groups as tensions came to a head:
“A crowd of more than 200 roamed the East End of London to attack coloured men on Friday night, Detective-Inspector F. Barnes told the Thames Magistrates Court yesterday. Fines of 20s. each were imposed on John Pearce, 32, and Phillip Ellul, 24, for using insulting words and behaviour. Both men were stated by the officer to have been jostling coloured men off the pavement in the Cable-street area. Ellul (who pleaded not guilty and said he was talking to a friend when the police car pulled up beside him) had a piece of cast iron in his pocket"
In July 1942, the Colonial Office had opened a hostel in Leman Street that provided recreational facilities for the Afro-Caribbean community and sleeping accommodation for thirteen seamen. Officially this was a seamen's hostel, but in reality the residents were often shore workers.
However, by December 1949, this hostel, “Colonial House” had become run-down and was closed by The Colonial Office. The reasons given for the closure were quoted in The Times as “that social services were adequate and the men should be integrated with the local community and that money for colonial welfare should be spent in the colonies” ['Coloured Men’s Needs' published in The Times, on 31st January 1950].
After repeated remonstrations from the Afro-Caribbean community and a wide range of supporters including Edith Ramsey, M.B.E., an Educationalist and Community Worker who served on the Colonial Office Advisory Committee, Colonial House was at last re-opened in 1951 by the London County Council.
Charlie Phillips was nine years old when he first travelled from Jamaica to England aboard the “Reina Del Pacifico”. He talked at a Reminiscence Conference on the History of West Indian Seamen about his experience at Colonial House:
“My first attraction to Docklands was in about 1956. My father was also had connection with the docks and seamen. Every Saturday we used to come down to Leman Street. They had a building there called the Colonial House. It was one of the first Afro-Caribbean centres for people from the Commonwealth, seamen, guys who used to stow-away. After they had served their twenty-one days in jail, they'd all meet at the Colonial House”
'The Coloured Quarter'
M. P. Banton’s book, 'The Coloured Quarter', from which much of the content of this exhibition is drawn, was first published in 1955. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, there were very few Afro-Caribbean residents in London. 'The Coloured Quarter' highlights a little-known fact, namely that a large majority of these were concentrated around the Cable Street area in Stepney. According to M. P. Banton’s book, the numbers of Afro-Caribbean settlers peaked in 1949 and from then on declined gradually but steadily. The community as it was now appears to be almost entirely assimilated into modern Tower Hamlets.