From Barbados to Britain
Dalton Ellis was in his 20s when he followed his dream for a better life. Like hundreds of Barbadians in the 1950s, he joined the immigration trek to Britain.
Now 87, he looks back on an experience which turned out to be the bridge to success for some and a nightmare of disappointment for others. For Ellis, it was the avenue through which he was able to support a wife and four children left behind in Barbados and build himself the comfortable home to which he would eventually return.
He was one in the first batch of 65 Barbadian workers recruited to work with London Transport. So urgent was Britain’s need for workers, his group did not travel by sea, as was the custom. While there were few aircraft flying into Barbados at the time, these Barbadians were flown out on a chartered aircraft.
“A delegation came to Barbados because they needed workers in London, because after the war they lost quite a lot of people,” Ellis said, and he went for the interview. Britain desperately needed workers for its transport system, the hospitals, and the Lyons tea shops to fill the void left by the thousands of death
The memories of that August day in 1956 when he had to leave family behind at Seawell Airport and head for a life of the unknown are ever with him. He was married and the father of four, and he recalled the tears rolling down his face as he boarded the plane at Seawell Airport and feeling “a deep grief . . . when I considered I was going to the unknown”.
“When I see my mother and my family all gathered to see me off, the grief was tremendous.”
The apprehension about his decision was even greater when he arrived in London. “We landed there, we were interviewed by the authorities who had decided where we all would go . . . you are strange to everything . . . you found yourself in a strange place actually feeling lost and thinking what next?”
Next was where he would live. Fortunately, there was a London-based Barbadian liaison officer assigned to take care of this aspect of the trip and Ellis found himself lodging in a room for which accommodation money was deducted from his wages weekly.
“You would pay so much for a room per week, and if the room was pretty large you would share,” said Ellis, recalling stories about those immigrants who found themselves sharing a room on a shift basis. “You would be leaving for work on the day shift and you would meet people from the night shift coming home to the room to occupy the same facilities while you were at work.”
That ‘luxury’ only lasted for the first three weeks after arrival in Britain, however. “After that every man had to find his own accommodation.”
They faced white landlords who capitalised on the opportunity.
Ellis was assigned to West Croydon Station as a rail man working on the platform, generally looking after maintenance of the train. He employed the engineering skills he had acquired after leaving the Good Shepherd Boys School at age 14 and apprenticed as a machine engineer at the Bridgetown Foundry. His apprenticeship lasted five years before he moved on to the Sandy Lane Sugar Factory and worked in steam engineering. Other jobs followed, in a Bridgetown dotted with merchant businesses such as Alleyne Arthur grocery on High Street where he also worked.
In Britain, Ellis took advantage of opportunities for training in other areas. He became a transport driver for the facilities section of the rail system; after this he went to London Transport to be trained as a conductor; next he received a bus driver’s training and drove buses for six years.
Life in Britain in those early years was “no bed of roses”. Over the years stories have been told about those Barbadians who did not make it and indeed Ellis conceded the adjustment to life in Britain was challenging. It started out as a hard life for the Barbadian who initially lived in Brixton and had to make the daily one-hour commute by bus to Croydon Station for his eight-hour work day, rising as early as four in the morning to be on time. But the job paid the tidy sum of £7, three shillings, and with an exchange of $4.80 EC to the pound, the $33.80 EC was far more attractive than the $12 EC per week he was earning when he left Barbados. It was sufficient reason to “stick it” no matter what the adverse aspects.
Still, he recalled when £3 and three shillings was taken out for ‘boarding and lodging’, his Government loan repayment of about five dollars per week was made, and maintenance money set aside for his family back here, there was little left.
“Some weeks I did not have a penny. We used to say you have to count how many cups of tea the money you have left would give you.” Not daunted, he found ways to supplement his income volunteering for other jobs with London Transport and his financial position did get better as the years went on.
The adventurous Barbadian even left England for a while, following friends to New York where he spent 18 months working at a packaging factory and later a paint factory. However after just 18 months he was back in London, returning to the railway. Next he proceeded to expand his knowledge to the area of engineering in heating and ventilating, acquiring City and Guilds qualifications.
Ellis settled back Barbados in 1992. In his twilight years, the days find him either pottering around his small vegetable garden or in the mechanical workshop he has set up in the garage attached to his home.
But the ties with Britain remain strong: “I go back to England every year.”