Migrants’ memories of the Caribbean go on show at Hackney Museum
- Credit: Tim Smith
Tim Smith speaks to Emma Bartholomew about his father’s photos of the Caribbean – a window into a world that no longer exists, which he believes will stir up memories for migrants who moved to Hackney decades ago
The stories of people who emigrated to Hackney from the Caribbean are part of a new museum exhibition.
Their backdrop is a series of photos spanning six decades, taken by a British father and son who moved to the tropical isles.
Derek Smith worked distributing British Overseas Aid in Barbados in the 1950s and ’60s, and moved there in 1965 with his son Tim, who was six.
Derek’s images are on show in Island to Island: Journeys through the Caribbean at Hackney Museum, alongside others Tim has taken more recently.
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More than half a century on, one of Tim’s strongest memories is of arriving in Barbados for the first time.
“I’ve done a lot of work with people from the Caribbean who have moved to the UK,” he told the Gazette, “and they often talk about how it’s as if the lights have been switched off when they arrive in this country. It’s like a black and white country.
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“For me, moving there was the complete opposite. We got there and the colours and the smells – everything was switched on in a way that’s difficult to explain if you’ve never been to the Tropics.”
While the Caribbean is famous for its beaches, Tim, 58, is proud of the fact none are depicted in his photos.
He said: “My pictures show real people living real life. People have real jobs, and a lot of that is overlooked with all this tourist brochure imagery. A lot of the pictures my dad took move beyond that idea of a paradise island and show the real lives of people who live on all these different islands.
“It was a hobby for my dad but he was actually quite good at it and his pictures have a real resonance, particularly for people who used to live in the Caribbean themselves.
“There are a lot of those first-generation migrants living in Hackney, and for them it brings back these memories – of women washing clothes in the river, and women collecting water from stand pipes, which are public taps. Those two examples show how much life in the Caribbean has changed in so many ways.
“Barbados in particular has undergone this extraordinary transformation in the past 60 years, where there has been a huge amount of development and infrastructure and everyone now has running water and electricity.
“The pictures are a real window onto a world that doesn’t exist any more. They are a real catalyst for memories for people who grew up in those times and moved to London, to work in the health service or public transport.”
Oral histories which are available to listen to alongside the photos explore migrants’ childhoods, their expectations of Britain and returning home after time spent here.
Sylvia Armstrong, who was born in Jamaica in about 1935 and moved to Hackney 20 years later, describes how she and her five siblings would milk a cow in the field and fetch water from a reservoir half a mile away before going to school in the morning.
“If we didn’t go to school on time, the headteacher would beat us,” she says.
Caxton Holder was born in Barbados and moved to the UK in 1956 where he volunteered with Caribbean elderly groups in Hackney. He describes how, in Barbados, a person’s status came from their family.
“Unfortunately, what one learns from growing up in Barbados is that the whole family either gains or fails,” he says. “So as a child, you are not gauged by your own merits. You inherit what is already established in the family or you suffer by it.
“In the ’50s, when it became possible for people to escape and become themselves as individuals, they took this route out to escape this constant censorship of the parents. And that was primarily my reason for coming here.”
The exhibition at the museum, in Reading Lane off Mare Street, runs until January 13.