Written by Emma Symonds

22nd June 1948 was a momentous moment in time for young black men and women travelling from the Caribbean on SS Empire Windrush which arrived in Tilbury docks, Essex in 1948, as well as the British people who were starting to recover from WWII. After WWI Britain encouraged immigration largely to help rebuild the country as there was a labour shortage. The Windrush carried 492 migrants who came to a country that promised prosperity and employment. The newly established National Health Service recruited many of these migrants, many from Jamaica and Barbados and these individuals, and many like them became a critical part in the implementation of the NHS and other organisations that we know today.

Unfortunately, many of these young men and women did not receive the welcome they had expected, often experiencing racism and discrimination. Many found it difficult to find accommodation, jobs, and find accepting schools.

Mr Abby Forrester (MSC, GradIOSH) is a Jamaican born man who has lived in the UK since 1970, joined the British Army, raised a family and worked as a professional in Somerset for over 20 years. He shared his story with Emma Symonds, YDH Equality, and Diversity & Inclusion Lead below:

May I take you back to your childhood in Jamaica? How old were you when you came over to the UK?

I came over on the 14 March 1970, and I was 14yrs and 3mth old.

Who did you come over with?

I came over to join my mother, who had worked in the UK since I was 3 years old and had returned to the West Indies for a short while before returning to the UK to find work.

Did you have family who came over on the SS Empire Windrush?

Yes, my mother’s older brothers came over on the SS Empire Windrush and choose to live in the West Midlands. It was them that had helped my mother to get to the UK in 1958. 

What was life like when you arrived in the UK?

It was pretty strange for my older brother and I, who travelled together on our way to the UK. We landed in Manchester and thought that it was weird when the Air Hostess told us to get our coats on to get off the plane. We both laughed and after realising that the warmest clothing that we had was our shirts, the air hostesses wrapped us in blankets and helped us to get off. 

We arrived at my uncle’s house in West Bromwich, where my mother lived. I remember asking why we were stopping outside a factory because we could not understand why such heavy smoke was coming from the chimney. 

When did you join the army? And how was that experience?

I first went to school in West Bromwich, then after a few months we moved to Smethwick, where I went to Smethwick Hall Boys School. In April 1971, an Army recruiting team came to the school to put on a display and I was so impressed that on the 26 April 1971, at the age of 15yrs 3mths, I completed the army entrant exam and joined the army before leaving school.

When you left the army, what did you do?

After serving in the army for 24 years 258 days, I retired at the age of 40 and became a Safety Manager for an engineering manufacturing company in Bridgwater. I worked there for approximately ten months before being recruited by Westlands Aerospace to set up an HS&E department for them in Yeovil. I continued to work at Westlands for a further 20 years as a Safety & Environment Manager. 

Have you found your ethnicity or skin colour to have an impact on your jobs or the way people interact with you?

Yes, always. However, I have always seen my colour as a strength rather than a weakness. I have always considered myself to be more challenging, stronger, more qualified, more experienced than everyone around me, and if I were not, I would put every effort into making sure that I was.

Many of the people that came over on the Empire Windrush were met with hostility and possibly fear. Do you think that those behaviours and feelings still play a role in the lives of black people?

Yes, very much so, but only if you allow this to happen without you doing something about it.

Many Caribbean people were caught up in the Windrush scandal in 2012, did this affect you and your family?

Yes, it did. I had travelled across the world while serving in the British Army using an army document called a NATO Travel Order but after leaving the army since I did not have a British Passport, my wife and I found that we were not able to do simple things such as go away to foreign holiday destinations.   

For all your experiences in life, what advice would you give a young black man or woman now?

You must decide what you want from life and work hard to get it; racism exists and will not change overnight or anytime soon. Work hard to ensure that someone’s racist views will not have a major impact on your life. 

Is there anything you would like to share with us?

Work hard to ensure that someone’s racist views will not have a significant impact on your life. Work hard to show people what a brilliant friend or vital colleague you are. If this doesn’t work, get on with your life.  

If you would like to know more about Windrush we encourage you to read more at Windrush day

If you have been affected by Windrush in any way, you can contact Windrush Scheme

If you would like to share your story please let us know by contacting emma.symonds@ydh.nhs.uk