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The When We Worked at Raleigh Project Celebrates the Lives of the Factory's Black British Caribbean Workers

10 July 20 words: Rachel Willcocks
photos: Vanley Burke

Whether it’s due to its legacy as one of Nottingham’s most quintessential institutions, or the place that Arthur Seaton so resented working, everyone knows that the Raleigh Factory is woven into the very fabric of Nottingham’s DNA. While much has been written about its iconic cultural status, often overlooked is the impact of its many Black British Caribbean workers. That’s where When We Worked at Raleigh, the archival project that has collated visual and audio histories of those workers and their relatives, comes in...

Suddenly everybody is talking about racism – we’re hearing a voice for worldwide racial equality louder than ever before. It's overwhelming, and it's vital. As present movements push for racial equality, we must look back at our shared history, good and bad, to face up to its sometimes harsh realities. 

At one point, it cost just twenty-eight quid for a ten-week journey from the Caribbean to the UK. On 22 June 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex, bringing with it the beginning of the generation of people, whose collective name would later derive from that ship, arriving in Britain. A bit further up north, over the next two decades, Nottingham, like many other cities around the UK, saw the arrival of many Carribbeans. They sought work and a new adventure, proud to have taken up the post-war invitation from the UK government to come to the 'Motherland'.

The Windrush generation may not have come to this country with many possessions, but they did have a pocketful of dreams, sold to them with tales of cities paved with gold that they'd helped fight the war for. They arrived to the reality of a country decimated by World War II, and in desperate need of a massive influx of workers to help the rebuilding process. 

Seventy-odd years later, and our small but hearty city holds within its people and culture some pretty historical moments in the Black Caribbean British puzzle. We're home to Europe's first official Black Lives Matter group, and in 1958 the first race riots began in Nottingham, before spreading to Birmingham and London. Plus, the first black magistrate and one of the first black entrepreneurs of the 18th century were from Notts. 

Part of the puzzle piece brought back to life by Primary and Nottingham Black Archives is a podcast and photography series, When We Worked at Raleigh. The audio interviews share stories from the Caribbean community members or descendants of those who worked at Raleigh Industries between the 1950s–80s. The project was supported by the Windrush Day Grant Scheme, and is part of the Making Place programme at Primary.

Black and white photographs, captured by Vanley Burke, accompany the podcast, helping the listener step into the past. The British Jamaican photographer and artist Burke has been described as "the Godfather of Black British Photography", his body of work is "regarded as the greatest photographic record of African Caribbean people in post-war Britain". The photos for the project are perfectly real, like the stories that go with them and they take us back to a simpler time, complementing the honest and warm narratives.

At one point, almost every Caribbean household in the city had at least one member of the family employed by Raleigh

Notts born and bred or not, everybody has heard of Raleigh. Still a household name today, Raleigh was one of the largest and well-respected manufacturers of bicycles in the world at the time. Bettina Wallace, who speaks in the series, paints a picture in time for us as she describes seeing an amazing map in one of the offices that showed where Raleigh bikes were sold all over the world. One of their most prominent export locations was Jamaica. So, it seemed fitting perhaps that many Carribbeans who settled in Notts would find work there. But it was not that easy.

Seen as the ‘other’ and unwelcomed, the discrimination that the British Carribbeans faced was rife and regular. Another interviewee, Iona Walker, describes it as, "a bit of a culture shock and very scary... Walking down the street, white people would be abusive to you, calling you names."

The racism they faced wasn’t just restricted to walking down the street, but was awaiting for them as they tried to gain employment too. "I was an academic. I wanted to be a teacher or a doctor, something like that, but all those dreams just disappeared," says Llyod Dunwell, another contributor to the podcast series.

Labour jobs for black people were difficult to come by too, despite the worker shortage. At first, many companies such as Raleigh would simply not employ them. Oswald George Powe, a leading member of Nottingham's African Caribbean community and an activist for racial equality, campaigned for change to Raleigh's employment policy.

Having failed in negotiations with the company, Powe sought the assistance of Jamaica's first premier, Norman Manley, who promptly placed an embargo upon bicycle imports from England. This action helped change the company's policy and led to Raleigh becoming one of the largest employers of Caribbean workers in Nottingham. At one point, almost every Caribbean household in the city had at least one member of the family employed by Raleigh.

The ex-workers in this series talk of their fond memories working at Raleigh, memories of playing the classic game of dominoes with friends during lunch breaks, memories of a sense of community, gaining new skills and financial security and even opportunities to travel to other countries.

This trailblazing generation struggled with everyday discrimination because of the colour of their skin, yet they made space for themselves in the community. Determination, humour and spirit saw them through

Yet employment did not mean inclusion or equality. Raleigh went on to employ more and more black people, perhaps because they realised they were good workers. Despite that, it didn't change disparities in pay, the racist atmosphere or the feeling held by many black employees that you always had to prove yourself.

 

Racism might not be as explicit today, but it remains a deep-rooted problem. The Windrush Scandal and the 'hostile environment' government policy is an example of how systemic racism, still in 2020, attempts to restrict and demean this same community. 

This trailblazing generation struggled with everyday discrimination because of the colour of their skin, yet they made space for themselves in the community. Determination, humour and spirit saw them through. Sadly, their contributions that came when the country was in great need are often forgotten. It's thanks to them, having built and paved the way for a much more progressive society, that we're able to have open conversations about racism. Let's not make the topic of racism a trend of 2020, but instead look at ways we can learn about the history of both our city and country with more projects like When We Worked at Raleigh that showcase these untold histories.

When We Worked at Raleigh is available to see and hear for free online

When We Worked at Raliegh website

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