Oral History Interview - Philomena Wells

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Oral History Interview - Philomena Wells

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Audio recording of an oral history interview with Philomena Wells, who was born in St Lucia and who worked for the National Health Service 16 years. She discusses her Caribbean childhood and racism experienced both at work and in London housing.



PW. …Very good for me, cos I come from the Caribbean in a place, Saint Lucia and I was the first child of my mother so it was good and bad, cos today, children of today did not know nothing; they think everything going smooth, they smooth for them but if they know what they’re parents suffer with, they won’t do things that suffers to do.

In my time when I get up early morning, I used to live in a house with my Mother and my Father and five kids, I am six, I am the first one, and before I go to school in the morning I have to get up and walk about three quarters of a mile to get water and come back, and go to school, and after school you come back home, you still have to go and take water again; so it wasn’t very very very good for me and I done this young, because as I just said I was the first child and my mother have to go to work and she need somebody to look after the two children, and I am the eldest one so they take me out of school to look after the children.

I don’t think that’s what she really want but she had no choice and that’s what she did, and as I grow up from there as a teenager I was good but I don’t get the things I suppose to get so anyway I still had that until I grow up a big woman. I married and everything but I was flat broke and good look, I never had no children; for me to sit down and talk to my children what’s I get when I was children like them.

Q. Okay, thank you. Could I ask you what did your parents do for a living?

My parents was to go to work and pick anything like Lemon, like Cocoa, like Paellas, like everything working for the farm, you know things like that, and they worked from seven O’clock in the morning, and come back six O’clock in the evening from Monday to Friday, yes.

Q. Thank you. What was your school days like?

PW. Well, as I just said, my schooldays, I don’t stay school very long, I go to school when I was five, and I left school when I was seven; so I must just tell you I don’t go to school at all because I done nothing at school, so that was my schooldays.

Q. Did you wish you could have stayed on at school?

PW. Yes.

Q. Or were you happy to leave? [03:18]

PW. Yes, I wish I could have stayed at school but at that time there’s nothing I could do or say, or nothing my Mother could deliver because she had to support us and my Father cos what my Father getting it wasn’t enough for all of us, so as I say.

Q. Okay thank you. What was your first job?

PW. My first job is I working, I could remember a white man from a place called ‘Modlink’ it’s a French Country and the he married a Christian wealthy, and my first job was to work for them and look after a little girl named Patsie.

Q. What did you do in your free time? [04:03]

PW. Well, my free time, well I didn’t have much free time because when your employed like that you working like monthly and all the time I said what you have on the, let’s say a dinner time, at dinner time you don’t have time to have nothing else to do, just have your dinner and just relax you have nothing in your spare time to do....

Q. Okay. Why did you decide to leave home and come to England? [04:34]

PW. Well as a teenager I saw a lot of youngsters like me go to other countries in the Caribbean and when they come back I look at them and they look just like me, no different so I said to myself, I’m not going nowhere only one country I wish to go is England, but at that time I say that I forget when I come to England, I will be very rich, very, you know I don’t have to go to work, I don’t have to think about nothing, so the only country I want to go is England so on when England when I get the chance to come to England I just come over.

Q. Who did you come with?

PW. I don’t come with nobody, I just come to live here with my friend, cos I have a friend and we keep writing to each other, and she tell me if I wanted to come over, she can put me up, so I wrote to her back and I said ‘yes, I would like to come,’ and I paid seventy-five pounds to come over to England, and I spent fifteen days from Saint Lucia, to England, and when I come to England I come to Victoria, but the minute I land in Victoria, I know that is not a country for me; but mind you that was thirty-five years ago and I still here, and I don’t know when I’ll be back! [Laughter]

Q. Could you describe to me, your first impressions of getting off the train? [06:00]

PW. Yes, my first impressions to getting off the train, was that it was freezing cold because I come in March and that was my birthday, it was 6th of March, that was my birthday, and my first impressions was I was freezing cold, and when I get to Victoria, I bring some books with things, and something they call furri and what upset me since was the minute I get there is that man come and ask me if I don’t have wrong things like that, and I say ‘no’, and he pushes and mixes everything together and I don’t know if it’s clean or dirty, and he give me that, from the time he give me that I knew it that is not a country I would like to live.

Q. Could I ask you, how did you find somewhere to live?

PW. Well, that same girl you know tell me I must come up I put up by her sister, I put up by her sister and that night I had to sleep with another woman I never see before, and sleeping together as well that is the worse thing that night, cos I never liked that and that was nothing I could do that night.

Q. Did you face prejudice looking for accommodation?

PW. Oh yes, well after that I looked for rooms at that time, because when I come you get, you get hundred people living in one room because there no room and when you go ask for a room they tell you, you see there is no black; no coloured; no black; no coloured and that hurt, that’s enough and god help me I lived with a couple of times, weeks I suppose, and I moved and I get a white woman, I used to work together with her, she was very nice, she told me she give me a room; so when I go and see the room it was a room and she told me she would give me that room because they didn’t have to pass that room to go in the kitchen. But she told me she would give me that room but I’m not allowed no friends, no visitors, and I was so pleased to have it that way, so I took the room and I spent three months with her, and after that I get a boyfriend, from my country but he was in Ghana and that’s the man I married and I still have that man, and I’m and I go look for a job in a Hospital. When I went I asked the old lady if she had any vacancy, and looking at me she told me ‘no, there is no vacancy’

That’s the first hospital I go, up that was in Metropolitan Hospital that was, I go up the road there was a vacancy in that hospital, I go there and I ask if there was an vacancy, the superintendent was there, he told me that they don’t have vacancies but go to Metropolitan there was vacancies there; so I go back in Metropolitan and I said to the lady ‘Mr so and so tell me to come back here because there is a vacancy,’ she says to me, ‘Oh yes, yes’ and I sit down in the office with her, she keep on telling me how hard the work is, she said to me you have to do so much mopping; so much this; so much that, it put me right off the job and I go and I said ‘I’m not going back for that job’. so after that when I go I say no, if somebody can do the job I suppose I can do it too.
I go back to her, when I go back to her she said to me ‘oh you’ve come back,’ I said ‘Yes,’ so she said to me ‘alright I’ll give you the job, but I know you’re not going to stay in that job.’ Anyway when, she said to me to come back the following day, the following day when I come back she wasn’t there, there was a next supervisor, so she said to me ‘There’s no vacancy and no nowhere I can put you down for work, so I go back and I said what happened, what’s going on. Anyway I go back and I stay four days, and I go back again and I myself, because I wear glasses, and I took off the glasses and I permed my hair and a head scarf and I put on a coat and I go back, and I got that same woman and when I met her, she said to me,
‘Oh no you cannot get no job!’ I said, ‘Yes the job is there because the man said there was a job here, so I can have the job here?’ She said, ‘Oh they tell you that, alright’ so she took me, going to the ward passing some ward, and showed me what I have to do; and she asked me if I think I can do it? and I said, ‘Yes’ so I get the job, so I worked there with that woman for twelve years, yes I worked with her for twelve years but she never knew that was me that come the first time, she never knew that. I worked with her for twelve years but she never remember I was the one, but she still every minute she come in behind me, and tell me you must do this you must do that and I’d be patient and because I want to work.

Anyway I what happened the hospital was going to close down, so I asked for a transfer to go to the nurse hospital, so I transferred to the nurse’s hospital and I spent sixteen years working for National Health Service.

Q. That’s a long time.

PW. Yes, that was my last job and that was it, but in my first job, I learned laundry. I spent six years working in the laundry but all you had, to white and black. They put me in the Cullender, the Cullender is some big machine, you press, tablecloths, sheets, all those things you know, there is two of you that has to hold the sheets to push it through the Cullender and they put me with a white woman; I had to hold the sheets, and I had to make sure the sheets; flat in the cullender to push it through, but when you open that, you have to touch hands with the other woman. She told me she don’t want my hand to touch her, so when she said that I said well I cannot do nothing because every time you do that you do it the same time as I’m doing it, so my hand must touch yours.

So when we do that, my hand touched her hand so she pushed me, so when she pushed me there was a big box, like a barrel they call it, they put the wet clothes in it when she pushed me, she wasn’t a big woman, I just put my hand on the barrel, and I pushed the barrel, and at that time everybody keep looking. You know, and they call the manager, and they call the manager. I was lucky enough the manager was and he come in at the time and he sat down one, and he knew me for six years, so that was it.

Q. Thank you. It’s really interesting, can I ask you one last question? Cos I know they’re going to come for tea and I don’t want them to interrupt the recording. But the last thing is, have you been back to your country of origin? [13:40]

PW. Yes, I’ve been back in my country after thirty years I stayed up here, I back to my country, I spent four weeks there, and I come back, and I back again for the second time and I spent six weeks, and I back again for the third time; I spent another six weeks, and I back again for fifth time, I spent nine months, cos that time I back, I said ‘I’m not coming back, I will stay there,’
but things don’t happen the way I felt it would be, you know, and my husband didn’t know, want to go, so because I was alone and things don’t happen the way I think, it was suppose to be and I come back and I come back and I’m sick now; I cannot move around; but I still feel that I’m going to live there one day because I have my house there I have, my husband have his land there, so we can go back anytime, you know we feel, we like to go. But only thing that holding me more because I am not healthy, as you see I am a disabled person you know, so it was very difficult for me, that’s why I still here.

Q. But you know that your land is there?

PW. Oh, yes.

Q. So you can go back there. Okay the last thing is where is home for you?

PW. Oh, definitely Saint Lucia, definitely Saint Lucia, yes.

Q. Thank you.

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