Oral History Interview - James Boston

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Oral History Interview - James Boston

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Audio recording of an oral history interview with James Augustus Boston (c.1928 - 2019), who moved to Britain from Montserrat in 1960.

James worked as a bus conductor and lived on Londesborough Road in Stoke Newington. He went on to become known as 'pillar of the Afro-Caribbean community', running the Afro-Caribbean Citizens Club near Newington Green for over 20 years.



JB. My name is James Ausustus Boston. I am 70 years of age. I came from the tiny island of Montserrat I came to the U.K. in 1960. I lived in Highbury for two and a half years and then acquired a mortgage from London County Council (LCC) from Stoke Newington in 1964 and since then I’ve resided in Stoke Newington.

Q. Can you tell me, Mr. Boston about life in the Caribbean?

JB. I went to St. Mary’s school and eventually I became a primary school teacher, taking several exams and I was looking forward to go to Barbados, to become a qualified headmaster. That’s where they trained headmasters; at Earlston (?) College. The government would not give me the grant, so that fell through. I gave up teaching because my family started; I have a wife and seven children all grown up. When the children started to come I was unable to live on my wages as a teacher, because my take home pay at that time was $15.00 per month. A dollar was equivalent to four and two pence, so that’s three pounds, two shillings and six pence. In other words I was scraping the bottom and there was nothing in the bottom to scrape. I decided to spread my wings and see what life was like in the UK.

Q. You were a professional educated person, unlike a lot of settlers from the Caribbean. Was there a history of professional workers in your family?

JB. No. I think that was one of the things that kept me back because when I was supposed to get a scholarship to go to grammar school, because my of my family background, I think they decided I wouldn’t be a suitable candidate, so I did not get the scholarship. Although I skipped standard 2 and standard 4 before I reached standard 7. The headmistress that taught me in school at the time took pity on me and, when she had her own school at Canesdale (?), she sent to call my mother and told her that it was a pity that Boston’s education is going to nothing because of the situation in Montserrat. Your parents had to Mr. This or Mistress that for you to succeed, although it is no fault of the child. She asked my mother if she would allow me to stay on at school and take the teacher’s exam. My mother at the time could not give a direct answer, and she asked for two weeks to think the matter through. When the two weeks was up she returned to the headmistress, and she said to her, this would be putting my son somewhere, so I’ m going to tie my belly [going to eat less] to push me through.

Q. Montserrat has quite a particular history to it, can you tell me what that is?

JB. Montserrat has an Irish background. It is known as the emerald isle of the West Indies from its green appearance in the sea. In addition to that, when Cromwell was Lord Protector of England he abolished some Irish political prisoners, and that was where they landed, on the island, now known as Montserrat. They found their own colony. Even today you have pure Irish blood, those who do not intermix, and who have their own system altogether.
Most of the names of places are Irish, such as Corkhill, Galloways and so forth. Most of the surnames are Irish also, such as Mead, O’Brien and so forth. My mother was a Mead.

Q. What prompted you to come to England?

JB. The family was coming, and I know up to today, for a child to succeed there that child has to go to Grammar school. I have no regrets today, because although I may have been able to send one, I would not have been able to send all of them. When we came here, they all had the same opportunities and today thank god, they all have good jobs. The first one she is an executive in Tower Hamlets; the second one he is a clerical officer for British Telecom. They gave him an interest free mortgage to buy a house in Swindon and; the third one is a staff nurse in Milton Keynes; the fourth one is a barrister. He lives in Birmingham, and was once a legal adviser for Greenwich council. He found that they were prejudiced, because the very first day he began his job, his boss resigned. He worked for them for three years and found that he was not getting the bosses pay, so he left. Today he is very happy working there, and commutes. The fifth child teaches at Kingsway in Holborn; the sixth is an account for a firm in Edmonton and the seventh one is a clerical officer for British Telecom. That’s the family.

Q. To what extent did you come here with a sense of coming to the Mother country?

JB. When I finally made the decision to come to England, I chose Shakespeare’s quotation as a motivational inspiration ‘take up the shovel or the spade, and bush not for your humble place’. I was determined that if I came to London and I have to sweep the streets, so long as I was getting a decent wage to maintain the family, I would do it.

Q. How easy was it to find work once you got to Britain?

JB. I am the only child. I went to the brother of a friend of mine’s mother and told her to write Joseph and tell him I would to come over and I would like him to receive me, and find me accommodation. Without waiting for a reply, I was on my way here. They usually paid us our salary near the end of the month, and they paid me on the 28th November 1960 and on the 29th I was on my way here on the ship, the Montserrat to the UK.

Q. Would you believe that is the same ship I came to England on as a child? How were you able to find work once you were here?

JB. Well the friend who received me he was working away in the country. He woke me up at about 4 O’clock in the morning, on the second day that I was in this country and carried me and showed me where the Labour exchange was. He told me that I should go back to bed and get up to register at 9 O’clock that morning. I decided that I would like to go back to teaching and I inquired about the nearest education office, which was in Highbury at the time. I carried my papers to show them, but the gentleman wasn’t interested. I didn’t know as I know now, that his attitude and the way he answered me were because of the colour of my skin. I told him, I haven’t committed a crime. I told him of my condition and my financial circumstances that I had a family to maintain in addition to myself. He shrugged his shoulders, and told me that he would have to contact the education authorities back in Montserrat.
I asked whether he had anything else to offer in the meantime. He again shrugged his shoulders, then said your accent might confuse the children, or vice versa. I reassured him that in Montserrat, the mother tongue we spoke was English and no other language. I asked how long it would take for me to get a reply. He said about six to eight months. I repeated Osix to eight months. If I write my wife today Monday, by the end of the week I could get a reply. Again he shrugged his shoulders, so I got up to leave.
When I came out, the bus, which I took to go home, had a notice inside which stated that conductors were wanted? I sat beside a white person. At that time I was not able to differentiate whether she was English, French or Dutch. I asked her how I could get to Griffith House in Baker Street. She gave me an explanation and took a leaf from her diary and gave me a sketch, and I found it on my own although I was only two days in the country.
When I got there, there were seventy applicants at the time, myself included. We had to do little sums that was only mental arithmetic for us in the West Indies and I looked at them and gave the answers. The man in charge said to me Mr. Boston, if you make a mistake you will be out. I told him that I was positive that the sums were correct. Then we had to write a paper about a walk in the country or, the qualities of a good conductor in not less than 165 words. So, I said to myself, that as I was applying for a job as a conductor, I should write about the qualities of a good conductor. So I tabulated by saying; ‘The qualities of a good conductor are as follows:’ I ended by stating; ‘last but not least he should be honest’. When I finished I beckoned to the examiner and he read it about three times and then he walked away and I didn’t see him for about 20 minutes. When he came out of the room he had gone into, he beckoned to me and I went. He said, the governor wants to see you. When I got to the door with him, he asked me to wait at the door and told he would be back in a minute. I waited for another 10 minutes before he asked me to enter the room. As I approached, the governor, who was a big burly fellow, said “Mr. Boston, from your passport, I see that you are a teacher, and we believe that you are accepting this job as a means to an end”. I said “have you got a moment sir?” He replied “Oh yes. Please take a seat.”
As I sat down I said, “Here in this country and other countries a teachers pay is very meagre, but mine is far worse. I was getting fifteen dollars a month, with a dollar equivalent to three pounds two and sixpence, is nothing.” I saw that I had him going because he kept nodding his head. When I finished speaking he told me that the job was mine. I became a bus conductor. I worked with the London Transport for twenty-six years and three months.
When I came out, I had not reached retirement age yet, but the buses were becoming one man. They didn’t want conductors anymore; they wanted us to become drivers. I told them that I knew my own capabilities and that I was of a nervous disposition and I would prefer to take redundancy money and leave.

Q. Clearly from what was said in the interview, you were capable of being more than a bus conductor is? Did you not aspire to promotion?

JB. I asked three times to be an inspector. Their system in the London Transport the, I don’t know for now, is not that you take an exam to test your capabilities. From the very beginning the garage manager has to favour you, before he would send you forward and that was my position. Somehow, or the other and I wouldn’t say he disliked me others always came in front and I never got the opportunity to apply even to be an inspector. Obviously, I became very despondent, and decided that I wasn’t going to apply again. I took my children into my confidence and explained to them the things I had experienced and showed them that when they left school and came out, they should not expect to have it easy. I told them the benefit of getting a good education, because they would not only be wasting the teacher’s time, but they would also be wasting the time of their mother and myself I told them that we went out daily to try to keep a roof over their heads, and to try to clothe them, only for them to get a good education.
On the buses we had a system whereby you must rest a day in every week. You got two days and by union agreement, you could work on a rest day and rest on a workday. At the comprehensive school where my children went to the learnt that I used to be a teacher, so eventually I was given a free rein to drop in at any time, so that I could get myself acquainted with the methods that they used. By so doing, I was able to keep the children a step ahead with what they were doing in the school.

Q. How about you experience in getting housing? [22.25]

JB. One of the great difficulties was seeing signs all over which stated ‘Sorry no coloured. Sorry- no children.’ I had two friends from Montserrat whom I used to visit regularly. One week it would be one address, the other week another address, because landlords used to complain, and my friends had no power whatsoever when told they would have to leave. I vowed that I would never bring my family here under such circumstances. I wanted an umbrella over their heads.
So I buckled down, and I cut out all social activities and it was only work, sleep, overtime rest-day. If I was on early time, I would stay behind and do some overtime. If I was on late time, I would still get up in the morning and go in early to do some overtime. It was work sleep overtime rest-day. In the space of a year and a half, I saved two and a half thousand and went to the LCC and got a mortgage. This was for a house in Hackney.
After that it was really tough. I sent for my wife and she left the children behind. My wife came and joined me, and she was nursing at the University College Hospital. We accumulated some more money to send for the children. You must realise that when you buy a house it completely exhausts everything. I said to my wife that, look two hands are better than one, if we send for the children - at that time there were four, it means that you would have to stop work to look after them. Whereas I am the only child of my mother, I said, let us send for my mother so that she could look after them, send them to school, and receive them and so on, while you and I work. My wife agreed. So, we sent for the children. It was the best Christmas I ever had. They flew in 1964 on the 24th December. Although we never had much, but the joy of knowing that the family was reunited, that was what counted.

Q. When did you become aware of the differences between the various white people? [25.55]

JB. On the buses. It was there. There are times and times again that I had to swallow my pride. I had to bite my lips before I blurted out anything that would prejudice my family, my mortgage and our security. One example was that when I went on the buses the minimum fare was tuppence halfpenny. One white lady was rummaging in her bag for her fare and in doing so a penny-halfpenny fell on the floor. She gave me the other penny and said “You pick it up, you black so-and so”.
Some never wanted their hands to touch you. As long as you were black, everyone thought you came from Jamaica. As a teacher I was aware that in any particular school, not all the children are good, not all are bad. So with the different races. Not all are good and not all are bad. One of the things I did, was that the things I came across on the buses, I never took it home and explained it to the children. I allowed them to find out things for themselves. I did not want to poison their minds with the white-people-this or the white-people-that. I would tell my wife, yes. But I would not say many things in front of the children.
It was my way of thinking that the only was that racial barriers could be broken down was if the children grew up with other children here. By going to school and mixing together the racial barriers could be broken down. But, I have discovered that as I said, some white parents poisoned their children’s minds by telling them not to play with that-black-this or black-that.

Q. When you encountered the Irish in Britain did you feel particularly close to them?

JB. Yes. Because one of the first things I did was to secure an Irish driver McBrien. Alter I explained everything to him, we always had a close connection. He even took me to his home several times, prepared a meal for me and so on, when we had a two or three hour break, instead of coming home,
I would go to his home and things like that.
As I said, there are good and bad in every race and that is what I have impressed on my children. I can remember one Sunday I was off and went to church, because I am a regular churchgoer St. Paul’s Church Stoke Newington. I can remember at one time one long queue for the family. That is my wife, my seven children, my mother and myself. We went to church and when we came back, my daughter said to me “Daddy, when are you going to have another Sunday off?” I got my diary and checked and said “Why did you ask me that?” She said, “Well there is a conductor on the 73 bus...” She used to take the 73 bus to Oxford Circus where she was working, and this conductor, kept pestering me and I told him that before I started to talk to him, he would have to meet my parents. So I said “WeII thank you very much.” So I gave her a date when I would be off again. The time came and I was sitting in the sitting room having a beer and my daughter and my wife were preparing the dinner, and bell rang. Lo and behold it was a white face. I was surprised, but I didn’t show it.
I said “Hello” and the man said “Hello is Jasmine here?” I said “yes.” So, I called Jasmine, who came into the sitting room. She said “Daddy, this is the conductor I was telling you about.” This chap, he was an English chap, - stayed until 8 O’clock, in the evening and had supper. When left I said “Jasmine, you never told me it was a white bloke.” and she just coolly said “Daddy, you always said that you would never choose for us.” I just said “What bed you make up, you have to lie on it.” Those were my words to her.
It grew and grew. He kept coming every Sunday and as I said we were all church goers and he decided that he would come into the church. Then he got baptised first, and then confirmed and then in July they got married. His white family took my daughter. And now the barrister one, he has a white girlfriend that he is hoping to marry. They met at university.

Q. How were you received when you first came to England?

JB. The chap, who came to receive me when I came to England, was Mr. Daniel. He not only came to receive me, but he brought the necessary clothing, overcoat and jumpers and so on, because I came in early December. He also had accommodation for himself and I. They were an English couple, the Gallaghers. Before I left, I was pleased to hear them say, one Sunday while we were sitting around the dining table having dinner., “Mr. Boston, when we told our friends that we were going to take in some black people, their response, wasn’t quite approving. However, we thought we would have a try and see.” When I came the woman had just had a young child, and working all these different shifts around all the hours, and coming in at 1 O’clock up to three in the morning as well as going out very early. When I came in I would take off my shoes before going up the stairs, or I would tip on my toes.
Whenever anyone came to me, she would have to come and knock to see if I was there, because I was not a nuisance to the family, and she was quite pleased with how we acted. She was charging us a pound for rent and a pound for food and on Mondays, the chap who received me here Mr. Daniel, would go down to the basement and use their washing machine, so that was a saving as well you see. He would do the washing for both of us. Again, another Sunday at the dining table, she said, “Do you know how I come to be charging you all this rent?” I replied “No”. She said that they were Baptists. They were Baptists members professing Christianity. They said that when they got married, they were still living with their in-laws, and one Sunday, out of the blue. A little old lady came up to them and said “I see that you are still living with your inlaws.” They said “Yes, we can’t afford a mortgage yet to get a place of our own.” She said to them “Go and look for a place, and when you get a place, come back to see me.” They did, and she gave them the money to pay for it cash, and only half of the amount she would have back from them. So, she said “God helped us, and for us now to overcharge other people, God will punish us.”

Q. What did you do for entertainment in those early days?

JB. Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. I told you I cut out all social things. I just had a wireless in the room and would just listen quietly to the wireless. I listened to BBC 1.2 & 4 regularly.

Q. What about pardner hands?

JB, Yes, I joined everything that was going. Having a family, I thought that if I couldn’t benefit from it my family would. I was in the HSA at one time, when my wife had to go to hospital and spent nineteen days in hospital, we got a sum of money from the HAS for hospitalisation. But, I learnt very early that pardner hands and so forth was tricky. Some would back out and so on. At one point there were eight trusted friends and we started to do it together, because I felt I could thrust them. But even up to today, now that I am a pensioner and my wife is a pensioner, we cut out all those friends now. It is just all the family. The one in Milton Keynes sends her money down through the bank, Birmingham and so forth. So that you can have ready cash, say this week the bills come in, the electricity and so on. The mortgage is now thankfully paid off, because I took my redundancy money and paid off the mortgage. But, all the other bills have to be paid for. So I asked for my hand at the end of the week.

Q. How much do you still regard yourself as a Montserratian?

JB. My native land is Montserrat, but I had many misgivings because if they had treated me much better I would not have had to come over here at all. But because I wasn’t Mr. this son or Mr. that son, then I was kicked about.
Before I actually decided to come over here and try my hand, I met a teacher who used to teach me in school Monty Malone and as we met in the street, he said “Hello Boston, how are you getting on?” A voice said to me, don’t hide anything, tell him. I told him that I liked teaching very much. I liked children, but I was scraping the barrel. His reply to me was that he knew of a vacancy in the agricultural department, and that one word from him to the director of agriculture, an Englishman by the name of Saville, and he knew I would get the job. He asked if I was interested, I said yes. So two week after I got a letter from the department for an interview, I went, and got the job. So, all I had to do was to resign from teaching.
First and foremost were the peasants. If there are no peasants I have no job. I had to work hand in hand with them. I had to visit each individual on their plot of land, and look into pest control, like worms and so forth and to look at any difficulties they encountered on their lands. I would visit them and hold conversations with them to discuss their needs and difficulties. When I went out and came back, my wife would say to me, Mrs. So-and-so brought you some potatoes, Mr. so-and so brought you some bananas, so-and-so sent a bit of meat for you and so on. So, I see that I was getting on, I didn’t have to buying everything in the shops. I was better off as an agricultural instructor was, than as a teacher, because the wage was about four times that of a teacher a month.
It’s a long story, but as an agricultural instructor in the southern part of the island St. Patrick’s, I was the choir master, superintendent of the Sunday school, adult education class teacher on a Thursday, bible class teacher, and the agricultural instructor, so these people were meeting me in more than me capacity. In that part of the island the people were very hard to move, and I will explain what I mean by that. The government tried to reintroduce the banana industry and at the meeting at the botanic station they told me what it was that they were trying to do. They secured the stems from St. Lucia and St. Vincent, at 6 cents a cent. Then, they wouldn’t pay any money until the banana comes to perfection and then they only pay 3 cents a stem. But when the bananas come to perfection, they wouldn’t budge, they want the government to find them transportation and I had set about thinking of ways of how to transport these bananas to the depot. I organized groups, so that you would come to my plot and help to cut the bananas, and put them to the side of the [illegible], then we would move on to another plot and so forth. Then, you would find that instead of paying for a truck on your own to transport your own bananas, it would cost you only a matter of cents to share a truck with other banana growers.
I heard that they wanted a qualified agricultural instructor, but I wasn’t qualified, I was only knowledgeable through my science teaching in school. That was one of the reasons that I got the job, because I knew about conservation, soil erosion and things like that. I had given three years as a teacher, and thought that the job would automatically fall into my lap. When I heard that Mr. Maloney who was a Portuguese, who could pass for white, was the only dentist in the land, and his son Tony was just coming out of Grammar school raw. Well Mr. Maloney met the Director of agriculture in clubs at night and so on, so that any information there was, he would have it long before me. He applied for the job for his son and he got it. I thought about this, I dashed to the Chief Minister, Mr. Bramble and said “What is this?” He said “No, no, no, this can’t happen.” And, without letting the Director of Agriculture Saville know that I was in the office, spoke to him, and then he said “I have something different for Mr. Boston, I’m going to call him for an interview at the botanic station.
He did and Tuesday morning as I walked in he said, “Mr. Boston, who about becoming a co-operative offlcer? He said, the work which you are already doing out there is co-operative work, because you get the people to move. We will be sending you to Puerto Rico for a year and a half, then you will be coming back to Trinidad for three months, then to St. Lucia for a month then when you come back here the government will have to give you a subsidy, either a car or a jeep which you can pay back in instalments, because you will have to travel island wide. When he told me that my head swell. So, I backed down now fighting to be the one to be sent to the Eastern Caribbean Farm Institute in Trinidad. After three months I heard nothing else. After that time went back and was told that there were no funds available. And that was the man who held the purse strings. So I said, “What is my position now?” He said, you would be doing the job for Tony Maloney, and when you return the government will find you another job, or you will be without a job. I said without a job that would be like throwing stones in the sea, with a family to maintain.

Q. What do you think are the different characteristics of the different islanders?

JB. First, I must say, not because I’m from Montserratian, but they are known for their hospitality and you will find that St. Kitts and Antigua which are far bigger islands than Montserrat, would latch on for the Montserratian, and you find that certain islanders e.g. from Barbados, would be quite aggressive.

Q. Do you think that the attitudes of children have changed?

JB. Yes, because I know as boy and even when I was a teacher, children would meet you in the streets and they would say “Good morning teacher” or “Good afternoon teacher.” No matter how hot the day was, you had to be in your tie and your jacket when you appeared in front of the class. You could not think of going in front of your class without your coat. What brought it home to me, was that I had an allotment, and I used to like gardening because when you took the boys out for gardening you could back your coat (i.e. take off our jacket) and loosen your tie, you couldn’t back it in front of class. The same applied when you took the boys for carpentry.

Q. Do you think attitudes has changed?

JB. I discovered years ago that some parents would try to get rid of their children by giving them money to go off on their own to do things, not understanding the dangers that those children could get into. With my own children, I taught them that, all of you come from the same home, so you are going to school together and coming from school together. The only exception to that would be when one finished some time before or after the others, other than that they would go together and come home together. As a parent, you as a parent should take an interest in everything the child is involved with. I remember one evening, the who is a nurse now, came to me and said “Daddy, they are going to have a first aid class in school, can I join?” I said “Yes, yes, is very essential to join one, I never had that opportunity.” By share coincidence, the London Transport hosted a first aid class, and I was the first one to go and enlist there. So she was having her instruction at school, and on Tuesday evening we would be having our instruction at Clapton garage and I would take her along with me, as our model for bandaging and that is where she became interested in nursing.
The attitude of children in this country has completely changed, to what I was familiar with in the Caribbean. You have the comparison with those who were in the Caribbean and came over here very young and those who are born over here. They are completely different in behaviour. It is very, very different where disciple is concerned. Scholars are smoking and teachers are smoking on the buses. That could never have happened in Montserrat.

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