Oral History Interview - Sylvia Armstrong

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Oral History Interview - Sylvia Armstrong

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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Sylvia Armstrong, who was born in Jamaica c.1935 and moved to Hackney c.1955. She discusses her Caribbean background.



Q: I’m interviewing Mrs Armstrong and the first subject we are going to talk about is:
What was your first home like? Can you tell me what your first home was like?” [0:04]

SA: I’m from a family of ten, it was ten of us that were in the family, three died when I was small, and then six of us grow up to be adult. Our parents were very strict, and religious, we had to go to church every Sunday, we cannot stop on church, we went to Sunday school at nine o’clock in the morning, and after we went Sunday school [inaudible] adult people would come down to the eleven o’clock service, but we had to stay in the church all day with our parents; couldn’t leave until they come, and in the afternoon where we would come, on Sundays they never let us outside; we couldn’t go outside to play, after dinner; everybody had to sit down and we have a sing song, and read our bible, [inaudible] but we couldn’t go outside to play. They never allow us on Sundays to go out and games or such.

Q. Was that really hard? Not being allowed to go out? [1:35]

SA. No, yes they never allow us out, we’d go to a concert at church, then after dinner, we have our dinner, then in the afternoon, we had Sunday school in the district, we go to different people who own some Sunday school will be around front yard or in the garden we could go to that, but otherwise we must be indoors.

Q. You mentioned your parents. What did they do for a living? [2:13]

SA. My Father was a blacksmith, and my Mother was a housewife, she never worked.

Q. And what was your school like? [2:23]

SA. Well, the school, I went to school when I was four, what do we call it? Primary school, Infants school, and then from that we go at the age of seven to the bigger school. Well it was very good, you see the teacher, we had Scripture in the morning which they’d call assembly and we all had to be at assembly; we all had to go in at ten to nine, for the assembly, and if we leave for assembly, the teacher was good with us, so we had to make certain that we are on time

But before, in the morning when we get up, we would go to the field with our Father and maybe we’d milk a cow and carry the milk, and then we have to our fetch water for us. We used to call it a reservoir; just about a half mile from the walk, sometimes we’d go up there and the water from the reservoir, add water into a big cast drum, iron drum, and the smaller ones they have to get up and sweep up the yard. Sweep all the earth, the dirt, you see we had plenty of fruit trees, Orange Pippins all those things and sometimes they we bruise them or they’d inside and they’d have a big barbecue and we had to keep that clean and sweep up all the dirt and put down the Banana root, and after that get ready for school, but we must be out the house by half past eight, to reach school in time, or if we didn’t go to school on time, the Head teacher would beat us, and after school now, … I can’t really remember what happened at the time, but in the morning, on Mondays when we go to school in the morning it was Scripture and at eleven o’clock we had recess, and at twelve o’clock we had dinner; we had dinner at school, we weren’t allowed to go out, some people carried packed lunch and some had school dinner, but we wasn’t allowed out in the street.

Q. What was the best kind of dinner to have? Packed lunch, or school dinner? [5:14]

SA. Well, we preferred our packed lunch, [inaudible] we preferred sometime school dinner, don’t like it and things, so we made sure we carried a packed lunch.

Q. What did you have in your packed dinner? [5:30]

SA. In the morning, we’ll get up and sometimes we’d make a sandwich, with maybe corned beef or pork, we kill our own pig, and then a slice of pork and make our own sandwich or sometimes we had a thing that we call the ‘garlic(?) tyre leaf’ some people call it different, but it was just corned beef. They mix it with coconut and sugar and make it in a stiff pastry and bake it, tie it into leaves, take a banana leaf and tie it, and put it in the pot and boil it. But some people make it like a pudding and put it in the water; [inaudible] put it into a Dutch pot, cover and put a top on it and put a fire underneath it and make it steam and cook it, and then in the morning you slice it, and you have that for lunch, we generally have fruit juice, or orange, we have a lot of orange, when she don’t give us orange, she choose it and put it in a bottle.

Q. That was your Mother? [7:00]

SA. My Mother. Or sometimes carrot juice, or sometimes we have tangerine, mix the
tangerinade, or lemonade, we mix the orange, or lime and orange, and you put lime juice in [inaudible] and put it in our bag and carry it to school.

Q. Was it refreshing? Was it a refreshing drink to have? [7:24]

SA. Oh yes, it’s just like orange drink dear, but we mix it for ourselves and squeeze lime in it, and you put it into a bottle of drink, like you would buy a bottle of soft drinks, it only because it’s not cold at night, [inaudible] we didn’t have a fridge, not like these days, but we were quite happy; but in the morning, we go to school Monday to Friday, and Saturday my mother go to market, and our duty is to stay indoors and sweep up the yard, we had a little coffee wrap it up chew it and then dry it, and then in a year she will sell it and buy Christmas presents for us, she’ll say, ‘Oh this is your coffee money’ and she may buy a little thing and sometimes buy material, satin and so all year that dress is your coffee money.[laughter]

Q. What sort of thing did she use to sew? Was that clothes she used to make?” [8:53]

SA. Clothes, dresses, she do all our dresses, and we have to wear dresses, and we have to wear aprons to school, they call it body apron; the top is like a blouse and the bottom we have the skirt in front, and the back near the bottom and straight.

Q. and what was it made out of? What kind of cloth? [9:26]

SA. Cotton material.

Q. Did it have to be a particular colour? [9:31]

SA. No anything, we generally wear one dress to school, maybe two days or three days and then with that apron, and the next day we take off the apron and have the dress without the apron for the end of the week. But we have to keep it spotless, clean we won’t get really dirty and put it on Monday morning and as they say, hope the dress lasts till the end of the week, and if she find it dirty even when she changed it we were going to get a whipping. [laughter]

My mother was very strict, but she was very good, wanting to look after her children, she never allow us to go to other people whom run up and down, she don’t agree with that, when you come from school you must keep indoors, and you must not run up and down, and there’s plenty of us, and we could play everything, [inaudible] some people would borrow things, or beg things, she never allow us to do that; and she never buy anything less than a pound than bought, you know some people are I’ll go and buy a [inaudible] of that, or a quarter of that, which haven’t got any money but everything she buy must be a pound or a pint, she don’t buy less than that or she don’t ask to borrow nothing, have purse now, she’ll make sure that purse is in the house cos she don’t tell us to go next door and borrow anything.

Q. This is all interesting about your home life. I wondered when you grew up and you left school, how old were you? [11:39]

SA. I left school at the age of fifteen and why I leave school at fifteen, I remember there was a girl there she was a bully, but she was one of the for the teacher ‘blue eyes’ and at that time they had some children never run for the teacher and some and [inaudible] I remember this girl had fuss all the time and one morning after I finish recess before lunch, then we were down in the playground, and this girl I don’t remember what it was, but we had a row, and she come in crying I must be teacher or something like that too dumb. She didn’t get the upper hand on me, and she called me a [inaudible] and she make complaint to the teacher and the teacher didn’t really call up the two of us to find out what it was, she only caught me and gave me the cane, and I was so fierce, she send me I just got back at the desk I took off the Angel, they have the Angel then on the desk; they had a little well with a hole and I just took off the Angel and dash it on the floors and run down the steps[laughter] and I never go back to school and the teacher sent for me and I never go back, never go back and they sent for me and I decide no. I say I’m not going back to school, or another week there I wouldn’t go.

Q. What did you do when you left school? Did you have to find a job? and if so… [13:38]

SA. No, no, no, we never work, no none of us we never work; until I remember, I leave home when I was seventeen and a half before I was eighteen, and it was after the death of my Father. My Father died the very morning it was my birthday; my father was sick, he was a blacksmith, [inaudible] art and I remember that the morning it would be my birthday the 22nd of May and I said to my Mother, ‘Mum, it’s my birthday on Wednesday what are you going to buy for my birthday? I would like a nice dress.’

She said ‘You’re be lucky, see your Father there;’ and it was about ten o’clock Father died, on my birthday and when he died; buried Thursday afternoon, I remember, how much I cried and everything and I just, I think it was … it so I wanted to go with me Father and so they took me back in the and after me Father died, six months after, I say [inaudible] I want to go I’m not going back to school, I’m not going back to school, I had decided.

I remember it was a Saturday and some people come from the district, and there were people from other place, come to the town and sell different things, teas, mango, all different things, and I went down there, I was going to market [inaudible] I said I want a job, I want to work, something I can get work with and she said. ‘I want someone to stay with my children,’ I said ‘would you come? What your parents?’ [inaudible]

I decide to go, so she said ‘alright.’ The following week I told me Mother, say I’m going away. She said ‘You’re not going away, you’re not going away, your Father just died, what do you want to do, what you can do’ and me and my Mother went direct to the market, and I had a suitcase, a suitcase [inaudible] and got some clothes and said ‘I’m going away,’ and my elder sister went and called me Mother and tell me Mother that I’m going away. I had to go down the market and meet this woman and when I said I was ready to take the bus my mother phoned the Police and when the Police, said what have I done, have I been stealing, me Mother said ‘No, no she don’t steal, she don’t steal nothing, her Father just died, she’s just seventeen and a half.’ The police said, ‘She’s seventeen and a half she’s almost adult. Let her go....’ and my Mother sat there crying, and said ‘I don’t care what you want, I’m going so’ I just jump on the bus. I knew I’d break her heart, but I gave her a report on me and she came to the market every week, [inaudible] I’m alright until she gradually come around.

Q. Did you enjoy the job? [18:25]

SA. Pardon?

Q. Did you enjoy the job? [18:27]

SA. Well I enjoyed it first, but after I get homesick, [inaudible] but I consider all the others and what I have to do, you know I had to go to the river and with the woman’s daughter and then wash and clean the house, the woman had a daughter there which was somebody younger, she wasn’t nice, she began to call me a servant, [inaudible] you must do this and you must do that[laughter] you have to have a lot of experience and after that I just decide and leave them, and I went back home and went to the church and my mother was there then I decide to leave again, I was a big woman now. I leave before [inaudible] never had any trouble with the money.

Q. Can I ask you, so that was when you were younger? That was the first job you did? [19:36]

SA. Yes.

Q. What I’m interested in is when you left home to come to Britain and I wondered why you decided to leave home? [19:41]

SA. Well, after that I got married when I was twenty-eight going to twenty-nine, so I leave home and I went into another district far from home; it was a Spanish Town 13 miles from Kingston, I was there ‘til nineteen forty six, I got married 1946 and I was there until 1955, I got married and lived there and we were getting on but my husband, unfortunately he died 1954, so …

Q. That was in Kingston? [20:47]

SA. Yes, Spanish Town, so anyway … I decided I’m not going back I’m going to travel, and when I tell my mother I’m going to travel she really didn’t like it. She begin to fret and she didn’t know where I’m going. I’m going to England, I had asthma. And she say, ‘England is such a poor place, I’m just going to kill off myself.’

And I said, ‘It’s a really lucky place.’ I have one sister and a brother over there. I mean to say I will be alright. Then I decide I came over here 1955 but unfortunately when I came here what I saw I didn’t like it; the condition for when I decide to come, my brother was over here and asked him if he could get a room for me. I didn’t know what England was like.

Q. What were your ideas beforehand? [22:00]

SA. What would I like?

Q. What were you expecting of Britain before you came? [22:06]

SA. I thought it was something like Jamaica. Jamaica we don’t really have [inaudible] it’s only in the city that anybody [inaudible] rentals. When you rent a house, it may be a room, you want somebody [inaudible] in the yard and everybody had their different door to go in [inaudible] you talk to somebody next door. And I thought it was like that, when I come and find out, when I come and saw my brother, it was four men living together, four of them in one room shared one room. Four beds in the room, when I came one night, it was a Polish woman house and she had an empty room, my brother didn’t get any rooms for me, and my brother go and ask her if she could rent him the room [inaudible]. She was so annoyed [inaudible] anyway she gave him the room for the night, until the next morning, and said you have to go and your sister, [inaudible] so she gave me a room for the night and the next one; we had to go back down and search for a room and well he went back there but got a room for me.

The condition never suit me at all, and I see people walking up and down [inaudible] the street, [inaudible] one day after, I come and I start to go to church, what does the white people come to Jamaica and say about Christians, and there’re nothing like that, they talk about Christianity but they are not Christians, they are far from Christian, but what I see really see [inaudible] on the streets smoking, [inaudible] And I talk to one once, you shouldn’t do that, these people, what says the minister, what [inaudible], [laughter] and he just stepped past, you know, and the condition it really never like what I did expect.

Q. What was your room like? Can you describe it? Can you describe your room for me? [25:07]

SA. My room?

Q. Yeah, the room that your brother got for you? [25:13]

SA. Oh, well it was a good room, it was a nice little room, for it was only I alone in the room, and there was a kitchen that I share with another woman. I say really I don’t like the situation of this sharing, with strange people sharing room and sharing bathroom, so l say I’m going to work until if I can buy a house, I just come and talk about buying a house, they say you’re be lucky, I say well see, anyway (un?)fortunately, I left that room and got a job in a laundry.

My first pay packet was four pounds ten, and I had to pay rent, and pay bus fares and feed myself and I got another room and this was at another Polish woman’s house. She had a small room and I take it and she had a kitchen down the basement and nobody go down there, [inaudible] so I cleaned the kitchen, she said oh, it is nice, carry on clean the passage and the bathroom, clean the place for people.

So she decide when I’m doing it, I tell you what, I won’t charge you any rent, keep the place clean and then I start, and there was only single women, and Gina had a big kitchen, shirts, I wash them and I going to fight and fight until I get a house for myself.

Q. So can I ask you? Were you working at the laundry as well as doing the cleaning at the house where you were living? [27:33]

SA. Yes, I work at the laundry.

Q. Whereabouts was the laundry? [27:42]

SA. It was in Green Lane [inaudible] laundry, and I was living up at Stamford Hill, Downsmere Road, and Saturday and night time when I come home I do the washing downstairs for her, there was a big sink and I put up line on the passage where nobody come down there; and after I get onto that I leave that laundry and got another job.

Q. Where was that? [28:25]

SA. At Commercial Road in E1, and after that I give up the washing for the men there, and I do an evening job. No, I went to the Post Office, yes I went to the Post Office, at King Edward the Post Office, I was doing night work there, I was cooking and in the morning when I come home, I would do a part-time job I went to a store, and cleaned the stores, and there was another manor at church street, [inaudible] I cleaned the place in an afternoon; so I did three jobs, one time, but I had something in mind, unfortunately I got my fingers caught, [inaudible] and burned my finger and I was out for about six months, at that time I got four hundred pounds and I thought it was such good money and I decide I could pay for a house.

When I went to work I saw this girl coming one morning and she was crying, so I said, ‘my dear Our Father is dying’ and up there the doctor say he will last a little longer or he will live longer if he go into the country, he can’t afford it and he have a house, and can’t get any mortgage for it, as don’t have anything for it, so I say ‘How much for the house?’ He says well it’s 700, he don’t have the money [inaudible] so I went up and I say I’ll have a look at it, and she carry me up and I see the house; at the time I had four hundred, five hundred in the bank she took me to a lawyer and [inaudible] said ‘can you afford to pay for it?’ I say ‘well I’ll try and make it up, or I will work and pay for it, so I put down the five hundred and the lawyer said, Anyway [inaudible] I try and he said ‘No, so he decide and I paid seven hundred in the course of a year, [inaudible] one thousand pounds, for it he decide and come back, then I decide to charge rent, and it is an old man [inaudible]

Then I decided to get another one and what they charge me [inaudible] a good piece to start with, [inaudible] and I pain only thousand and I had a mortgage to pay which was only four pounds 50 a week until I conquered it.

Q. Did you ever pay off the mortgage? [33:26]

SA. Yes, I paid it off, [inaudible] so what really happened, I finished and paid off the mortgage, when I decided to send that one, then I decide to send that and when I decided to sell it, I signed the contract and I paid it off to that one which was a I paid off the mortgage. I would pay off the mortgage for that one.

Q. So although you had a house here cos you’d paid off the mortgage on it, did you ever go back to your country of origin? [34:27]

SA. No, no

Q. You ever been back there? [34:38]

SA. Oh yes, I go back all the time, I go back all the time but after the death of my mother, my mother died 1960, I went home, I never spent no time; I said oh well, my Husband died, me mother died, I didn’t see a reason to go back, and I didn’t want to go back to the country, I just go and visit them and come back, and after the mortgage here, I must pay for that one, [inaudible] I don’t have no mortgage to pay I just take it easy

Q. I’m sorry I was going to say, where do you consider your home then? Do you consider it in England? [35:24]

SA. Where?

Q. Where do you consider your home to be? [35:30]

SA. Where now?

Q. Yeah now [35:33]

SA. I fancy my home here, my home is Jamaica, I was born in Jamaica, and grew up in Jamaica, and I have no background, standing from where I was, married and live, I sold that place, and I haven’t got any relatives there aside a sister and a brother and my sister lived in the family house where she was born; and she and her family there, I don’t consider it my home, I go to visit.

Q. Okay, thank you very much Mrs Armstrong, that was very interesting. [36:24]

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