Oral History Interview - Earlow Bagot

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Oral History Interview - Earlow Bagot

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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Earlow Bagot, who was born in Demerara, British Guyana c.1930, and moved to the UK in 1960. He discusses 1.Caribbean background. 2.British Rail employment. 3.London racism (workplace).



Q. Can you tell me your name?

EARLOW BAGOT (EB). My name is Earlow Bagot.

Q. Can you tell me when you first came to Britain?

EB. I came to Britain in November 1960.

Q. Tell me about life in the West Indies before you came to Britain. What for example did your parents do for a living?

EB. Well I can only speak of my mother and my aunt, who really took care of me. I grew up on farming and provision farming.

Q. Which part of the Caribbean are you from?

EB. I am from West Coast, Demerara, British Guyana.

Q. Do you want to tell me more about what your parents did and your background in the Caribbean?

EB. I would say that I had a very nice upbringing by these two females. I really grew up with my aunt because after my father died, when I was young, my aunt took two of us. She brought us up from babyhood, right the way through our education until I started work. I was a mechanic. I started at a sugar industry, I served my apprenticeship, and then I became a mechanic. Then I became a charge-hand and then I left Guyana.

Q. At what age did you leave Guyana?

EB. I was about 30 years old.

Q. Is there a history of military involvement in your family?

EB. No, none whatsoever.

Q. What proverbs do you recall from your Caribbean years that may have helped to guide you through life?

EB. [Can’t think of any presently]

Q. What prompted you to leave for Britain and how much did you subscribe to the notion that you were coming to the “Mother country”?

EB. Well, one of my brothers came to Britain to further his education and then, after a certain amount of years, I felt that I should do the same. So I came to Britain to educate myself in the mechanical field, which I have done.

I felt that I was coming to the mother country because we were taught that England was the mother country and we accepted it.

Q. What is your strongest memory of the voyage to Britain?

EB. I have no strong memory of the journey. I would say, however, that we took a plane from Guyana to Trinidad where I joined the ship. Then we sailed to Britain and it was not a sailing boat, it was really a steamship. What surprised me as we came nearer to Britain was the sun, which was very bright, but there was no heat in it and that has remained in my memory until today.

Q. What was the name of the boat that you came up on?

EB. SS Venezuela.

Q. What kinds of expectations did you have when you arrived?

EB. My expectation of Britain differed quite a lot to the reality. In Guyana, South America, we were taught that Britain was so nice, so lovely and so good, so I had expectations that I would love the place when I came here. When I actually saw Britain, the houses were different, the people and the attitudes were different and so it really darkened my expectations. I had to come to grips with this to understand and to get through a new life in Britain.

Q. How easy was it to find work?

EB. It was not bad, truthfully. Where I was working, I had a good relationship and a good understanding with my superiors. I was very skilful and so when I asked the Superintendent in Guyana, a White man, to give me a recommendation, he told me that he could not give me one, as no one in Britain knew him. However, he said that he would recommend me to the manager of the company in Britain and he said that he would send the reference ahead of me. So, when I came to Britain, after a few weeks had passed, I decided to search for this place. A friend said he would accompany me and when we found the place, I presented the letter that I had. They wondered where I had been all this time and I told them that I couldn’t find the place. He gave me and my friend a cup of tea in the office and he told me to wait while he typed a good, fairly long, recommendation. One thing that he told me, I remember to today, but did not understand at the time. He said “I can recommend you for work but I will not send it here”. That was in the 60s. Not until I worked amongst the people of this land did I understand why he didn’t send me to the firm that he thought was good enough for me. It was because of discrimination. I am a man that has faced discrimination quite a lot but I have battled through.

I first worked at British Railways; it had good and bad points. The foreman, I remember, was very nice and I remember the first winter I came here. I got a job and the place was very cold, I couldn’t stand it and the foreman sent me to service the loco, the big engine. I had finished work and I was standing in the cold and a driver said to me, go and stand in the driver’s bunk and when they come, you can come out and service the engine. It was night by the way and so I went to the bunk and the man said to me “Don’t worry, rest yourself’ and I rested. However, I fell asleep and I didn’t wake up until 5.5 5am the next morning, which was the next shift. When I woke up I thought that I had lost my job and it happened that when I went in to change my clothes, a friend of mine asked me where I was. I said, “I was in the cold while you were in the warm here”. He said, “No, I serviced the loco”. Well after he told me that I had to put on my clothes quickly and tried to run out before the foreman saw me.

However, he called me and told me to go to his office and he asked me where I had been and I told him. He said, “you went home. Yes, you went home and then you came back”. I told him “no”. He said, “okay, tell me what happened” and I told him the exact truth. Then that man explained to me how they had searched the train lines because they were wondering if a train had run over me and he was upset. He asked me if this was my first winter and I told him “yes” and he asked if we had winter in my country. I told him “no” and he said, “alright, I will give you a chance but do not let it happen again. When I went back into the changing room, my friend asked me what had happened and I started to tell him the story. Those that had worked there with that foreman for a good while said that I was lucky because that foreman usually sacks people. When we were talking, I saw the door open and the foreman pointed at a fellow and said, “yes, just tell him what type of a person I am” and he closed the door.

So, when I had walked back to the changing room, the foreman had followed me and I had not noticed because I wasn’t looking back and he was listening to all that had been said. The good is that he didn’t sack me and the bad is that he was a very strict man.

Q. Once you found work, how difficult or easy was it to progress up the ladder if that was your ambition?

EB. Well, I did not progress in BR, because I asked to go to evening classes and I was working shift work between 10 and 6 but they would not allow me to go to classes so I had to leave that job. Then I went to a motor shop and I was a diesel mechanic but I noticed that there was a need for motor mechanics, which’s where the money was for a man like me, so I stuck to motors from then on. I really learnt about motors so that when my friends wanted a tune-up, they could come to me and I could tune up and I could make extra money that way.

In 1963 I left that job and I went to Hackney Borough Council. I went to the Labour Exchange, I asked for a job as a mechanic, and the man asked, “are you working anywhere” and I said “yes”. He said “well, you shouldn’t be coming here” I said “but look, it’s marked Labour Exchange, I thought that you could come and exchange jobs”. He laughed and he sent me to a London Borough of Hackney workshop in 1963. I was interviewed at a taxi place and that same day, the man said that I could start right away if I wanted to. However, when I looked at the conditions the men were working in, just on a little board tightening the exhausts etc., I said that I would not do it. I didn’t say it just then, I went home, I thought about it and I decided to work there. So I worked at the council for 25 years.

Well, the council had a lot of discrimination. The first day I worked there, the other men did not help me. They said that I was not in a union so I couldn’t work but the union was not the real problem. It was a closed shop and they used this against me because I was Black. However, there was a very nice superintendent and he said to me “Laddie, go and find a union and come back”. It took me two weeks to find the union office because when I asked the shop steward to tell me where the union office was, he said that he did not know. He didn’t tell me and it took me two weeks to find the place. Believe me, even when the union gave me a letter the shop steward was against me but there was one white man who told the shop steward that he would stand against him if he refused to let me work. There were many many more experiences like this.

Q. What was the housing situation like for you?

EB. Housing was very difficult. Very, very difficult. Sometimes I am ashamed to talk about it but it was.. could you imagine a room like this? It was the Mrs and me, after I sent for my Mrs and the children, in that one room. It was horrible, really horrible. We battled through until we were able to rent a flat and from the flat, we moved onto our own place. However, let me say that my brother, and his wife, never lived far apart from us and we took flats near to each other.

Q. When did you first become aware that colour mattered? Are there any incidents that brought it home to you?

EB. Yes, apart from the work situation above, when I was working among the whites at the motor shop I found them very prejudiced. When we had a tea break they formed a group in the corner by themselves and I had to go by myself. That is when I realised what was really going on. That was about 1962 and I realised what was going on towards Black people. I didn’t say it was because I was Black, I said that it was because I was not from this country. I didn’t understand it. Believe me! I remember when I was a boy, some people came from another island to Guyana to work and they had problems. The Guyanese gave them problems, yes. So, when I looked back and I remembered that, it gave me a satisfaction to know how those people felt as I had come from another place to take their work. You have to be able to balance things out and not take it all on board.

Q. How conscious were you of different types of natives, such as the Scots, the Irish and the English?

EB. Well, at first I took all of them to be Englishmen or women because I could not tell the difference because they were white-skinned. There was a white man and I asked him how he could tell a Jew from an Englishman? He said, “easy”. I asked him how and he said Jewish men had noses that carried a hook. I said “True?” He said “Yes” and so when I went on the buses I would look to see at the shape of the nose and I would say “that is a Jew”. He told me how to know an Italian and all the others but at first, I did not know, not at all.

Q. How much social mixing was there between Black and White and where did you go for entertainment in the early days?

EB. Well, I didn’t entertain much as I would go to class from work and that was my entertainment, to follow my studies and further my knowledge. At Hackney Council, I was not one to go to the pub at that time. We used to play cricket and we used to challenge each other to run races. That was my entertainment and I used to enjoy it and when it came to the weekend, I would go to visit my brother-in law and my sister. They lived far from us and they would come over to us. I also had a cousin and sometimes I would pick up myself and my family and we would go and spend the weekend either at my wife’s brother or my sister or my cousin. They all lived in different areas and so we came to know Britain.

Q. How did you get along with the local women, if at all?

EB. Well, I get along with people because I am a friendly person and so I got on okay in those days.

Q. What brought you to Hackney?

EB. Well, my brother was living in lslington and so when I came I stopped at his place and looking for my own, eventually I found myself in Hackney.

Q. How long have you been living in Hackney?

EB. From 1962.

Q. So you must have seen some interesting changes in the area?

EB. Yes, I have seen lots of changes, changes with Black people and Caribbeans and changes with White people. I am most interested in Blacks though, are we making progress or not? I would say that we have made progress, thinking of the changes in this society. For example, housing in this country, everybody can get a place from the council and in those days it was not so. It was hard for our people to get a flat from the council and I believe that is the reason why most of the people in my age group and a bit older tried to buy their own houses, which was a good thing. The edge of the sword was pointing towards us and we had to move away from the sword. It was hard to pay the mortgage but we enjoyed having our own property. About Whites, I do not know, I am not very involved in their society but I would say that before I left work and retired, the people had become friendlier, I became freer. It was like working on a knife’s edge, and I mean it! I could not afford to make a mistake at work, I could not afford it because I had a family to maintain and everyday it was as if something was behind me.

I can remember at certain times, it was like that but in others it was okay and I was promoted to charge-hand, I was a shop steward and I was a Black and Ethnic Minority Chairman. I had been promoted to a technician and it was nice. I remember when I was on the shop floor, and the best days were good days, I enjoyed it. I would say to my fellow blacks, the young people, don’t work with malice, co-operate, and do the best that you can. You may not get where you want but somebody will and so I really enjoyed working co-operatively.

Q. How important were saving schemes like the Pardner?

EB. Yes, we had a little pardner but that did not help things very much. What helped me was self-determination and knowing what I wanted and my wife helped me too. As I worked, we put some away and sent money for my mother and my aunt. I also sent money for my wife’s father and mother. Once we had paid the rent, we decided to put some away with what was left and that is really how we saved, not any other way.

Q. What sort of things did you do for domestic entertainment?

EB. It was lovely. Nothing beats when you come home from work and you have a wife that always meets you with a smile. I would embrace her and we would be very affectionate. I would play with our children and then I would tell them to get their books and study their lessons. Because of the hardship and discrimination I faced at work, when I came home I would tell my children to study hard as I did not want them to be in the same position.

Q. How much did the attitudes of islanders to each other change after you came to Britain, to what extent did you see yourself as belonging to a specific island?

EB. Well, right away, I know that I am a Guyanese and I understand that although we are all Blacks and from the same part of the world, we have different attitudes. Our lifestyles differ in certain respects. The way we speak, this did surprise me, is different.
Mixing, yes, was wonderful. Yes, I have friends from other islands, we really did associate together.

Q. How do you think families operate in Britain compared to the West Indies?

EB. That is a difficult question. If you ask me about now, in today’s lifestyle, I cannot give you any idea at all. In Guyana, however, back in the 60s, 50s and 40s, we had to go to Sunday school and to church and we had to go to school in the week. We had to respect people, these things formed us. Respect, the teachings of God etc.

Q. How much do you think attitudes to children have changed in this country?

EB. Well, I am not a father now, I am a grandfather and I do not deal with children very much now so I might give the wrong idea. What I have noticed, however, is that they talk back quite a lot and they do not listen to their parents. Today the children do not have the respect that I was brought up on. When I was at home, if your mother or father talked to you, you would listen, in this country they do not.

Q. To what extent did you see differences in the attitudes of the 2nd and 3rd generations in this country at a similar stage from your own in the Caribbean?

EB. That is a difficult question. However, I perceive that my mother and my aunt put something in me which we used to call ambition. We had to have our own house before we were married and I had that instilled in me. Yes, I would say that I had achieved that in Guyana. My aunt and my mother didn’t ever have alcohol.
When we were young in Britain, I always said to myself that I would give Britain the best working days of my life and it is true, I have. I have helped to build Britain. When I was a young mechanic, I worked so that people could use their cars to go to work so I was helping Britain. They may not look at it that way, but I do. That is my philosophy. When I fix somebody’s car, it is to help him or her to go to work.

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