Oral history interview with Shirley V Boateng
Oral history interview with Shirley V Boateng
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Oral history interview with Shirley V Boateng
Interview summary: Disc 1 [00:00:00] Introduction and explanation of her Catholic upbringing in St Augustine, Trinidad with her grandparents. Married in 1966. Left for UK in 1971 to do nursing:
"I was born in Trinidad in 1944. And I grew up part of the time…about 6, for the first 6 years of my life, with my parents, and then my dad died. And my grandmother, my grandparents, my maternal grandparents, took two of us – my brother after me and myself. So I grew up with my paternal grandparents in St Augustine in Trinidad. In the north of Trinidad, or the North East I should say of Trinidad.
I left Trinidad in 1971. Now between that time I went to primary school, Roman Catholic primary school, as I was brought up with a strict…I should say under strict conditions. At school, at home, it was the Roman Catholic system that we all had to abide by. As a young girl growing up I was a member of the Religious groups; Legion of Mary, and then Girl Guides and Brigade. Went through all those.
I went to Secondary School when I was fourteen. St Giles Convent, another Roman Catholic school. I left 1965 only achieving O-levels. Was the first time that they had O-levels in Trinidad. Because before that there was certificates of Cambridge. Our educational system was governed by Cambridge and Oxford University. But after the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago, I suppose in an effort to be independent, the educational system was changed. And the first year that we had O-levels I took the O-levels and got two subjects.
I got married in 1966 and had one son. Then I came to England in 1971 September to do nursing. "
Sketches her distinguished and diverse career from General Nursing at Hackney Hospital to Ward Manager at Pentonville – “It was struggling at first, having to bring up a son on your own and things like that, but it worked out well in the end…”
Disc 1 [00:04:28] Explains her family. Preparing to move back to Trinidad to care for her mum.
"I am the first of eight children. When my father died there was four of us, three boys after me. And three years after he died my mum got married again and she had four more girls. So in the family it is three boys, five girls all grown up and married. I am now in England alone. My other sister who was here with me she did nursing, midwifery, and district nursing. She’s now back home. Two sisters in America, one in Canada. One brother in America and two at home. All married and settled. Mum is still alive. She’s 83, 84 in December. So that’s my drive to go back home. So I can spend the rest of her life with her. I mean we have to face reality. She’s getting down in age and I would like to be there to be with her. So I’m looking forward to going home when the time comes. Hopefully it will be soon. "
Disc 1 [00:06:14] Good explanation of how she came to be living and working in Hackney: Came to Ipswich General for Enrolled Nurse training - passed exam. But came to Hackney to do her Staff Nurse training
Disc 1 [00:10:26] Good description of the Hackney the Black community she found, and negative racial sterotyping. And a very good explanation of why most women in hospital work were Black, and in lower grade positions: “I suppose that I was disappointed initially, because it was, one, more or less the same impression I got when I came to England. The place looked run down. And big houses. Massive terrace houses. Grim. That sort of thing… One thing Hackney had going for it at that time I thought was the greenery, which I loved, and I still love that. It’s nice to walk up to the Marshes. There is – well it’s not that green now – where Lesney’s was, it was that big Savannah. I used to go down there and walk all round, and run around, and sat down there, go across to Victoria Park, go up to Leyton… The greenery was very nice, the fresh air and things like that… The people, there were very few Black folks at the time in Hackney. In order to see the Black folks you would have to go places like Ridley Market on a Saturday – or go up to Walthamstow Market. I didn’t see very many of them at that time. And it seemed like a very elderly community at that time. I lived in the Nurses Home for a while. And probably that contributed to me not getting in contact with most of the people. And then most of the nurses were Black. I would say most of the nurses were Black. But on ground floor management – Staff Nurses and so on, the Sisters, the Nursing Officers and so on – strangely enough they were mostly Irish folks. You know there were a lot of Irish people in nursing in those days. So there was that difference. I had a bit of a problem understanding the accents at first. So I had, in the process to change my accent so that I would be understood, as well as to understand others – if that makes sense. Because, I don’t know if you’ve heard, Trinidadians speak very fast. And quite often I was told ‘slow down, and repeat’. And I think that probably contributed to the loss of my accent – and in the pronunciations of some of my words as well. But it hasn’t been all that bad – it hasn’t been bad. I think it invigorated me to go on to achieve what I wanted, educationally and professionally, with the intention of going back to make something of myself, if you get what I mean. Because in those days one thing they would say, that with the Caribbean people they are Bus Conductors. I don’t know if you had experienced that, but that is what was coming, Caribbean people they are mostly Bus Conductors. [00:15:08] And in the Nursing profession most of the females were Black. And they were domestics in the kitchen and things like that, or they were Auxiliary Nurses. Not because they were unintelligent, but because of circumstances. There was one setback within the Nursing Profession and loads of mothers fell into that category. Being women they got pregnant and couldn’t continue their nursing training if they were unmarried mothers. That was one thing. Then the mothers were caught up in the situation that… they found it difficult to work and look after their children, so probably the most convenient thing for them to do at the time was Auxiliary Nursing and Night Duty – to shuffle both things. With some of them they managed to get back into nursing, because you find now that most of the nurses… who were practical nurses, State Registration, they have become now Registered Nurses because the children have grown up, and they have got the time to go back and studies. Some of them, unfortunately they retired before that”.
Disc 1 [00:17:11] Frank assessment of how most fathers in Caribbean Community were absent. Fathers, I think, were mostly absent. “I think that it is one of the contributory factors of so many of our youngsters coming from broken homes and ending up in mental institutions and the prison systems, and that sort of thing”
Disc 1 [00:18:05] Good explanation of racism and bias of White work colleagues Shirley encountered in Hackney, and how she dealt with them: “Having a little knowledge of the way Black folks were treated, I ignored, and hardened myself. And at times, if I felt like it, I responded… There were occasions when you had obstacles as Caucasians telling you ‘it doesn’t make sense in you do this’, or ‘what’s the point?’ For instance ‘what’s the point in going doing all this training?’ And things like that. And try to deter you from it… But racism hasn’t affected me as such”.
Disc 1 [00:25:13] Very Good explanation of how as new migrants in Britain, she and Hackney’s other Black nurses shared, and supported each other through, common experiences and challenges.
Disc 1 [00:28:52] Good explanation of what Ridley Road Market meant to Shirley and her Black work colleagues - the local connection to homes far away, the Saturday gathering point: “It (Ridley Road sic) did mean a lot. One it was the place where West Indian food was found. The plantain, the dasheen, and things like that. The pigtails. The chicken feet. The pig foot for souse. And things like that. Our food was down there. The cornmeal and things like that. So we would go down there to get the food. It was a sense of walking around and seeing things from your culture. Specific -like apart from food, you had Sorrell and Mauby, if you wanted that you could get it down there. And those were things that you would have… Sorrell is something for Christmas – now you can get it all the time, because it’s dried, and it’s something we use quite a lot, so you can get it in any Asian or so shop. But in markets or shops in those days you couldn’t get those foods. So it was a place of connection to us. We would go down there and buy clothes which we would associate – the bright colours and so on. When I first came over here – brown, black, grey, navy, those were more or less the colours used. Dark colours with white shirts and white blouses and cream. The bright colours which was associated with Caribbean people – Black people. You couldn’t get it. But we got it at Ridley. Another market where they had it was Brixton. But Brixton was far away. And with our salaries not being that much, we had to budget. So Ridley Market was where we shopped… Ridley Road was the gathering-point for most of us. You know, you go down there you’re guaranteed to see somebody from home. Or even if you don’t know somebody. You see them, and it’s a smile – you see a friendly face. So that meant a lot to us as well. Part of our culture – like saying ‘good morning’, or ‘good evening’ to a stranger. And being welcomed, and you can have a short conversation - conversation will start from that. You will find it there. So loads of us went down to Ridley Road on a weekend – on a Saturday for that”
Disc 1 [00:32:29] Good anecdotal explanation of what the All Nations and 4 Aces Clubs meant to Shirley and her Black work colleagues – as young migrants from the Caribbean: “There were places like All Nations club. You could find a lot of us went there to parties. To get the music. At the time was Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow – their records were popular. And the early Reggae singers – Toots and the Maytals, The Itonians. To hear those music you had to go to places like that. So that’s where on a weekend we will go to dance. To ease the frustration – and things like that. Those were places we would go, and gather – and so on. [00:33:33] The 4 Aces was another place we used to go to before it became prominent for violence and so on. When that started we moved away from there… The 4 Aces used to have a DJ. It used to be good. It was minimal – something like £1 to get in. And, you know, you go in, and you dance, and you make friends. You would have the boy meet girl things like that. In those days the drink – it wasn’t things like the rum and the vodka and things like that. It was the Babycham and so on, we would drink Babyham and stuff - but it used to be nice. And the different dances, the dances were different from now. It would be the dances that we grew up with – from Trinidad. We had like we call the ‘Saga Ting’. Those were days going back when we were teenagers. The clothes was different. We had ‘Oxford Bags’ in those days. And the flare skirts and things like that, that we wore. Fashion has changed over a period of time as well. But it was good - we enjoyed ourselves. It’s changed from our sort of early-style music and dances. And it went on to a place where there would be violence and aggression. Shooting, fighting and so on. But in the early days one thing that stuck out in my mind about that is – probably that contributed to that – there was one exit you go in. So it was a matter of probably having to behave yourself, because if you had to run, there was nowhere to run. Drugs wasn’t as it is today – commonly used. And the cocaine and things like that. Marijuana, it wasn’t a prominent thing in our day – in our age-group. We went to have fun. [00:37:56] When Desmond Decker played that was nice. It finished apparently about 4 o-clock, the morning. And we left at 2:15. Because in the nurses home we had to get back at a certain time. And we had passes when we went out. You had to get permission to go out. So we couldn’t stay out over a period - a time-span. But on that night when Desmond Decker played – actually there were two nights that Desmond Decker played there. The first night Roy Shirley sang as well. The second night I had to work – I worked and I didn’t go. And I do not think that most of the group – there were about 6 of us, 7 of us used to go out together – for one reason or the other they didn’t go, because everybody else wasn’t going. But when Desmond Decker played, yes, the first night I was there. And it might have been about the last night that I went back there as well. Because after that, the ‘Q Club’ we started going across there. Because more artistes were coming – more American artistes were coming. So we used to go down there. Until eventually we started getting married – one by one. Others getting married one by one. And, you know, people going their individual ways”.
Disc 1 [00:40:23] Good story of what church in Hackney meant to Shirley – how she found a source of comfort and support, after an unexpected exposure to White racism.
Disc 1 [00:46:37] Good explanation of what sport in Hackney and London meant to Shirley: How her love for sport – particularly cricket – developed as a way of life in Trinidad.
"I love cricket. I was an athlete as I child. My dad was the captain of our village team. After he passed away his friends and so on were always around. So we grew up in that sport and that environment. I loved cricket and when I came over here…[Laugher] With us sports was a way of life. You know, with families. If someone in the family was a cricketer, footballer, or they played netball, when they are going to play on a Sunday it was a picnic for us. Parents will pack the picnic basket and you go to the field and you cheer, you shout. If somebody’s not balling well or their not fielding well or batting well you heckle – in a nice way, you know? It generates the environment and it also helps them to not play silly. The game is promoted, the skills become developed."
How she found shared identity, community, and love of cricket among the London’s West Indian (Black) cricket teams – after initial disillusion with reserved British (White) cricket matches. [00:51:04] Describes the Hackney locations where she enjoyed her cricket.
Disc 1 [00:53:26] Good description of the changes in Hackney Wick that Shirley observed when she moved out of the nurses home, and into her council flat in one of the former tower blocks on the site of what is now Trowbridge Estate: “Coming out from the nurses home, it was like being in isolation for a little while. Because moving from the nurses home where you’re surrounded by nurses you know… you’re working and you’re living more or less the same place. Going into my own home, it was a tower block, it was called North Air Point – and incidentally it was the first tower block that was blown up in Hackney, and these low-rise houses were built in their places. I used to live on the 13th floor. I think there was something like 22 floors. And it was isolatory. It took me about 5 or 6 months before I saw a neighbour. And there were 4 families, 4 flats on each floor – you know 2 on each side – if I come out of my door I’m facing another, there were 2 others. And it took me about 5 to 6 months before I saw them. So that was isolatory. I mean when… Colin was to go downstairs to play I used to take him downstairs - because, you know, I would look over and see the other children playing and take him downstairs. One, for safety I stayed initially with him and when he got accustomed to it he would come down on his own, and he made friends around there. But friends – my friends still remained the nurses. I didn’t have friends where I lived. Because you come out of your door, you go down in the lift… the mothers and so, who would be with their children, you would chat with them but they would not be friends if you get what I mean. There was a lovely short cut to work from there through the park. And it would take me about 15 minutes to get to work from home, and work. But then there was this estate that was built in opposite the hospital, and going back down the hill to Homerton… What was the name of the hill? Mabley Green! There. After those houses built now I had to get another route to go down – there wasn’t that short cut. And… with that came the change in the appearance. There was a reduction in the greenery and things like that. And to me, it was me going into two worlds – I don’t know if I can make sense out of this… From a world of safety, security, belonging, identifying, you know, with the hospital – and moving out on my own, where I don’t know anyone, and finding it difficult to make friends and things like that, being isolated, being on my own. It also brought along a change in my lifestyle. The going to parties and things like that cut down – If you understand what I mean. I didn’t have those friends to go out with. And safety, security – you know, when I was in the nurses home and going out with friends, we all go to the same place and we go back the same place. Whereas there was a distance that I would have to go, and there’s that anxiety about my safety, if you understand. So… It sort of curtailed my social life a bit – that was one thing… I saw a change in time. Not having as much free time as I did previously. Having to travel from there to work, and work to home that cut down on the time that I had. And I think by cutting down on that time, having more responsibility in that I had more work to do like shopping, cleaning, you know, all those thing, with that I think I became isolated - it helped to isolate me a bit”.
Disc 1 [01:00:41] Good explanation of how Shirley’s move from the nurses home to the first home of her own, coincided with challenges of motherhood: School. Her son’s own sporting activities - “…the responsibility of motherhood – that too it put boundaries, if you like. I had to be a more responsible person by thinking about how I can prepare and provide for a growing teenager…”
Disc 1 [01:03:39] Very good explanation of what Hackney Wick was like during for her as a young recently arrived West Indian mother, in one of its tower blocks: Describes the location, its 5 tower blocks. No secondary school. Children’s play areas – “They (children) in my view didn’t have a area where they could go and rough and tumble, because most of the area was concrete. And loads of children got damaged, falling on the concrete, bruising themselves, breaking their arms…”
Disc 1 [01:05:56] Very good local resident’s-eye-view of Hackney Wick’s health care provision: “In terms of health, there wasn’t a Health Centre in Hackney Wick…”
Disc 1 [01:07:53] Good explanation of bad living conditions in Hackney Wick’s tower blocks: Isolation and damp…
Disc 1 [01:08:29] Very good nurse-and-local resident’s-eye-view of the general health of Hackney Wick’s residents: “As a nurse, I found that the health of the community, it was mostly chronic illnesses related to the lifestyle. Diseases like chronic bronchitis, respiratory illnesses – that was very, very common. Probably due to smoking, to the dampness, the conditions, the environment. There was the factories – like I say, Lesney’s was just across the road.
Disc 1 [01:09:35] How pubs and the bookies were main entertainments in Hackney Wick.
Disc 1 [01:08:55] How the change in housing styles, from high rise to low rise, has ended isolation – and how there’s now better provision for children and young people: “Buildings are more appropriate. People can associate more with their neighbours. Children can play – there are more activities around for children…”
Disc 1 [00:10:47] Good explanation of how and why she feels that crime and anti-social behaviour has reduced in Hackney Wick and Homerton: “…There’s a better community spirit”
Disc 1 [01:11:52] Good explanation of how Hackney Wick’s elderly residents’ quality of life has improved: “There’s a club for the elderly folks. So they’re not in the tower blocks, tucked away…”
Disc 1 [01:12:15] Good description of Lesney’s as one of the main local employers when Shirley was a resident in Hackney Wick. And the effect o1 closure of this and other firms.
Disc 1 [01:13:09] Very, very good explanation of Shirley’s strong affinity for Hackney, after experiencing other locations and classes of people: “Hackney is where the real people are… Among those grim lifestyles and bleak picture that exists, you still have people who do their utmost to improve Hackney”
Disc 1 [01:15:57] Good description of Hackney’s past and current connections, and achievers in development of diverse arts culture – from Desmond Decker in the 60s/70s to recent showcases of talent from diverse cultures staged at the Hackney Empire (‘It’s Like Hackney’)…
Disc 1 [01:19:34] Shirley feels Hackney’s support for its heritage centres promotes wellbeing.
Disc 1 [01:20:41] Very good psychiatric-nurse’s-eye-view’ of the support that Shirley feels Hackney engages with the mentally ill – eg Homerton Rowe.
Disc 1 [01:22:15] Good description of how Shirley feels Hackney’s diverse cultures live in communities reflecting their culture and identity.
Disc 1 [01:23:51] Good description of improvement of friendliness of Hackney society-at-large, compared with her experience as a newly arrived young Black woman from the West Indies: “…Long ago it will be difficult to walk the street of Hackney. And as a White person, have a person, unless you know each other, greet you and have a conversation, but now it happens”
Disc 1 [01:25:07] Good explanation of how traveling out of Hackney because of her work and training, Shirley has encountered many different kinds of people places.
Disc 1 [01:26:11] Good story examples of how Shirley feels her work has brought support from her Hackney community: ‘Greengrocer and his wife who won’t take her money’, ‘Rescued from a young man’.
Disc 1 [01:28:09] Good detailed explanation of how and why Shirley feels Hackney people are real and honest: “They’ll tell you just what they think about you, and they don’t pad anything – if they think you stupid, they’ll tell you you’re stupid…”
Disc 1 [01:29:18] Good explanation of how and why Shirley did not make many personal relationships with Hackney Wick people, despite living and working locally: “I don’t want to sound snobbish. In those days there wasn’t the facilities where one can socialize. Most of it was outside” (of Hackney Wick)
Disc 1 [01:31:28] Good explanation of how and why, as a resident and a mother, Shirley has perceived and tackled the stigma and negative influences of Hackney and Hackney Wick: “In those days Hackney was labeled badly. And I suppose too, Colin had influences…”
Disc 1 [01:33:00] How Shirley was helped in pushing her son Colin to achieve at Upton House School: Children were banned from sports if school marks were poor. The then Headmaster, also from Trinidad, supported this approach.
Disc 1 [01:34:41] How after feeling isolated at first, Shirley became a central figure for Hackney Wick residents when they were ill in the hospital: “When they are discharged, as a District Nurse I saw them for a while So that is how I got to know most of them as a Community District Nurse and Midwife”
Disc 1 [01:35:51] How Shirley feels proud of the part she played in Hackney Wick community, as a Nurse.
Disc 1 [01:36:30] Lovely explanation of how Shirley feels proud in having seen and helped local children grow to adulthood.
Disc 1 [01:37:51] Pride in having contributed to changes in health attitudes and policies in Hackney.
Disc 1 [01:38:37] Good explanation of how Shirley feels the demolition of the tower blocks was a positive re-making of Hackney Wick: “With the demolishing of it, the crime rate dropped… It also helped to get people involved, the neighbourhood there, involved in having a say in how Hackney Wick evolved…” [01:41:48] Hackney Wick is served by an improved public transport now. [01:42:26] More diversity of age groups since demolition allowed a new Hackney Wick to grow. [01:42:43] Old swimming baths now a multi-purpose community centre
Disc 1 [01:44:02] Good explanation of how Shirley feels about the loss of access to Mabley Green, and the other green spaces. A detailed description of the added impact of the 2012 Olympic development on Hackney Marshes: Not that I am against the stadium… but we are going to loose a lot of the greenery”
Disc 1 [01:47:11] Good explanation of how Shirley reached the decision to leave the UK and return to live in Trinidad – Good description of the Trinidad she knows, has missed, and yearns for.
"To go back to Trinidad? When I came from Trinidad it was my intention to spend 5 years and go back. That was my target. But when I came here…first that contributed to the change of mind about staying here so long was the status of nurse education. It took me longer, having to do my state enrolment, before I went on my state registration. So with that in mind all my training was put off a bit; not put off but made longer by at least two years because of that initial two years.
Then with that was the breakup of my marriage, and I wasn’t going to go back home to live with my mother. So I had to prepare a home for me down there. Purchase land, get the house built, and things like that.
I used to get homesick. I would be home like every 18 months, roughly, I would be home. And I realised that I was missing out on the closeness of the family – the brothers and the sisters, the nieces and the nephews, some of them I didn’t even know. And I only know them when I see them first when I go back. Mum was getting older, and I felt I needed to be with her. And all of that kept my momentum for wanting to go back home.
I felt that my wellbeing would be better at home, because I still remember the joys of my childhood. I remember the unity of my family when I go home….I felt that in England my life was basic in that, OK, I have a home, but time…I mean in Trinidad you go and the folks work and they come home and they can still go and visit a relative and still go and ‘lime’ as we call it, I don’t know if you have heard the expression? You know, enjoy life. You keep in touch with nature because houses most of them are detached, especially in the countryside. You have a little garden, you can entertain and have little barbecues…you have your food the tomatoes, the lettuce, the dasheen, the bananas and all that sort of thing. Food is fresh from the ground to you. If you don’t want to go to the market to buy them you can plant them. If you don’t want to plant them you can buy them from the market.
And I miss, even after 40 plus years. I still yearn for home. At times like Christmas I am very unhappy. Unhappy in that I miss the things, like…Christmas Eve night after you prepare, decorate your house, any everything your curtains…Christmas Eve night is a night you find you might be indoors, or probably around 4 o’clock in the morning, and you hear what we call Parang. It’s the music, Christmas music with the guitars and the violins and maracas. Relatives you haven’t seen for maybe two months or a year you would see them at Christmas time at 4 o’clock in the morning. They creep up on your step, on the doorstep and all you will hear is just this outburst of the Parang music. And, you know, all the joys that comes with that; seeing the family and sharing the ham. Special dishes that you have at Christmas. The pastels and all of that. I miss that so much.
Birthdays. I sit down and I think, well it’s just one birthday, and that’s one birthday…I wonder what they are doing. All those things. I think about it and I miss out on it. I want to go back. "
Disc 1 [01:53:54] Good explanation of how Shirley feels about her life since and achievements since leaving Trinidad: “I have developed professionally, emotionally, personally. I have learned to stand on my own two feet. And I have learned to live with decisions I have made…”
Disc 1 [01:58:08] What Shirley feels Hackney has meant to her life: “It gave me a foundation. I can say. ‘I have achieved’. I have! It’s nice”
“Copy Material Location: WAV copies held at Hackney Museum:
1 copy stored on a portable hard drive
1 copy stored on a DVD-R (Gold Archive Standard)