St Albans’ flourishing Caribbean community and the grandparents who inspired generations
Uprooting your life and starting afresh can be a daunting experience.
When William and Enita Thomas, now 86, set off from the Caribbean island of St Kitts to the UK in the 50s, there were countless unknowns ahead of them.
The couple first shared a house near Willsden Green, north west London, with five other families upon arriving on these shores.
They stayed in a cramped room with two of their children and Enita’s teenage sister as they began to establish a new life here in England.
“I was teaching there in St Kitts,” Enita began, “and then I said I would come over here more or less to study.
“I chose to be a teacher and I said I was going to further my studies in England, so that’s why I came to England.”
She later went on to become a nurse, but William thought his stay in England would be temporary.
He never envisaged he’d still be here and enjoying life with his large family decades later.
“I thought I would only come here for about five years to study architecture and then return,” he added.
Between 1947 and 1970, around 500,000 people left their homes and lives in the West Indies to come and live in Britain.
The Windrush generation got its name from the ship HMT Empire Windrush.
The boat docked in Tilbury, Essex, on June 22, 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands to help fill UK post-war labour shortages.
Enita vividly remembers the arduous two-week boat trip, saying: “There were about 700 Jamaicans that were on the ship with us and we only had about 50 from St Kitts and Nevis.
“We came to England, we stopped at Tenerife and then to Southampton and that’s how we were here. My husband was here before me, he was here in 1955, I came in 1956.
“He paved the way for us to leave and we came to Kilburn.”
“It’s important to have that understanding of who my family is”
The loving couple have been key figures in St Albans, particularly within the city’s Pentecostal Church on Camp Road.
The branch was started in 1960 by Pastor Bennie who left to perform other ministerial work in 1962.
William was subsequently appointed as his replacement and went on to inspire generations of Christians right up to his retirement earlier this year.
Church also has a deeper significance for William and Enita that stretches back to the Caribbean as it’s where they first laid eyes on each other.
“We met in the church in the West Indies,” William fondly remembers, “and of course I fell in love with her. I proposed in 1955.”
Their move to England was a strange culture shock and took some getting used to.
William began work as a chaplain in a hospital in St Albans before his work with the church. They bought the building from the Salvation Army and it’s been a key hub and focal point for the community ever since.
William and Enita raised seven children, including five of their own, and their granddaughter, Steph Smith, is immensely proud of what her grandparents have achieved.
She says her Caribbean heritage is a key part of who she is today.
“Being from the Caribbean, as in my family’s background, it’s extremely important to me because even though you’re born in England you’re always being asked, ‘So where are you from then?’ You feel like you have to say something,” said Steph, 37.
“Because you’re brown, people just assume you’re not British, even though you sound British.
“It’s almost like, ‘Oh, so where are you from?’ Can I not just be from England?
“It’s important to have that understanding of who my family is, where we’re from and having that sense of belonging. You actually belong somewhere.
“That’s what my grandparents gave me in terms of he had a church and he started up something called Saturday Club. A lot of the children from the Caribbean community within St Albans would go to Saturday Club.”
Having this sense of belonging at the church was significant as the city was predominantly white – and still is today.
“Even though I was one of five Black kids in my whole year at school, it didn’t matter to me as much because I had somewhere to go with people that were just like me,” she added.
“It can be quite daunting when you are one of the few. You’re always having to answer questions like, ‘Oh, can I touch your hair?’ and ‘Your hair’s so curly and fluffy, let me touch it’ or ‘How come you’ve got to put cream on your skin every day?’
“I didn’t need to answer any of those questions when I was at Saturday Club with people that are just like me because they already know.”
William and Enita’s family have gone on to enjoy success in all different sectors. Steph has an uncle who is teaching the Chinese karate team in Hong Kong while her cousin, Josh Denzel, appeared on Love Island and is now an esteemed presenter.
Another of her cousins is a world karate champion, and her dad runs numerous prisons around the UK.
It says a lot about the character of Steph’s grandparents and is something her close family are grateful for and cherish.
“They left their family and friends, everything they knew, and took a boat,” Steph added.
“They took two weeks to come here, they were in the freezing cold winter, they came in the middle of the snow. They inspire me to think ‘They’ve done that, I can do anything’.
“They’ve been married 60 years and on their 50th wedding anniversary they paid for the entire family and all their grandchildren to go back to St Kitts. Even if we never go back again, every single one of us has been back to where our roots began and it’s just so important to have that.”
Steph adds that some of the racism her grandparents faced when they arrived in England is disheartening and sickening to hear about, and how far they’ve come is a true testament to their resilience.
She says her grandparents would sing the national anthem with pride every day at the start of school in the Caribbean due to British colonisation, and they even had a British passport.
To then arrive in England to signs that read ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ was a distressing experience.
“It’s a lot for a person to take in,” Steph added.
“To overcome that and to be as successful as they are, I can only hope and dream that me and my husband have those successes in life.”
But her grandparents’ key role in the church is something that’s brought the community in St Albans together, creating a sense of belonging that’s stretched across generations.
This spirit was embodied in May of this year when a group of volunteers from the city’s Caribbean community rallied together to help those who had been left devastated by the St Vincent volcano eruptions.
Clouds of ash were spewed miles into the air after the La Soufrière volcano first erupted on April 9, and residents were urged to leave immediately. Many were left with nowhere to go.
It raised over £1,000, providing an essential lifeline to many and highlighting what the Caribbean community in St Albans is all about.