When Betty Allen emigrated to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s, she was allowed to enter the country
as a member of the big Commonwealth family without any problems (unlike today).
Here is her story and how she fared in London:
Betty had an eye for clothes. She used to work in just the right place to do some window shopping. For a
while she was a ticket collector at Knightsbridge Underground station.
'I even went into Harrods. I used to try on the hats and jackets. You know, spin around in the mirror.
Used to get some pretty funny looks from the staff there, mind. I used to do it in the lunch break.
Sometimes, if I had a bit of money, I'd even have coffee and a cake.'
These were the early days, when Betty and people like her still thought everything was possible and
when the views of the English people she knew hadn't hardened into indifference.
'We used to go to the West End, even Park Lane. There was no problem as long as you were dressed nicely
and didn't make noise. We wouldn't go into town till about midnight and then we'd dance till the morning.
We used to look like penguins shuffling out of the dance halls in our high heels.'
Betty Allen was our neighbour for twelve years. She still lives in Stoke Newington in east London, less than half
a mile away from where she had her first lodgings in 1956. Back in Jamaica she was a 'lady's maid'. She
worked for the English wife of a German who ran a brewing business. One of their products was Captain
Morgan rum. 'I used to have to lay out her clothes and things.' She left without telling her employers.
'I didn't like the work. I wanted to do things for myself.'
It wasn't just the job she was fed up with; it was Jamaica, or her life in Jamaica. Her mother had
died when she was thirteen and Betty lost her father seven years later. 'My second brother did his
best to look after me. But you know he had two stepchildren, his own children, his wife and there was
me. I remember going to his wedding and I was barefoot. 'She knew someone who knew someone who had gone
to Britain and they seemed to be doing all right. So Britain it was.
And that is how she ended up standing outside 77 Stoke Newington Church Street on a damp and foggy sort
of day. Those were the days before gentrification. It was the sort of place the taxi drivers would avoid
if they could. The son of another friend lived at the address. There were four flats in the building.
The basement, two floors and the attic. She was in one of the middle ones.
Within days of her arrival Betty had a job as a seamstress in a Jewish clothes factory up the road in
Dalston. Pretty soon she had enough money to move into the attic with a friend when it became vacant.
Later still, after she got the London Transport job, she took the basement on her own. It was the start
of a typical immigrant journey. There was marriage, there were children, and in her case, there was a
divorce. And there was the race business. Like many West Indians Betty belonged to a credit union club.
Everybody put money into it and every week it was someone's turn to get what was in the pot. lt was a
way of getting credit, because the banks were not too keen on lending to them in those days. Once, when
it was Betty's turn, she got about £40. She put it in what she thought was going to be a safe place but
it was stolen.
'I knew it had to be someone in the building,' she said, still angry at the thought.
'Did you tell the police?'
'Of course I did. But you know the first thing they said to me? "So where did you get so much money?"
Can you imagine the cheek of those men. I had a good mind to throw them out
there and then.'
It was her first brush with the petty racism that blighted so many lives. It wasn't her last either.
That kind of attitude was never enough to derail a person but it was enough to breed a kind of apathy
'So has it been worth it, Betty?'
'What you talking about?'
'I mean coming over here. Do you sometimes wish you had gone back to Jamaica?'
'You must be joking. Jamaica is not so special, you know. There's plenty of problems there too. I
escaped all that.'
Betty looked around the room. At the faux-leather sofa, the piano, at the framed
certificates from St Michael's church up the road, and at Cindy her beloved cat.
'You know, George, I made a good life for myself here. This is my home now. I see lots of people pack
up and go, and soon as they get there they want to come back. No, I'm not leaving old England.'
In her own gentle way Betty has overcome the prejudice she found. Through her worship, through her
work, and above all through her language, she has forged relationships across the racial divide. But
there are many other immigrants who have not been so well equipped to deal with Britain's ambivalence
to their arrival. Like so many minorities throughout history, they have preferred the security of the
enclave to the risks involved in branching out. In choosing to settle for a microcosm of the place they
left behind, they have been aided and abetted by a social policy that has put a premium on diversity.
Under multiculturalism, parts of Britain are beginning to look like another country.
Source: A Home from Home - From Immigration Boy to English Man by George Alagiah, Abacus Books, London 2007, pp. 140-143
gentrification - Aufwertung einer Gegend duch Renovierung oder Zuzug von besser Gestellten
seamstress - Näherin
to have a good mind to - große Lust haben zu
to derail - aus der Bahn werfen
faux-leather - Kunstleder
1. What were the main reasons for Betty to leave her home country Jamaica?
2. What jobs did Betty do after she had arrived in London and how did she spend her freetime?
3. Describe Betty's encounter with the British police and how she was treated by them.
4. How did Betty succeed in overcoming prejudice and race divide?
5. In contrast to Betty, why did other minorities fail integrating into mainstream Britain?