In the 1950s and 60s, London Transport, struggling to recruit staff locally, turned to the Caribbean, and in doing so changed not just London’s transport, but London itself.
A new exhibition at the London Transport Museum looks at how public transport ran recruitment campaigns both in London and the Caribbean to fill a labour shortage that threatened to bring the Capital’s buses and trains to a shuddering halt.
It’s a mix of an exhibition, ranging from the early recruitment campaigns, the reception people received when they started work, and how bonds were formed over sports and social clubs, through to how different ethnic groups are celebrated as part of London’s rich history.
The project started in 1956 when London Transport, struggling to hire staff from England and Ireland, made a deal with the government of Barbados to hire staff directly from the island, and later with Trinidad and Jamaica. These topped up the Windrush generation who were already being actively courted to work on the buses once they arrived in the UK.
A lot of the exhibition has tapped oral history, from the people who worked on the buses and trains at the time.
Some of the stories are the ones you expect, about the casual racism that emerged following the waves of migration and coping with the British weather, but maybe less expected are the stories of heartbreak, from families separated by the need for some to move thousands of miles to work for a better life.
“My girl was only two years old. As a mother I was heartbroken when I got here… I didn’t even see my kid tile I think she was eleven… I tried to send for her, but the Government of Britain didn’t think that she should come”
Esther Daniels, recruited from Barbados as a canteen assistant
What’s fascinating about the exhibition though is how blinkered the job adverts were at the time. Not just because it was of that era, so women in the kitchen and men in the tunnels, but the lack of awareness of creating adverts that reflected the people being recruited. Look for a Jamaican face in the 1950s adverts, and good luck finding one. As adverts designed to attract a workforce to a welcoming environment, they’re pretty unfriendly.
“I always rememeber the instructor said… we must always keep our chests warm, having just come from the tropics, both outside with warm clothing, and inside with tea”
Ralph Staker, recruited from Barbados as a bus conductor
And all this effort not only paid off in keeping London’s transport working, it changed how London looked. In the canteens and workshops, plenty of people who migrated to the UK were employed, but a city still thinking that women bus conductors were a war-time necessity were now getting used to not just more women bus conductors, but bus conductors from the Caribbean at that. With a reliable job and income, people who came to London were able to stay, settle, and put down roots. The face of London changed, not just at work, but socially as well.
A large display in the exhibition is given over to that thing those big organisations used to do so much more than today, social clubs. The cricket teams, meeting spaces, groups, helping disparate peoples to bond socially out of work.
There’s also a lot of space to the other fuel that kept London’s transport running, the canteen ladies — all ladies back then — and how not only did they have to learn to cook British cuisine, but over time were eventually allowed to introduce their own flavours to the British recipes. As one of the recipes on display is for Stewed Tripe, a dose of Caribbean flavour in the pot was doubtless hugely appreciated by the rest of the workforce.
Then on to today and how TfL celebrates the diversity of its workforce.
As a display, it reminds of a time when London could have ground to a halt, but kept on moving thanks to the migration of workers who came to London to do the jobs that Londoners wouldn’t do, the hardships, both physical and emotional that the workforce suffered and how, slowly, over time prejudices reduced, if sadly never quite went away.