Immigration is once again a hot political issue, so this small exhibition in Canning Town is a timely reminder that immigration is certainly nothing new and with every ‘wave’ of immigration there are differing tensions and issues.
Some time before the Windrush docked in Tilbury and post-2nd World War immigration from the Caribbean began to help rebuild a war torn Britain, there were already pockets of mixed race communities developing. One of these was in Canning Town in the 1920s and 30s, in an area nicknamed ‘Draughtboard Alley’ as both black and white people lived there. The nickname shows that this was unusual and it was seen to be different, but memories of those that lived during this period or whose parents did, remember a community that accepted difference and a community that helped each other and worked together.
The roots of this wave of immigration came from the docks as African, Asian and Caribbean seamen sailing round the Empire on trade ships would enter the docks of Britain, and some of them would stay. Some of them would fall in love with local women and some would stay for the rest of their lives, bringing up their family in the area.
The exhibition looks at life in this area in the 1920s and 30s where one of the centres of the community was the ‘Coloured Men’s Institute’, set up by pastor Kamal Chunchie and photos in the exhibition show the Christmas and New Year parties that were held there. It’s unusual to see images of mixed race families from the early 20th Century, but it shouldn’t be, Britain was already seeing diversity and the newspapers were already scaremongering, but at the heart of it we see families living their lives and making the most of what was often a tough life in a poor area of London.
At the opening of the exhibition St Luke’s community centre, which during the 1920s and 30s was itself a church and a centre for the growing mixed race community, hosted a party bringing together young and old for tea and cake and a singalong to some war time songs. And fittingly, families central to this story came along. For instance, one lady could recall how her grandfather came over from the West Indies around 1908 and settled in the area, she was born in the 1940s and was already third-generation before the more commonly known era of Caribbean immigration in the 50s and 60s had even begun.
It’s a really interesting insight into an often hidden community and the venue isn’t exactly easy to find either, but it is all set up in a cafe in the community centre so you can at least get yourself a cup of tea once you get there.
Making A New Home in Canning Town
Newham NDP Heritage Team at St Luke’s Community Centre
89 Tarling Road E16 1HN
Until Friday 28 November 2014
8am – 4pm
FREE ENTRY (although you’ll probably be expected to buy something in the very reasonably priced cafe!)