Jamaicans who made Leeds their home celebrated in a new exhibition with Hebden Bridge photographer

The family of  of Errol James MBE being photographed for the Eulogy Project in Leeds by photographer  Paul Floyd Blake.
The family of of Errol James MBE being photographed for the Eulogy Project in Leeds by photographer Paul Floyd Blake.

They never forgot their first sight of the chimneys. Endless rows filling the skyline, which convinced them their new home was a place of vast factories.

They never forgot their first sight of the chimneys. Endless rows filling the skyline, which convinced them their new home was a place of vast factories.

It was the chimneys of row after row of terrace houses they were seeing, but that first impression is one of the most powerful collective memories of the young men and women who arrived in Leeds from Jamaica from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Those memories of people who came in response to a call for workers by a labour-starved city recovering from war are the heart of a new exhibition celebrating their lives and journeys.

The Eulogy Exhibition is being staged by Jamaica Society Leeds at the city’s Central Library and tells the stories using photographs they had taken to send back home to let their families know all was well and eulogies from traditional Caribbean funeral programmes.

Award-winning photographer Paul Floyd Blake, from Hebden Bridge, whose father came to Britain from Jamaica in 1956, found that picturing the descendants of the pioneering arrivals with mementos of them sparked deep emotional connections with the past.

It wasn’t just the pictures of their relatives in formal, Sunday-best clothes from decades long ago, but belongings that triggered memories, such as a plasterer’s tools brought to a sitting.

“It made them reflect on what their relatives had done,” said Paul. “Just going through that stuff and seeing the items did trigger emotions and get people talking to one another about family, and that was a lovely thing to be involved in.

“It’s quite easy now to just allow things to drift away. The new way of making photography, the digital age where we take them on our phones, can mean you take so many they almost get forgotten.

“To have these physical photographs that you can hold and look at, it’s somehow more emotional.”

The exhibition also emphasises the continuing legacies of those first arrivals with a series of newly-commissioned photographs of their descendants with the original pictures sent to Jamaica, or precious family keepsakes such as the passport or suitcase they carried.

Journey’s end in Leeds proved hard for the young Jamaicans, who settled mostly in the Chapeltown and Hyde Park areas.

The jobs on offer were often dirty, low paid and gruelling, in transport, textiles or engineering, and they also had to contend with appalling racial abuse.

Yet a key aim of the exhibition is to present a rounded picture of the people who made a new land their home, presenting them not as victims, but as trailblazers, according to its curator, Susan Pitter, whose parents arrived from Jamaica in the early 1960s.

“It’s a chance to tell stories that are largely invisible in the story of this city,” she said. “Even though we know that Caribbean men and women came here and contributed, increasingly over the past few years the narrative seems to be that they were victims of some kind of circumstance.

“We are really working to share that some people did extraordinary things, some people had achievements that were outstanding and some people were trailblazers. It’s really important to show a fully-rounded picture that presents that generation as multi-layered.

“They were young people who were in love, raising families, people who spent their working lives doing what people do for their families.”

The exhibition is part of the wider Eulogy Project which runs until next year and includes workshops on memoir writing, Jamaican culture and heritage. Its roots lay in the deaths of Susan’s parents, Hermerde and Enid.

“What struck me when I was pulling together with my brothers and sister the content for my father’s funeral programme, is that it tells the life story of one person. I figured a collection of them would tell the story of a generation.”

There are 76 life stories in the exhibition, among them those of men who volunteered for the forces during the Second World War, such as the late Errol James, who arrived in 1944, aged 18 to join the RAF.

He went on to be a founder member of Jamaica Society Leeds, the Caribbean Cricket Club and Leeds West Indian Centre, becoming a magistrate and being awarded an MBE for his services to the community and race relations.

Then there is the late Delores “Vi” Francis, who arrived in 1954 and became the city’s first black bus conductor. Or Susan’s own parents, her father working as a bus driver and later at an engineering works, and her mother as a bus conductor and later in a laundry.

The call for people to come to Britain to fill labour shortages went out across the Caribbean after the war, including to work in the newly-founded NHS in 1948. Those who responded became known as the Windrush generation, after the ship which landed the first arrivals in June that year.

“You have to look at the price they paid for that, and it was leaving people behind. They left parents, some of whom they would never see again, and that is heartbreaking. Some were skilled craftsmen and professionals, like policemen and teachers, but once they got here they had to settle for what was on offer, which in the main wasn’t white collar jobs.” They not only had to contend with the challenges of a new country, but with the ugliness of prejudice.

For Susan, the first lady mayoress of Leeds of Jamaican origin, in 2000/2001, the exhibition is an opportunity to celebrate how much the new arrivals contributed to the city they made their home.

“Of all the projects I’ve done, this one makes me the most anxious because I feel I have a duty to get it right and do them justice. It’s not just the memory of my parents, it’s the memory of 76 people who are effectively representing a whole generation.”

The Eulogy Exhibition is at Room 700 in Leeds Central Library until September 8.