Sean Wharton. Windrush Cymru Project: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History, 2019

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Transcript of an oral history interview with Sean Wharton in Cardiff, discussing his experience of growing up within a family which migrated from the Caribbean during the 1970s.

Date of Interview: 7th October 2019

Length of interview: 00:44:14

My name is Sean Robert Wharton.

[Family background]


My father's name is Sonny Wharton and his father's name was Robert Gunn and his mother's name was Mary Latfey?  My Mothers name is Amelia Wharton, her father’s name was James Williams, and her mother's name was Lorelle Garvey. My parents were from St. Kitts in the Caribbean. My mother worked in a kitchen and my father worked in a sugar cane factory.

My maternal grandfather was a pension inspector, he went around everyones garden and made sure everything was up to scratch. I’m not sure about my grandmother.  On the paternal side, my grandmother looked after children, and my paternal grandfather was a fisherman. My father’s childhood was good, he was the second eldest and used to go out fishing with my grandfather and they lived in the town of St Kitts, so life was busy and there was family - 7 or 8 siblings, always children around, living in the sun. Living in the Caribbean at that time the qualities were very different to what they are in the UK less about respecting life and more about receiving and giving and respecting the life that you had.

My father was born in 1938, so we’re talking towards the end of the war. In terms of what they had, on the monetary side they didn’t have a lot, but in terms of the love and affection they had it in abundance. Similar for my mother who lived in the country in comparison to my dad who lived in the city.  She had a good life, three or four siblings, and everything was as good as it could be.

My mother enjoyed school, she was very bright, very good at maths, very sharp,  intelligent, articulate, fun-loving, free-spirit, playful. My dad being in the city, it was about work, about function, about making his way through the day, but again in the sunshine they had a happy life.

It was my dad's decision to come to the UK.  He saw a sign it was after the war and they were re-building the UK and they were looking for people to come and contribute. The sign was in St. Kitts, inviting people to come to the UK.  I believe it was just £70 so he got the money from his father, it was £70 to go by boat or £75 to go by plane, £5 was a lot of money then so he chose the boat, and he came across. He was 21 years old. My mother came on, I believe, the HMS Montblanc, they came over separately.   My father came over first, because as I said it was expensive. My parents were a couple at the time, she had two children, my older siblings, so two of them were born in St. Kitts and the three of us were born here.  He knew somebody in Newport so I think he docked in Southampton and he had an interview on Friday and then he started work on the Monday, and he worked there until he died. He worked in a battery factory.

[Expectations and reality]

I think the expectations of the majority of the people that came from the Caribbean was to work, get a job, work hard and then return, I think truth be told, that’s what the expectation was.  My dad was unable to do that, as he died when he was 62 but he still came over, worked hard and created a family and a legacy to be left behind. In terms of how they were received, both my mother and dad when they came there was racism, difficulties, challenges, skin colour, and when they moved to one property, where my mother still lives now actually there was a petition to get them out, and there was difficulties in terms of getting a job that they were together that they were in a relationship. He worked really hard my dad, he worked in a factory with the battery and it was ironic really he used to put batteries up and a lot of batteries were made of lead and when he stopped that job that role was then was done by machinery. He did it for years and years and years and then when they ended it all and he had to go and do something else, doing, so it was tough, it was tough. I don’t think we should underestimate the hard work our elders did in order for us to do what we’re doing today.


He came over in 1959, my mother came over in 196. He was working for shillings, but that would have been a lot more than he could earn in St. Kitts. However many years it was he worked hard and all the money he could earn he’d save money and then he sent it back to my mother to come in 1961.  She came alone on HMS Monserrat, it took a few months she was petrified, she used to hide herself in the cabin and she tells the story now and again. It took her a few months to come to Southampton, it was cold, it was winter, my dad gave her a coat, they missed the bus to Wales, [her] thinking that Wales was a town but Wales was a country. They had to sleep, it was either in a train station or a pub, overnight, until they could get transport back to Newport. I think it was snowing, it was very cold, the first time my mother had seen snow.  A whole new experience that was December the first 1961, a new experience but she did it for love. She did exactly the same when she came over. She went to see the place on Friday and started on Monday, the same place, same factory, and she stayed there until she retired. She worked hard, my mother, she had two jobs.  They worked extremely hard, my parents, a very hard working family.

The other children came in 1963. They came together, by plane with a chaperone.  I didn't know what tradition was really other than my family, which would have been food, music, so I was the youngest of five so I probably didn’t feel anything in terms of belonging other than being part of the very strong black family. Obviously I knew about St. Kitts, I wasn’t forced. It was a natural process, this is where the family is from and this is us. In terms of the history as a child, a young child you’re dealing with what you’ve got to deal with other than where your roots are, but over time I was very much about I knew the history and  what my parents had to go through and appreciated it, and my siblings, absolutely.


I think it’s vitally important, [Maya Angelo?] says ‘If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going’ and I think that is true for everybody. I definitely know where I’m from, I know where my family are from, I know their lifestyle prior to coming to this country and I can share that message with my children, they can share with their children and their children’s children to appreciate that if it wasn’t for my father and my parents, we wouldn’t have what we have potentially today. Whether that be an Xbox or a pair of Calvin Klein pants or a nice pair of trainers, it’s key that they don’t forget the legacy that my parents built.


[Growing up]


I was the youngest of five, so I grew up with the knowledge that you have to work hard to get what you want, both parents worked full-time, my oldest sister used to look after me as a youngster, some of the time so that my parents could work. We didn’t really want anything, but we didn’t really ask for anything, we had what we needed and that was OK. There was a petition to get the family out of the estate where they are now.

There was a petition to get the family out from all the white neighbours.  I think the family wanted better for us because obviously there was some sort of ghetto at that time where people of different ethnic origin all lived in the same area, so I think my parents wanted choice for us, so we moved to an area where there wasn’t a lot of colour or ethnicity. I don’t know if it was for that reason alone, or what, but I think it was their choice where to live, because people moved out not in, if that makes sense, and they were the cheapest properties. For my father and mother to move to an area where there wasn’t anyone who looked similar to them, that itself took a lot of courage and bravery, and then to overcome the petition and the challenges which they did during that time again, took a lot of courage and bravery. I cannot make that sound any more important or better than what it is.  Sometimes unless you have felt that, you must not understand what it must have been like, to live in that time, in that era, where people were talking to you, but being horrible to you behind your back also.


So during that time there were a lot of fights and a lot of competition because we lived on an estate which was full of families and lots and lots of children. There was a lot of  fights, physical fights where I'd see my siblings fight, and myself, in the street with other children and then their bigger brothers would come out and have a go at me, and then my sister would come out and she’d have a go at them and then their parents would come out and then my mother would go out then it ended at that point, because my mother had so much experience of life, she had almost no fear in terms of protecting her children, and my dad was the same. It wasn’t looking for a fight just protecting what you believed in which was the family.  So for me as a child, family, was and is so vitally important and you’d do anything to protect them and guide them, and nurture them, and enable them to make the right choices in life.


I went to school there was a bit of uncertainty, I remember having a gang as I was a bit of a street kid, I was always out, I was a proper child, I remember having a fight with some people because they were calling me coloured.  I was black at that point, and then a few weeks later me and my gang went back to fight the same people again because they was calling me black and I’d gone back to Coloured.  Apparently, according to the press. So in terms of identity and still searching for that identity in terms of terminology, If nothing else, yes I was different there wasn’t many children with the same colour skin as me in my school.  There were one or two and obviously my brothers and sisters were there, but there were probably one or two in each year, if that, so every year, another one or two left, and I think when I was going to primary school, I realised I was good at sport. All sports, I was good at cricket, baseball, rugby, football, and athletics, which almost led me to be acceptable, accepted by people, and become a popular kid.  There is a rhetoric that says that you only become accepted as British if you are good at sport. I was good at sport and I was naturally went down the rugby and the cricket and the football route and I was OK, not the best but OK, I was fast. The thing about being fast, you know, you think now that all the Black kids are fast but no they’re not all fast, some of them are actually slow and that’s okay. I just happened to be one of those fast ones.  I didn't know that I was fast, I just knew I was faster than most, but as you go up the ranks and you become better at what you do, you realise you’re not actually the fastest there is always going to be someone that is faster.  I was pointed towards athletics, and I won most races.  I didn’t really compete as there wasn’t so many layers of excellence then, you won your race in school, you won for Gwent and then Wales. But athletics was deemed to be quite a middle-class sport the same as cricket. I was very good at cricket, I got into the county team but then me and my mate turned up with white shorts on for the training and everyone else had the proper whites on, and we thought ‘nah, it’s not for us’ because we were kids from the estate. I probably would have got in that team but it was seen as elitist and middle class which we were not at that time because we were street kids. My parents used to protect me all the time because I had no fear, I got that from my parents.


As time went by I'd specialised in rugby and football and then I used to get hurt a lot in rugby, because the kids I was playing were a year or two up, because I was fast and I was big and that was the expectation back then, if you’re black and you’re big and good you can play a year older than what you’re supposed to play. But there was a point when the other boys were bigger and stronger, so I was getting hurt. So my brother said to my dad ‘he’s going to have to stop playing rugby as he’s getting hurt too much.”  Nothing major, but I was getting targeted. So I focused on football then, and I remember going around with my brother a lot, playing with his mates and so on, boys older than me and then again I was, okay at football, not the best but I was determined, and definitely not the worst, and then I got signed by Cardiff City as a 12 year old, and I was going down to Cardiff every week with the Scouts, training. That’s where I stayed for a number of years and I got chosen for Wales, then at 14. Again I was playing a year up so I was playing with 15-year-olds. All my mates then they took the day off from school as I was playing at Cardiff City against Scotland, they bunked off school to watch me play and I got injured in the warm-ups so I didn’t play.  They tell this story today, my mates, it’s so funny. However, I want on to play about 14 times for Wales then and that year I scored against England in Gillingham, and I used to experience racism during that time. In Ireland people were spitting at me, and it wasn’t a good time it was uncertain and I wasn’t quite sure what was going on.  I was only young and I just wanted to play football.

I got better at it and trained harder at it and my dad was taking me places and watching me every game, my mother was watching me every game, just being supportive parents as they were. At the time I was costing them as I needed boots and they always found a way to give me what I needed.

[First visit to St. Kitts]

I was about nine years of age when I went to St. Kitts for the first time, went for six weeks, and it was amazing, but it was interesting because although I did fit in in Wales, but I looked different, but when you go to St Kitts and all your family are from St. Kitts, you behave differently, so you have two different feelings, then even the way you walk it's fast, they way you dress, you stand out here because of your skin colour ,but you stand out there because of your behaviour and your accent, so you’re in between two parallels really in terms of fitting in. I look the same but I’m no different here but I’m not the same and I’m not treated the same. So which one do I belong to? I have a strong sense of belonging to the Caribbean and a strong sense of belonging to Wales at that time. So I went to St. Kitts for the first time six weeks over the Christmas period. All my cousins were saying ‘He’s English’ and you can’t really tell them that we do not live in England because that would have bamboozled them if we said we lived in a country called Wales, but we sort of accepted it, it was difficult going there originally for 6 weeks. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, realised he worked hard.  I remember him sitting in the front room, listening to the radio, listening to the cricket, after coming off the night fishing trip. He’d be fast asleep but if you turned that radio off he’d be wide awake.

My grandmother Mary Latfey (?) she worked hard, she was the matriarch, the hub of the family.  Still is today, and in terms of respect you cannot go into the house without saying good morning or good afternoon, and if you do you have to get yourself back out and come back in with your manners. In terms of respect in that house, that is still something that exists today.


All ages, all sizes, all colours it doesn’t make any difference, you show everyone in that house respect and that is something which you emulate along the way as you become an older person. So yes, the hub of the family and Christmas is about time not about gifts, where everybody gets together and it’s not about what you gifts and what you receive it is about what you can offer. That cultural awareness for me at that age was a lifelong sense of understanding really and it was great.  So that time at nine was great, got to know the islands seen where my dad worked and went to see where my mother lived so got to know St. Kitts hen as a nine year old the message behind that trip was about my parents, again that would have cost loads, showing us where it all started. This is what it is about. After six weeks which is a long time to go on holiday we came back home and then I still remember that time today. 

[Footballing days and racism]

Going back to my football time then at 14 -15. I then went to Cardiff and I was getting older so I was spending more time playing at city and then the manager of Cardiff City went to Sunderland and when I finished school I went up to Sunderland to play up there. I was the first black player to play for Wales schoolboys at 14. I’ve got the pictures in my house, it says ‘first coloured player to play for Welsh schoolboys’ which is nice, and I was the first black player to play for Sunderland and that was interesting because I was good when you go to a place such as Sunderland, you are joining people who are just as good as you if not better, the elite from everywhere. So when you are an outsider, a lot of the lads who started the same time as me, they knew each other, they were all training together on a regular basis. I was from Cardiff City, so I came in as an outsider and wasn’t accepted one because I was new, and two because I was black. I had a lot of trouble, a lot of fights, a lot of bullying, from my peers. There were periods where I was beaten up by 5 or 6 people, shoved into a big laundry machine. Constant bullying, fights, picking-on and racism but not only was I good at sport I was tough. That didn’t happen for long because I had learned this skill.

When I say fights I don’t mean physically fighting all the time, but fighting for what you believe in also but I did both. I was able to sort fight back with words, or actions, which I did every time, but it didn't stop it just lessened, then eventually it stopped and they moved onto somebody else not because of skin colour, but because they were Catholic and they were Protestant,  there was a big religious division up there too, but for me it was about purely skin colour, obviously if you were a Catholic and joining a Protestant club you didn’t have to tell anyone, because you looked the same. I had no choice, so I joined a group of 15 lads who lived in a hostel, all 15 of us in the professional club and we would eat together, spend time together, train together, and that was the way for years really. So you had to find a way within that dynamic and for me it was receiving harassment, bullying and racism, but also battling against it as well. I remember walking around Newcastle with these same boys on the weekend, and there was a National Front march, all the skinheads in their bomber jackets, tight jeans and Dr.Martens with red laces. I know that’s stereotypical but that was what they were like in the ’80’s, 1989. They seen as and they chased us and they were calling me names and the same lads that had been abusing me on occasion, were protecting me then, and we jumped on the bus having run though the city and got back to our hostel.


But even then it was still tough, living away. I’d phone my mother up and say everything is great mum, the boys are good, and then have to go and fight my way or it was very indirect, they’d do certain things to get you into trouble purposely, name calling was a regular thing and that was the lads who were my age, the lads who were older were worse again because they were in authority, to me as an apprentice. So yes, racism was experienced throughout.

Football is a kind of levelling ground, because when you’re on the pitch you’re playing as a team. But I would get it from the opposition then. I remember playing in one place and there were bananas being thrown at me, from the opposition players and their fans. So when you weren’t playing you had it  from the hostel or from your peers and when you were playing you had it from the opposition players.  This was in the north-east, there wasn’t a lot of diversity or multicultural or BME people up there, it was predominantly white, so you had it from all aspects really.

I think it is different now, but I don’t think it has necessarily got better. I think in terms of racism in football, this is something people ask me about a lot, but people don't turn up to football pitches and become racist, they leave their home as racists and football gives them a platform to say what they believe they want to say. That’s ingrained in them, they go home from a football pitch, and then they go to work, they are still the same people with those same racist views. It’s a societal issue really that we need to address, maybe go into their workplaces. If there is racism at a Bon Jovi concert, Bon Jovi hasn't got an issue with racism it’s the same in the theatre, there’s racism while you’re watching the Lion King, but that doesn’t have a racism issue, it’s a society thing and it’s the same with football.


I think there is still racism in football, it’s massive it’s a huge issue and it’s not just a high school issue and every single player of BME origin playing in the local parks. They have the platform and the social media platform and don’t get me wrong it is not good for them, I'm very much an advocate for social justice for everybody and that means for 8 year olds playing in Ely, 10 year olds playing in Newport 12 year olds playing in Wrexham, so it's bad, when I came back from Sunderland I managed then in the Welsh Premier league, the highest league in Wales, and I was the first Black manager to manage there, and I experienced racism there as a manager and I played first and foremost, professionally, and when I stopped playing at about 30-35  I managed and experienced racism in Wrexham and plays, Porthmadog  and Bangor as a manager, monkey chants and  things like that so it is something which I've had throughout my life really and have dealt with in a way. Football is a platform for people to vent what they really think there was bullying within football, there’s been bullying, indirect racism within social work where I work now, that marginalisation and victimisation that people tend to do now within social work and other institutions, it’s still a form of racism, it’s just a little bit cuter, indirect. And it is very hard really because I say this to people. If you have experienced racism, it’s hard for you to say it as it takes confidence. And if you say it sometimes people don’t believe you, so then you stop saying it and just accept it. And then people say, ‘you’re using the race card’ and I’ve never seen this race card ever. Maybe it exists. I don’t know if somebody has one I’d love to see it. I don’t know why people would say you’re saying there’s racism when there’s not, because it takes confidence to do it. But it’s not seen currently as equal to the other characteristics of the Race Equality Act, it’s seen as a lesser, it doesn’t get the same amount of funding as different issues which are seen as a priority. I've got my reasons for that, but it needs to be seen as it is and something needs to happen.

[Diversity and managing racism]

There is a lot of diversity in Cardiff, it doesn't mean there's no racism.  In terms of Newport it’s similar, there’s a lot of multiculturalism in Newport now but there is still racism. I'm aware that people are moving to Mid-Wales, because there is a lack of diversity there and that is the reason they are moving there, and that is why, because it isn't diverse and that's our country.

The way to manage is to surround yourself with like-minded people, you don’t put yourself at risk. That’s a question that I was asking myself, and I believe I’m a reflective person. On occasions, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you can’t sort of get out of it, but it’s about, as you get older, you tend to not put yourself at risk as much as you would have when you were younger. By that I mean going to places where you know there is going to be possibly something said, so I tend not to do that. But my worry is now for my children and my grandchildren who maybe, and rightly so, see themselves as being British because they are, and not different but they are because they look different and people will look at them particularly with the way things are which is almost … it gives people the right to say what they want to a degree, unfortunately, and you could argue that if people have these views and they are saying it at least you know whereas people that have those views and don’t say it and pretend to be  somebody who likes you, or agrees with you or accepts you. There’s pros and cons with both really.   For me, my parents were able to give me the understanding and the knowledge to accept all to appreciate others and to understand everybody really, and that’s how I try to live my life. Regardless of the experience I’ve had in football, in school, in social work in every aspect of my life.  Looking back the advice I’d give myself as a little boy is that in every walk of life you are going to come across challenges. You have to take snippets of advice from people you value and respect and put it all together into one. You will make mistakes, you do some things right, you do some things wrong, but overall I think most people want to be a good person. Whilst you make mistakes you learn from them, surround yourself with people who are positive and when it gets to a junction take the right turning. But you can only do that if you listen to people who are positive in your life. I think positivity and education is key, some people say that ‘education is wasted on the young’, some people say that education is elitist, and that you need money to be educated, but it’s not just academia and university it is educating yourself in which ways you possibly can and asking questions and challenging people constantly, and that includes yourself.