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Errol Alexis. Windrush Cymru: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History 2021

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Transcript of oral history interview with Errol Alexis, discussing her experience of growing up within a family which migrated from the Caribbean during the 1950s. Errol Alexis was born in the West Indies, on the Island of St Vincent, previously a British colony, in 1936. Errol’s father sent for him to come to Britain in 1957, at around 21 years of age.
 
Errol Alexis
29th August 2021
Length of Interview: 36.29

[00:00:00]
 
Interviewer: Okay so this is the interview of Errol. Could you state your name for me Errol.
 
Errol: Errol Alexis.
 
Interviewer: And your place of birth.
 
Errol: West Indies. I was born on the 8th of March 1936 on the Island of St Vincent. It was in a British colony.
 
Interviewer: Today's date is Thursday the 29th of August and the time now is 11:53 AM. What were your parents' names?
 
Errol: My parents, my fathers name was Edwin, he was a seaman and my mums name was Clara, she was a housewife.
 
Interviewer: Okay and what was your childhood like?
 
Errol: Well I was brought up by my grandparents and when they passed away I went home to my parents and started school then. I went to, for some unknown reason they sent me to a Catholic school.
 
Interviewer: Was it a good time there?
 
Errol: Yeah it wasn’t too bad.
 
Interviewer: Okay so did you have any brothers and sisters?
 
Errol: Yes, one of seven I am.
 
Interviewer: Are you the youngest, the oldest or in the middle?
 
Errol: In the middle.
 
Interviewer: What was it like growing up in the family home first of all?
 
Errol: When I left my grandparents to come and live with my mum I was about 12 I think. It was fun, I wouldn't say it was nice to be back because I loved my grandparents quite a lot. 
 
Interviewer: So they grew you up really.
 
Errol: Yes they started my upbringing.
 
Interviewer: So when did your parents leave St Vincent? What happened?
 
Errol: Well my father was a seaman and for him to get work he had to come to this country to sign on, there wasn’t any facility in the West Indies so he came to this country. To catch a ship and sign on he came to Cardiff, there was a seamans mission in Cardiff and the seamans hostel so he moved to Cardiff to catch a ship and he sailed in a Russian convoy, so we’d never see him for ages, sometimes maybe a year and a half before we met him. So eventually he decided that we should come over to this country. We’ll see more of him then because the ship of those times never traded in the West Indies. So my mother and my young brother and my sister, they came over first.

[00:03:34]
 
Errol: I went to live with my parents when I was about 12, I went to school and I left school at 16 or 17 and I had an apprenticeship as a plumber in the West Indies. Then my mum and my brother and sister were already over here and I followed them.
 
Interviewer: So what year did you come over?
 
Errol: 1957.
 
Interviewer: Can you remember the month?
 
Errol: It was getting on to Winter.
 
Interviewer: So it would have been roughly, September, October?
 
Errol: Yes.
 
Interviewer: So how did you come over?
 
Errol: By ship. I can’t remember the name of the ship but it wasn’t windrush.
 
Interviewer: Okay so where did you dock?
 
Errol: Southampton, we docked in Southampton and I had to make my way to Cardiff.
 
Interviewer: Was it a pleasant experience coming over on the ship?
 
Errol: Well I was looking- what we were taught in school and the reality were two different things. Because in school, on assembly we had to sing the national anthem, oh Great Britannia and stuff like that. They told us in school that Britain was the mother country, well when we arrived and the mother country was something different to what we were told. But our education was all from Britain because it was a colony and everything was ruled by Britain so everything we were taught came from Britain. So it was a trump lie when they say it was a mother country.
 
Interviewer: So what was different? What made it so different to what your expectations were?
 
Errol: Well from a small island where everything was big and you know. The people were not as friendly as I was expected to believe, they weren’t all… I wouldn’t say they were hostile but they weren’t as friendly as we expected.
 
Interviewer: So was that the only difference, was the people, compared to your expectations?
 
Errol: Well we were taught there was snow and all that, so we were expecting stuff like that, you know.

[00:07:05]
 
Interviewer: So that was your experience in Cardiff when you arrived? Because you went straight from Southampton to Cardiff?
 
Errol: To Cardiff yes, Cardiff was more sociable you know. They were more friendly, I think.
 
Interviewer: What would you say your first experiences were when you arrived in Cardiff? What did you experience?
 
Errol: Well, I didn’t know where I was going in the first place. I had an address and I asked a gentleman. Everybody knew Bute Street and I was living in Bute Street, so this gentleman, he showed me the way and took me to my parents home.
 
Interviewer: Did you know the gentleman?
 

Errol: No I didn’t.
 
Interviewer: Was he a Welsh gentleman?
 
Errol: Yeah he was a Welshman.
 
Interviewer: So you were right, they were more friendly. Once you’d got to the parents house, then what happened?
 
Errol: A big reunion and all that. My father was away at the time, because he was a seaman, he was always away. So it was a big reunion and in those days communication was a bit different than it is now. We didn’t have a telephone so she couldn’t phone me.
 
Interviewer: And that was the most modern means of communication then.
 
Errol: So I couldn’t phone her, you had to have cable then. So she knew I was coming, but when, she didn’t know.
 
Interviewer: And you hadn’t seen her for quite a while had you?
 
Errol: No, I hadn’t.
 
Interviewer: For about 4 or 5 years? Or maybe more?
 

Errol: Yeah.
 
Interviewer: So great, now you’ve arrived, you had the great reunion and everythings all great but now you’ve got to go out and get a job.
 
Errol: Yeah. Well I was an apprentice plumber when I was in the West Indies, but plumbing in this country and in the West Indies are different. The small island, I think we used galvanised piping, you know and we never worked in lead or copper or stuff like that. So I had an apprenticeship.
 
Interviewer: What was the company, can you remember?
 
Errol: Higgins Bottom.

[00:09:20]
 
Interviewer: That was in Cardiff was it? Whereabouts?
 
Errol: Yes. We were building an estate in Mynachdy way, they were building an estate there, so we were working on the houses there. The apprenticeship included three days on the job and two days in college. But after a while I started missing college, then I was called in the office one day and they asked what was the reason for me missing so many college, because college was theory and all the work was practical and I was much better in the practical than in theory. So in the end they said, oh we can’t have that so they fired me, well I was dismissed from the job for missing college.
 
Interviewer: So, what happens now, because are you going to tell your mother that you got fired?
 
Errol: Well I was terrified of telling my mum that I’d been fired because she was very proud of me, the first one in the family to go to college so she told all her friends and god knows what, you know my son is going to college and my father was strong communist as well. So I start thinking, what should I do. 
 
Interviewer: How old were you by this time?

 
Errol: I was 24 or 23. So I decided to join the army. I didn’t know the process in the army, I thought when you join up they take you away, but they don’t, there is a process you’ve got to go through.

[00:11:42]

Interviewer: Whilst still at home?
 
Errol: Yes, you join the army…
 
Interviewer: Because I thought you went in, signed on a dotted line and sort of next week you’re gone.
 
Errol: Well yes but there’s a process. You sign on the dotted line, well I did, and I had a shilling, a Queen's shilling, a loyalty shilling. Then he says, okay then I’ll get in touch with you. I assumed when you joined the army, they take you away right there and then. So in the end, I still had to go home and break the news to my mum. It wasn’t nice, I knew I’d done wrong, I shouldn’t have, you know but that was it. Then when my father heard and he went berserk as well.
 
Interviewer: What did he say?
 
Errol: Well, he says, I’m going to get killed and he says, if you go to Africa, you’re going to kill black people, your own people. And around that time there was a Suez canal crisis and they were terrified that I would be sent to Suez.
 
Interviewer: So once you’d told them and there was bad feeling for a while, what happened next?
 
Errol: I was called up to join the Army.
 
Interviewer: How long between joining and signing up?
 
Errol: About 2 weeks.
 
Interviewer: So you had 2 weeks of hell in the house?
 
Errol: Yes, it was.
 
Interviewer: Okay, so the 2 weeks had come and the Army said right come on. Where did you go?
 

Errol: Maindy barracks. The depo at that time was in Maindy barracks. I think it was 6 or 3 months basic training... 4 months basic training and you do the basic...
 
Interviewer: Yes, it’s all drill and stuff like that.
 
Errol: Yeah, I could remember we were not allowed out in civilian clothes, the recruits had to be back in barracks by half 10 and they had to be inspected out and inspected in. Then after we went to- there was a rifle range in Porthcawl that we used to go to Porthcawl to learn to shoot. It was an old prisoner war camp in Porthcawl and we used to stay there for a week, shoot in the rifle range as part of the training.
 
Interviewer: Once you finished the rifle range then what’s next?

 
Errol: Back to Maindy and there’s a routine, you do the basic and the drill.
 
Interviewer: Once you’d finished your basic training then, was there anything interesting in the basic training you want to talk about?
 
Errol: Well, we were all in the same boat you know.
 
Interviewer: Did you get up to anything on your days off or when you went out or anything interesting?
 
Errol: No, no.
 
Interviewer: So, once you’ve done your basic training, how long did that take? 3 months was it?
 
Errol: 3 or 4 months. 4 months.
 
Interviewer: So what was your first posting after your basic training?
 
Errol: Well once you finished your basic training, you were posted to the battalion. I was in the Welsh regiment you know what I mean. You were posted in the battalion to do specialist training, further training, advanced training.

[00:16:04]
 
Interviewer: And you did yours in?
 
Errol: Well after the basic training, you had the advanced training but I mentioned before, the Suez crisis was on and we were kitted out but I can’t remember if we were kitted out to go to Suez or what but in any case, the Americans are intervene in the Suez crisis, they find out it was an illegal war with France and Israel who invaded the canal so they stopped it, then we were posted to Libya. Because in those days, Libya had a King, King Idris and he was friendly with the West, if you know what I mean. At that time, also, Gaddafi, he was in air military and he was all shouting the odds, it was a British base, an American base in Tripoli, the British Airforce was in Tobruk, the army, the brigade was stationed in Benghazi and we support the R.A.F in Tobruk, so there was always an army presence, you know soldiers with the R.A.F in Tobruk.
 
Interviewer: Did you have any hairy moments there? Was it a bit scary?
 
Errol: No, it wasn’t a nice posting because we used to have sandstorms, we used to call them ghibli, I don't know what the proper name, they would be raging for days and we were living in tents. It was hot, there was a lot of diarrhea, we had thunderboxes and in the night, people would be queuing up to get to the thunderbox. But we had a lot of Arabs working in the cookhouse and they had a different idea about toiletry, they use a footstep on the ground. They never used a proper toilet.
 
Interviewer: Almost like a latrine thing.
 
Errol: But before Gaddafi would kick us out, the Greeks and the Turks started killing each other and the local police, they couldn’t cope, so we were posted to Cyprus to help the police.
 
Interviewer: Did you get fired upon then?
 
Errol: Yes well, what happened was the Greeks wanted union with Greece and the Turks wanted union with Turkey. The Greeks were the majority so they started killing the Turks, what they used to do was they used to do it to each other. There was a lot of farming and what they used to do, if they knew a field was going to be ploughed, they’d plant a bomb, but they used to do it to eachother and we were on constant patrol day and night, coming out of a Turkish village, we had to clear the roads and all that for mines and god knows what, but then when we were on patrol and we were coming out of a Turkish village, the headman, he’ll invite us in for a coffee and the Turks, when we go through their village, they thought we were collaborating because we would go and have coffee witht them. They were knocking us off in any case before that. I think I spent a year and a half in Cyprus, I’m not quite sure.

[00:21:28]
 
Interviewer: There must have been very scary times, did any of your friends or anyone get harmed or...
 
Errol: Yes there was a couple that got killed.
 
Interviewer: Did you actually witness that?
 
Errol: No.
 
Interviewer: That’s a blessing in itself really.
 
Errol: In Cyprus we all had a designated area to cover.
 
Interviewer: Did you have any rules of engagement?
 
Errol: Yes, there was a rule. There was a lot of shooting going on, of innocent people, so they sent out a rule of engagement telling us when to shoot and how to shoot. That’s in theory.
 
Interviewer: Did you have any cause to break out your weapon and fire?
 
Errol: Yeah, yeah.
 
Interviewer: You did?
 
Errol: They tried to ambush us and stuff like that. Yeah. Usually, when we were supporting the police we would be in a police station and they were attacked, they attacked the police station and god knows what.
 
Interviewer: It wasn’t a brilliant time in Cyprus then at all.
 
Errol: No it wasn’t.
 
Interviewer: What happened then?
 
Errol: Our tour of duty ended so we were shipped back to Britain to retrain and re-kitted out and the rest.
 
Interviewer: I understand that whilst you were in the army you became a bit of a sportsperson. 

 
Errol: Well yes, if you’re doing sports in the army you’re excused from most duties so I used to try everything that’s going.
 
Interviewer: But everybody did exactly the same thing didn’t they?
 
Errol: No, when in the army, it’s a voluntary thing.
 
Interviewer: Some people, I dare say, or most people tried to get out of doing that by going into sports.

 
Errol: Yes but not everybody’s like that, some can’t be bothered.
 
Interviewer: So what did you try your hand at?
 
Errol: Well, coming from the West Indies, most people can swim. We don’t use the swimming pool, we use the sea.
 
Interviewer: So you tried your hand at swimming?
 
Errol: I was swimming, I swam for the battalion.
 
Interviewer: And they say black people can’t swim.
 
Errol: Well they can. I swam for the battalion, I ran, I did the high jump. Different things.
 
Interviewer: But you were pretty good at all of them though?
 
Errol: Well some of them, sort of.

[00:24:48]
 
Interviewer: What training did you learn whilst you were in the army?
 
Errol: I was a signalman. I was a rifleman initially, everyone got to be a rifleman but then you advance to be whatever and I was a signalman. They liked you to be multi-tasked.
 
Interviewer: Was it a good time in the army for you? It sounds like it was the one thing in your life where you could say, this is where I belong, this is what I was good at.
 
Errol: I wouldn’t put it like that but it taught me self sufficient, how to look after myself. I think it was worthwhile.
 
Interviewer: Did they teach you to drive or anything like that?
 
Errol: Yes I was taught to drive.
 
Interviewer: What sort of things were you driving?

 
Errol: Oh the 4 tonners that’s all, land rovers and 4 tonners.
 
Interviewer: And when you left the army did you take that driving into...
 
Errol: Yeah.
 
Interviewer: What did you do?
 
Errol: Well, when I was in the army I knew how to drive but when we came back from Cyprus we were posted to Berlin. We had a tour of duty in Berlin, that was during the cold war when they were building the walls and all that.
 
Interviewer: So what year was this roughly?
 
Errol: The 60’s I think.
 
Interviewer: 64, 65 something like that.
 
Errol: I must explain how it was. You had East Germany and you had West Germany. East Germany was the Russians and the West Germans, the West Germany was the West, but then you had Berlin and Berlin was split again into 4 sections. You had the British sector, the Russian sector, the French sector and the American sector. To get out of Berlin, you had to go through the Russian sector, that’s by road. Flying, because most of this stuff used to come by air, but road, it was a log jam. So there was an international concession for the military but the Russians, they didn’t make it all very helpful if you know what I mean.
 
Interviewer: No of course because you were in the middle of a cold war.
 
Errol: In our section, the British sector- well in the American sector there was a famous crossing, it was an escape route for the East Germans who wanted to come over, that was in the American sector but it was publicised so much that it became non existent. We had our own section that we used to escape but we weren't open about it. Our name for that place was the Ice Killer. But apart from that in our sector there was Spandau prison where Rudolf Hesse was. When I was there, there was Hesse and 2 more prisoners so I was part of the international guard, we used to guard Hesse. We took it in turns, the Russians will have a month guarding Hesse, the British will have a month, the American will have a month and the French and it went around like that. Also in the British sector, there was the Reichstag and that was the Berlin parliament and they had the The Brandenburg Gate, Charlottenburg and you had the Olympic stadium where Hitler refused Jesse Owens, you know.

 

[00:29:53]

Interviewer: Right, so that’s quite a lot there.
 

Errol: Yes it was a lovely posting.
 
Interviewer: Did you get posted anywhere else after that? 
 
Errol: No, that was the end of my posting.
 
Interviewer: Is that the end of your military service?
 
Errol: Almost. Because when I was in Berlin, I had a call, I was just about to do a guard duty and I was called in the office and I was told my father had an accident aboard ship, so they flew me home straight away.
 
Interviewer: What happened to him?
 
Errol: He was working the wrench aboard ship and a wire or something caught him, but we were not allowed to see him. He had to be identified by the captain they said it’s best to see him and remember him as we knew him than to see him after the-
 
Interviewer: So he died on board ship? And they shipped his body home?
 
Errol: No, he was stationed in Scotland then working on docks, in Scotland working abroad ship.
 
Interviewer: Right okay, so where is he buried now then?
 

Errol: He’s buried in the seamans cemetery in Scotland. 
 
Interviewer: Well that’s a harrowing time then.
 
Errol: Yeah. My mother, she was usually distressed, she wanted to go home and...
 
Interviewer: When you say go home you mean?
 
Errol: Go back to the West Indies. There was a case and the Harrison line I think it was, they wanted to settle with my mam and the union got involved and they took it out of her hand. But she couldn’t leave the country until the case was settled and as soon as it was settled she went home.
 
Interviewer: So she did go back to St Vincent?
 
Errol: My mam she went home back to St Vincent. After a couple of years she became ill. We’d all take it in turns to go and visit her.
 
 

[00:32:17]

Interviewer: When you left the army, what did you do after that?
 
Errol: I had casual jobs working in the docks. One job, the Cyprus crisis started up again and the compo rations that they had for the troops, the corned beef was out of date, you know it had passed its sell by date and they had a warehouse down in docks that used to store it and the job I had was opening the compo rations, taking the old corned beef out and replacing it with a new one. That was only casual. Then I had a job at the railway as a porter.
 
Interviewer: Did you encounter any racism in any of these jobs?
 
Errol: Yeah we all did.
 
Interviewer: You’re in Cyprus with the battalion.
 
Errol: We’re in Cyprus but before we can join the battalion, it was a learning curve from somebody who was doing the job before and it was- a fusilade mob I forget what fusilade it is and we were only a company and they were a battalion of 500 odd men so we used to share the naffy together and you know soldiers, anybody, have a few pints or sit and do things so we were singing Welsh songs in one corner and the English were singing English songs in the other corner and it would get out of hand and I was the only black man there in any case and they would shout out you black bastard, so we were outnumbered but we had a go.

[00:34:50]
 
Interviewer: So you started fighting? The Welsh boys backed you up then really.

Errol: Yeah well we were all comrades in arms. There was only a company of 100 and odd with support group so everybody depends on each other and everybody knew each other you know what I mean.
 
Interviewer: Once the fighting had finished and everything what was it that you wanted to say that we missed last time?
 
Errol: It was about me being a member of the international guard, we used to guard Hesse.
 
Interviewer: So you were actually guarding Hesse?
 
Errol: It was in the Spandau prison, they were proper wardens, it was a prison with proper wardens but then the British and the French, the English and the Russians used to do guard duty in that prison.
 
Interviewer: Right okay. So what was it like guarding Hesse? 

 
Errol: We weren’t allowed any contact at all with Hesse. So if we spoke to him we’d be in trouble and it was like they were down in the yard and we were up in watchtowers, they had a bit of a garden.

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