Mr John Henry

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Growing up in Antigua

John was born in St John’s village, about a mile from St John’s city; however, for most of his childhood he lived at Ffryes Beach, near Bolans.  John had lots of brothers and sisters, including half-siblings born before his father married John’s mother. 

His father had various jobs, including as a butcher and mason; however, for much of John’s childhood he was the overseer on a large Antiguan estate. As a result, the Henry family lived a good life in a large house, with domestic and kitchen help. If his father wasn’t able to collect the children from school, the teacher would take them home in a buggy.

The family ate plenty of meat, fruit like mangoes and bananas, and home grown vegetables like carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, root and kohlrabi.  Determined his children would not grow up to be lazy, John’s father encouraged them to help him on the estate.

John’s childhood was mostly spent outdoors where he climbed trees, learned to ride bareback on the beach and swam in the calm waters of the ocean.

Moving to St Kitts

John’s life changed dramatically when his father died and his mother took him back to St Kitts.

He thought his new home was ‘terrible’ at first. Without the household help he’d grown used to, John was now expected to help more with the gardening and other chores.

John grew to like St Kitts a lot and enjoyed his teenage years on the island.

Island hopping

John’s desire to travel was ignited by his older half-brother. Hugh had visited the family when John was about six and the two got on very well.

John was determined to go looking for Hugh when he was old enough. He left school, packed a suitcase and, having heard that Hugh was working on the island of St Thomas, caught a boat there. On St Thomas, John soon tracked down Hugh, who was working at the Virgin Island Hotel.

That first trip ignited John’s wanderlust and he carried on travelling around the Caribbean, visiting islands like St Croix and Tortola. There were many good experiences, and he was shown much kindness. Once, when he was about to rent an empty house in St Croix, his landlady-to-be Mrs Smith realised he had nothing with him except a suitcase and arranged for some of her own furniture to be placed in the property. She waived his rent until he found a job and invited him to join her family for meals.

Mrs Smith’s daughter helped him to find work – as a bartender making cocktails at the Buccaneer Hotel. He had to wear a white shirt, black trousers and a black bow tie.  John loved the job and didn’t want to leave but he didn’t have his Green Card.

John enjoyed his island-hopping lifestyle, but it was England he really wanted to see.

Coming to the UK

Back in St Kitts, John met and married Agatha Lake; however, he still couldn’t settle. His cousin offered him a good job in Antigua with accommodation, but and he turned it down. Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, John remained convinced he could make his fortune in England.

No-one understood his determination to leave the Caribbean but his father had always spoken positively about England and John’s mind was made up.

In 1959, his dream finally came true and John waved goodbye to his wife and children and spent sixteen days at sea before arriving at Southampton.

His first night in the UK was a far cry from what he had imagined. He stood over the fire, cold and alone, and wondered what he had done? If he had had a plane ticket – or the money to buy one – he would have been heading straight back to the Caribbean.

John quickly found a job on the railways and worked hard. After two months, he was able to send for his wife, his three-year-old son and baby daughter two.

In Newport, it was hard to find new lodgings if you had children, so the family moved to Wednesbury in the West Midlands where they stayed for two years before returning to Newport.

Encountering racism

Unfortunately, John soon discovered that the UK wasn’t always welcoming to Caribbean immigrants as he had hoped.

Local men often tried to pick fights with him and his friends. In one incident in Birmingham, a group of white men tried to make them leave the pub altogether. John ignored them and ordered pints for his group, knowing that if he and his friends didn’t remain in the pub, the racists would have won.

Back in Newport, John encountered more discrimination when he tried to buy a house, finding that houses suddenly became unavailable when he showed an interest in them. He knew a good builder from the Caribbean who was turned down for grant work because the property owner told him the grant would be withdrawn if he used a black builder.

John eventually bought a property in Ifton Street and had two more daughters there before moving to Pill.

The Caribbean community in Newport

In 1959, there were very few Caribbean people living in Newport and most immigrants were of Asian origin.

By the early sixties, the numbers had increased and there were the first stirrings of the close knit Caribbean community that eventually existed in Pill.

By the 1970s, the legendary Silver Sands restaurant was open and John was among the many regular customers who enjoyed Caribbean food and music there every weekend.