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Barrel Children: Windrush families and the emotional burden of migration

Thousands of people left the Caribbean for the UK with the promise of work and a new life. Many were forced to leave their children behind with relatives. Nadine White meets those children and hears their stories

Thursday 27 January 2022 00:01 GMT
Barrel Children: The Families Windrush Left Behind trailer

Growing up in Jamaica, all my cousins, my aunt’s children, knew their mother because they grew up with her,” says Jennifer Pringle. “I was the only child that didn’t really have her mum around and it was an isolating experience. You know, I still haven’t overcome it fully.”

Pringle’s mother left Jamaica for the UK when she was a toddler. She has few recollections of the woman who gave birth to her and, instead, viewed her maternal grandmother as “mum”. Then, months before her 15th birthday, Pringle left her grandmother to join her mother in the West Midlands, in Britain.

That journey in 1975, flying into Heathrow airport, was made by tens of thousands of others – children raised by their extended families then “sent for” to join their estranged biological parents in Britain, often finding their new home hostile, grey and cold. They became known as the “barrel children”, after the parcels and barrels of goods their parents would send home, from novelty food and gifts to essentials such as clothes and stationery.

Pringle viewed her maternal grandmother as ‘mum’ (Supplied/Jordan Walters at Brixton Heights CIC)

But for many, the years of separation took an emotional toll – and some of these “barrel children” are still dealing with the effects decades later. Within two years of moving to Britain, Pringle had moved out of the family home, striking out on her own in a country still strange and new to her.

“I love my mother but I never truly felt wanted,” she says. “And I am still working through the trauma.”

The term “barrel children” was coined by Jamaican academic Dr Claudette Crawford-Brown in the 1990s, and is defined as those who, while waiting in the Caribbean to follow their parents to America and the UK, received food and clothing “in lieu of direct care”.

Of the impact this left on children, the academic said: “You have deep psychological reactions and they revolve around feelings of worthlessness and sadness … and that pain can last a lifetime.”

Neil Kenlock, co-founder of Choice FM, arrived in Britain as a 13-year-old in 1963 to join his mother in London, one of nearly half a million people to make the trip between 1948 and the 1970s who have since been dubbed the Windrush generation. It it estimated that during the peak period of the migration, between 1955 and 1960, adults brought 6,500 children with them but left 90,000 behind in the Caribbean.

“The Windrush migration was an economic decision because, as far as people were concerned, there weren’t enough resources, businesses and jobs in Jamaica for them to survive,” Kenlock said. “My family had land so they could be farmers but there wasn’t money back then; my grandfather would sell bananas but my father didn’t want to do that – just like lots of people didn’t. They wanted to come to Britain and get a better life as far as they were concerned.

Kenlock: ‘There are lots of people who weren’t brought over... it’s a big problem in Jamaica’ (Supplied/Jordan Walters at Brixton Heights CIC)

“There are lots of people who weren’t brought over; there was a campaign to encourage parents to send for their children but some of them didn’t and it’s a big schism (or ‘problem’) in Jamaica to have a situation where your parent is in Britain and they don’t even send you socks; where they don’t send you anything or support you in any way, shape or form.

“Even in my case, it took my parents a long time to send for me. They should’ve sent for me far earlier but were busy having children so those children were now taking spaces and spaces – but it didn’t make a difference to me because I had two sets of loving grandparents.

“Most of my family has migrated to Britain. Too many of us left Jamaica, that’s the problem.”

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, thousands of men, women and children left the Caribbean for Britain, after the 1948 British Nationality Act granted settlement in the UK to all members of the British Empire. Residents of the former colonies were given citizenship to help rebuild the country’s economy after the war. In recent years, ministers and the Home Office have come under fire over revelations on how members of the Windrush generation and their children have been wrongly detained and deported; while others have been denied access to healthcare, work, housing benefits and pensions.

For some of the people caught up in the Windrush scandal, they felt that they were being left behind again but this time it wasn’t family, it was the state. Describing this scandal as a psychological “double whammy”, political activist Patrick Vernon said: “That has an impact on your wellbeing. I think any compensation package needs to recognise this emotional trauma.”

Barrel children Merlyn Rhone and Burchell Davidson (Supplied/Jordan Walters at Brixton Heights CIC)

Merlyn Rhone and Burchell Davidson, aged 70 and 72, were left behind in Jamaica by their parents as infants and migrated to the UK as part of Windrush at ages seven and nine respectively in 1960. “It was quite a novelty having parents in England back then because you were supposed to be well off,” Davidson said. “I have a memory of a penknife and a flashlight which was sent for me,” he continued with a glint of nostalgia in his eye. “Presents and food would often come in parcels.”

When the pair were told that they’d be leaving the island to be reunited with their parents in England, both experienced mixed feelings ranging from excitement and anticipation to sorrow and angst.

“I didn’t realise I was really leaving until that morning when we were getting ready and people started to fuss and cry because we were the last of dad’s kids to leave – and then we started to cry,” Davidson continued. “We soon realised that something serious was happening.”

“I had some preconceived idea that England was heaven,” the Derby-resident continued, laughing. “At that age, I saw that everyone that came to England went up into the sky, in an aeroplane, and I never saw them come back. As far as I was concerned, they’d gone to heaven because that’s the only place you go and stay. I thought our new home would be wonderful and sunny (...) but it was foggy, damp and cold. I thought something had gone wrong and I’d gone to hell. So, it was frightening at first.”

A child drinks milk as he waits to leave the UK in 1961 and return to the West Indies (Getty)

Rhone chimed in, describing how she was “a bit scared” to meet their mother for the first time at the airport. Fear and uncertainty were prevalent themes throughout these childhood experiences. These children had no real idea of what their mother looked like.

“I had no idea who this person would be,” Rhone added. “I remember the three of us walking out of the airport and this big lady came towards us with this big fur coat on and her arms open.”

The pair, utterly freaked out by this outlandish display from an apparent stranger, walked past the woman who, it turned out, was their mother. She burst into tears. Davidson said: “Her absence from our lives didn’t harm our relationship with her because there was no relationship to harm; so we had to get to know her.

“Panic set in for us, but after a while we approached her and she grabbed hold of us and squeezed.”

While the pair found it difficult adjusting to their mother, as many other children in similar situations would have, they grew to understand that she equally struggled. That was evident in the “many tears” she shed. “I think our mum might have found it a bit difficult {adjusting to us} at first, not having us for any length of time,” Rhone said.

Arnold: ‘Mothers thought that when the child came, they’d just start where they left off’ (Supplied/Jordan Walters at Brixton Heights CIC)

“I was always talking about grandmother – “Mama” – and would mention her in the context of being my mother, and I think our mother might have found a little bit of resentment there.”

Burchell added: “Somebody else had raised her children for six years, somebody else had that relationship with them. So it must have been heartbreaking for her, especially when we couldn’t bond with her at that time. Imagine what she would’ve missed out on.”

Dr Elaine Arnold, a psychiatric social worker and teacher, said: “Many mothers thought that when the child came, they’d just start where they left off but that was impossible because the child had moved on to another stage of development.

“Then they hit adolescence, and that was a period in which the relationship could become problematic. Mothers think the adolescent who is showing some independence or preferring their friends, is being ungrateful for all the care they put in when they were small.

“We must remember that this is not confined to the Caribbean population; I have worked across all ethnicities and found that sometimes I’m listening to a problem brought by someone – and if I close my eyes I can’t tell which ethnic group the person is from.”

Dr Arnold has studied and written about the psychological impact that immigration had on families, in particular with relation to attachment issues, demonstrating that the disruption caused by separation from both family and country often had long-term traumatic consequences.

An auction of enslaved black people in Virginia (Granger/Shutterstock)

It isn’t possible to discuss the Windrush migration and its impact on black families in any meaningful way without delving into the complex and painful legacy of slavery. Centuries of captivity at the hands of colonialists prevented the formation of close black family relationships while also making stable, secure family life very difficult because enslaved Africans, who were bought, sold and viewed as property, lived with the constant possibility of separation through the sale of one or more of their own.

“In terms of family relationships, we had to start again; the dial was reset from the end of emancipation as a result of what was endured throughout slavery - but we’re here and it’s important to remember that because there is a narrative, commonly used by some, which suggests that all black families are dysfunctional,” Vernon continued.

Be that as it may, many Windrush migrants felt compelled to migrate from the Caribbean to seek better financial prospects in Britain. Why? Because their countries’ economies were broken owing to under-investment following emancipation whereupon the majority of surplus profits from slavery went to the UK.

‘Every single Caribbean household has a left behind story,’ says Vernon (Getty)

Vernon said: “Every single Caribbean household has a ‘left behind’ story; we all do; my family does. The expression that’s used is ‘transnational families’; we export. Looking at Jamaica, there are more of its citizens living overseas than on the island – and that’s probably one of the tragedies of globalisation and the impact of being forced through work to start a new life.”

“For some of the Windrush victims,” he continued, “when they came over here as minors, they were left behind in the Caribbean because their parents were trying to raise money.

“When they (the parents) came over here, they were told the streets were paved with gold and then found out they weren’t. They were discriminated against in the workplace, which meant they had less money; they expected to earn more, to fast track their plans to bring the children over...but then realised that this plan would take longer than expected.

“A lot of children had to wait several years until they were reunited with their parents and met new siblings. As a result, it was difficult for them to adjust to new families and the new school system. Nevertheless, many managed to break through all that and work, raise families and contribute to the community in various ways.”

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