Amid Birmingham Mailbox’s designer fashion stores, I found hand-crafted dresses, woven bags and crochet legacies of the Windrush generation that go far beyond fashion. They are part of a hard-hitting exhibition celebrating 75 years of Windrush and its enduring legacy – but it’s much more important and emotional than that.
There’s lessons to be learned from this enthralling show, running during Black History Month, if we are to really change things going forward. To really understand Birmingham and the Black Country, everyone should see this.
Called ‘Dorcas Stories from the Front Room’, it brings a fresh way of looking at the influence of the Caribbean on the Midlands through textiles and Dorcas Clubs. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of these clubs that were a church-led support network to women embarking on a new life in Britain after its appeal for help following the Second World War in 1948.
It’s apt as Black History Month this year is all about women and ‘celebrating our sisters’. But as the Windrush generation dies off, it’s vital that their stories are passed on to future generations in this way.
Craftspace is behind the exhibition, which uses Vanley Burke photos, clothes, film, real-life local stories and even an area where you can have a go at knitting. It looks at the past but also highlights Brum and beyond emerging talent of fashion designers and jewellery-makers, influenced by their Windrush parents and grandparents.
‘You called we came’ is emblazoned on a raffia bag by current young fashion designer Tihara Smith. But Deirdre Figueiredo, Director of Craftspace, explains how meaningful that phrase is. “Britain called and the Windrush generation came but they didn’t get what they were promised and people qualified in trades couldn’t get those jobs,” Deirdre tells me.
“They would have dreamt about continuing their skills but they arrived to face racism and ended up doing factory jobs or menial work. Many spent years saving up to be able to get back into their profession.
Rose Sinclair, from Handsworth, who provided much of the material for the exhibition recalls how her mother Bernice Hamilton was a professional dressmaker. Arriving full of enthusiasm, Rose described her mum’s disappointment when companies wouldn’t hire her as a seamstress as “her black hands wouldn’t be allowed to touch a white body”.
Instead she like many had to quickly retrain and became a nurse at Birmingham Eye Hospital. Despite many new arrivals being experts in crafts, they had to find whole new careers as the skilled jobs they were expecting didn’t materialise “as promised” once in the UK.
“My mum had professional dressmaker in her passport but she couldn’t get a job dressmaking,” added Rose,who wen to St George’s School in Edgbaston and Harborne Hill High School. “She ended up being a nurse like so many other Black women who couldn’t get jobs in that industry.
“I worry that Windrush stories like hers will get lost. If we don’t capture those minute details and stories we lose them forever. Some of the elders don’t realise the value of these stories and realise they are so special.
“But I also hope that as people go through the exhibition, it will make their heart want to sing.”
Importance of Dorcas Clubs to Caribbean communities in Birmingham
Rose, who now teaches design students at London’s Goldsmiths University, explained how Dorcas Clubs for sewing baking and crafts, often took place in people’s living rooms and churches and were common in the Caribbean.
“Black-led churches weren’t established when the Windrush generation arrived but came about as some White-led churches told them ‘please don’t come again’.
“Dorcas Clubs had the aim of supporting the whole community and even if you were from different Caribbean islands, the thing that connected you was skin colour and all being in it together. They helped find each other jobs and men new they could find a wife there.
“It allowed them to create beauty and clothes within their homes and transfer skills from old to young. If you couldn’t crochet, you could bake something. Fashions, style and music emerged from the Windrush generation but many amazing designers still aren’t recognised.”
They include Trinidad’s interiors designer Althea McNish, whose fabrics are on display. She brought bright colours and Caribbean sunshine into drab British post-war homes working at famous stores like Liberty’s but has been left out of textile history books.
Controversial Windrush landing cards in Birmingham’s exhibition
Journeying from the arrival of Empire Windrush to their experiences and influence on fashion, there’s some eye-opening stories and items to see. One of those is the first thing you’ll see at the entrance.
Windrush passenger landing cards have been recreated from real information of 26 skilled craftspeople who came to the Midlands. Full of personal details, one visitor has already found their ancestor in those boxes.
These landing cards stood out to me as they have become so important in recent years. Originals were completely destroyed by the government and meant a lack of paperwork and ultimately security for the new residents. It was at the heart of the Windrush Scandal when some citizens promised British status were deported to the Caribbean after decades living in the UK.
Now painstakingly recreated by archivists, you could spend hours delving into these cards alone.
Other highlights of the Windrush exhibition
Our Journey patchwork
Caribbean residents at Pannel Croft Retirement Village in Newtown drew on their shared histories to create a patchwork showing the range of skills that were brought to British shores. They worked over seven weeks with textile artists Dawn Denton and Annette Ratti.
Within the Jamaican plaid border, it features jobs like carpentry and book-keeping, wage slips that were just £26 a week and the NHS that became a major employer for Windrush arrivals and their children.
“We had all come from different countries but the skills were still there and this shows all those talents,” said Millie Gobbin-Singh, who took part. “We had skills but had to redo them and accomplish more to survive.
“This project was important as it’s about ownership. It’s our journey and show’s where we’ve been and where we’re at and to pass that on. The fight is still there and never stopped and the younger generation need to know they have to study to get on.”
Jewellery Quarter commemorative pieces
Expert jewellery-makers and Windrush descendants from the Masterpeace Academy are displaying Birmingham designed pieces to mark the 75th anniversary. Vivid individual pieces by Norma Jean Banton, founder of the Jewellery Quarter-based Academy, her students and artists Omujwok Okwa and Marcus Osborne can be seen.
The Commemoration 75 collection includes a set of three Pilgrims From Paradise brooches by Norma, representing ideas, sunshine and one with a moonstone for dreams. Marcus, from Rubery, created a carefully decorated bangle called To The Rescue engraved with the Windrush ship and dates when it set sell and docked.
While Omujwok, from Handsworth, who has been making jewellery for 35 years, made a Commemorate Windrush Medal featuring symbolic Adinkra symbols from Ghana. The students work is a We Are One never-ending circle with all the colours of the rainbow.
Norma Banton, from Handsworth, still gets teary when thinking of her parents Nancy and Dhilleon Mathias Banton. “My parents and the Windrush generation came in faith as pilgrims to Britain,” said Norma, whose worked in the industry for 21 years.
“The word migrants is used for them and is a loaded word that isn’t right. How come when British people go to other countries, they are called ex-pats but we are called immigrants?
“They worked in a factory in the Jewellery Quarter and helped me start up my own shop there as they said it was their legacy. When I’m there, I feel my parents are with me. As crafts people, it’s a huge privilege to be part of an exhibition like this showcasing the creativity.”
Marcus added: “It’s good that it is in the Mailbox as it attracts a different kind of audience. A lot of people still don’t know about this stuff.”
The jewellery is for sale in aid of Vyse Street’s Masterpeace Academy, which trains young people for the jewellery trade, and ranges from £400 to £1,200 at the exhibition or from the Masterpeace website here.
Knitting corner at the Mailbox
Sara Fowles’ podcasts about knitting can be listened to in one corner of the exhibition while having a go. Needles and bundles of wool are ready to pick up while taking in Yarning: Tales from Birmingham about Black women knitters.
This enlightening exhibition really is a must-see. Packed with real-life stories it brings to life part of Birmingham and the wider Midlands’ heritage and is a real eye-opener.
Yes, there are wrongs from the past that really do haunt me, but it’s also a celebration and recognition of the vast creativity that came about by the arrival of the Windrush generation in Britain – and how that is adapting into the future.
Where and when to see Birmingham’s new Windrush exhibition
‘Dorcas Stories from the Front Room’ is on Level 2 of Mailbox Birmingham in Royal Mail Street, Birmingham city centre, B1 1RS.
The free exhibition, organised by Craftspace, runs until October 29 an is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 1pm to 6pm.