Windrush Cricket – uncovering a hidden history
By Caroline Francis, on 4 March 2021
This article has been written by Montaz Marché, Research Assistant for Windrush Cricket and is part of a new series exploring what UCL Community Engagement work has looked like during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The project was supported with funding from UCL East as part of the Community Engagement Seed Fund.
It is difficult to put into words the importance of the Windrush Cricket project for myself and my community. For me, amidst the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic, I, as the research assistant, was able to delve further with my West Indian heritage, discover hidden depths to the community that has always been a huge part of my life, and develop a new sense of pride in my culture. For the new friends and connections, I have made amongst the West Indian cricketing community, it was a rare and invaluable opportunity to define the history of West Indian people in Britain, in their words. Indeed, as I discovered, the heart of the Caribbean manifested in Britain through a cricket bat, in the local park/cricket ground, surrounded by old and new friends united in thoughts of home, immersed in sandwiches, score boards, and vibrant shouts or songs from the gathered crowd. Now, I have a completely new outlook on what the ‘Windrush’ really was.
I have devoted much of the last few years to understanding and trying to integrate Black British history into the historical conversation. I have been a researcher with the Young Historians Project since 2018 and during my time at UCL, I began my research into Black British women of the 18th century. Beyond this, I am always keen to work on projects that connect me more closely to the history of West Indian people in Britain. Therefore, when Dr Michael Collins approached me about the Windrush Cricket project, I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of such a meaningful and refreshing project.
Due to the pandemic, the format of the project had changed with my role emerging from it. The Windrush Cricket Project was a collaboration between UCL, Hackney Council and Hackney Museum to uncover the history of Caribbean cricket teams that emerged with the Windrush generation (1949-1974) as an oral history project. I believe the original intention was to do face-to-face interviews, alongside community engagement activities and a physical and virtual exhibition in Hackney Museum. With the lockdown restrictions, the options became limited to virtual interviews. In my role, I had to research the West Indian cricketing community in London (particularly Hackney), between 1950s-1970s, finding any cricket players, participants, and committee members and, instead of face-to-face interviews, conduct virtual interviews with them, to find out about their experiences.
For me, the project opened a new and personal perspective on the West Indian community, which was more personal than I had realised. My father and grandparents are all part of the Windrush generation and so I began by simply asking them if they had any connections to cricket, unbeknown to me, that members of my family had either a history of playing cricket or close friends who did. My father reached out and introduced me to his old school friends, who used to play cricket at school before moving into local teams. My grandfather introduced me to some of his old friends, who I was also able to interview and watch their face beam with delight as they reminisced about memories so dear to them. Beyond my family, I was able to find local members of cricket teams, both past and present.
Overall, I conducted 9 interviews in the 2-month period, and I began to understand how cricket instilled unity, a source of pride and had become the lives of many West Indian men, women, and children. Categorically, there were more men who played cricket than women or children, but everyone had a role in the cricket games. The matches themselves became social events, days out and by playing teams all around the country, a means of exploring Britain and adapting to British life. I began to understand how, as the ‘outsiders’ or ‘migrants’, cricket helped English people identify with West Indians and vice versa. In a time of heightened racial tensions, the cricket ground became the level playing-field West Indians needed to show off the skills that had been a staple part of their childhood. Because of their experience in the Caribbean, West Indians came over to local cricket teams and fast became great players.
I also learnt of the intense racial segregations in the local cricket teams and how so few West Indian players could afford to work professionally or earn a place in English teams and how, instead, West Indians formed their own teams at work, (notably TFL/ factories) or with neighbours/friends in the local area. They formed their own cricket cups (including the last remaining organisations in London today) Caribbean Cricket Cup Competition and the African Caribbean Cricket Association sacrificing the little money they had or the one day off a week they had to rest, to ensure that they had some means to play, where other English teams would not accept them. One interviewee stated that there were at one point, at least 200 teams in the London area alone, during the 1960s. This is, undoubtedly, a hidden history, which despite being a crucial part of West Indian experiences in London, is buried beneath the singular focus on migration numbers, racial integration, and discrimination that has defined the ‘Windrush’ story in popular culture.
Naturally, the virtual project that this became was not without its difficulties. Co-ordinating Wi-Fi strengths, the technicalities of mute buttons and the Skype vs Zoom debate has been a difficult adjustment for many of us. For some of my interviewees, these technologies were new discoveries, for others, including some in their 70s, it was second nature. Still, the inevitable moments of lost video, sound and interference sometimes hindered interviews. Also, losing face-to-face contact not only meant that I never met in-person these incredible interviewees, but also that I missed out on perusing the artefacts and memories that they had in their homes; artefacts that would have added crucial context for the project. But still, I was able to draw so much from the experiences of every single story, from the players to the children of players to women who made the sandwiches or kept score. Stories so full of vitality that as a woman of West Indian heritage, I felt more connected to, in my ability to understand the patois’, references and colloquialisms or the local places where they played (some were places where I grew up and my grandparents still live). But moreover, I related to the desire amongst West Indians, to carve out a place, with a community and people like yourself to call your home from home; a desire shared across generations of West Indians in London.
In the unprecedented summer of 2020, this project was the last thing I expected, but it was also one of the best things I could have been a part of. I never failed to be surprised by the eagerness of all involved to tell their own story. Working with Dr Collins and James Serieux (a UCL student of Dr Collins’, who was also of St Lucian heritage) was such a delight. Dr Collins had such an inspiring passion for this project and showed faith in me, allowing me to lead interviews and conduct independent research. From chatting through themes and research angles to meeting new people, I felt a sense of ownership and true collaboration as part of this project. From this project, I have developed new oral history/research skills, relationships, knowledge, and a newfound connection with my West Indian heritage that I will carry with me into my academic future. The Windrush Cricket Project was definitely one of my 2020 silver linings.
This project was funded through the Community Engagement Seed Fund, a small grants funding round designed to support the development of engagement activities and partnership opportunities with east London communities.