On a misty morning in 1948, as Britain limped on from the social and economic wreckage of the Second World War, a boat arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex with 500 people aboard. That boat - the Empire Windrush - would lend its name to a generation of Caribbeans who came to build a life in the UK. Some of them settled in St Ann’s, just outside of Nottingham city centre - where, novelist and local resident Rosey Thomas Palmer explains, the community played a key role in preserving the area’s historic allotments…
Windrush is a provocative word, recalling at once the excitement of foreign travel, the appeal of a young queen, patriotism for the “Mother Land” on the one hand; rejection, betrayal, separation, deportation on the other. The time has come to review particular triumphs and benefits from Britain’s long association with the Caribbean. That St Ann’s Allotments still stands today is one such story. Without the Caribbean community’s care, much of what was once more commonly referred to as Hungerhill may have been lost. Our local Windrush community stands tall amongst those throughout history who’ve fought for their preservation.
Despite allotments being promoted during the war as essential to the food production process, Hungerhill had become neglected and overgrown by the time the Caribbean community found them. The council of the time was sceptical of their value and eager to reclaim their acreage for building homes, but our Windrush residents went to work. Men such as Sid Fuller, George Powe, Steven Stevens, George Leigh, Donald “Pipe Man” Rowe, Thomas H., Oscar Reid, and Charles “Pete” Barratt, who had come from farming backgrounds in Jamaica to work in Nottingham for the likes of Severn Trent Water, Raleigh, Players and Boots, but resisted the constraints of urban living.
Seeking their fresh callaloo and spinach and sweet, full-bodied pumpkin for their rich one-pot soups, some of the men began adopting abandoned plots, reopening rusted gates to the narrow Victorian avenues, clearing, digging and mulching. In doing so, they kept the site in use as the vital food growing resource that it has been for hundreds of years. Unafraid of the less clement British weather, they sought a way to extend their meagre resources and escape the urban sprawl. Abundant harvests flowed.
Now, as respected elders of the area, they are lauded at funerals, loved in the care system and fabled in developments of their own making such as the ACNA Centre and the Marcus Garvey Action Group, as well as in local churches. Yet, aside from scattered publications and small-scale exhibitions, the role of the Windrush generation in preserving Hungerhill and in enabling our inheritance of the most historic and extensive allotment gardens in Europe is inadequately acknowledged. The story of this historic site has been traced back to its first dedication to the people of Nottingham in 1304, said to be in continual use for the last 600 years. It has been perpetuated as an amenity of some sort through war, development and social unrest.
The late Margaret Hall, who recently passed and was memorialised at the Anglican church on St Ann’s Robins Hood’s Chase this February, was a long-time gardener and previous holder of five allotments. She offered me vivid descriptions of the post-war neglect into which they fell before Windrush migrants found them. “I saw it all, the joys and the pains,” she proclaimed. Dirt tracks wound between overgrown bankings, most plots were covered with thick brambles, the carefully-spaced beds of Victorian families were covered by weeds or rubble from the ruins of their summer houses. Fruit from valuable old species of apple and pear lay rotting.
Intrepid gardeners like Margaret, with her childhood in an allotment-holding family, had plots for the taking and dedicated days to their perfection. Margaret’s five each served its own purpose - vegetable cultivation, soft fruit production, horticulture, wildlife protection and woodland. Her colleagues in these endeavours were the Windrush gentleman. Though they formed a tight community for themselves, their presence was deeply significant to the lady they called “Miss M”, a title acquired through her work as a regular presenter and DJ on Back a Yard, a pirate radio venture that demonstrated the growing diversity of Nottingham before Kemet FM regularised the abounding Caribbean culture on our radio waves.
Others have since played key roles in redeveloping the allotments, notably the group of plot holders that would form St Anns Allotment Campaign (now STAA) in 1993, helping to kindle its modern day renaissance. To the present day, the Renewal Trust and Hungerhill Developments Limited takes care of the site, helping bring investment and order. Tours, inductions, training plots for new gardeners, and opportunities for local schools and young people are offered from a well-equipped office and welcome centre. Research by both Nottingham universities contribute to scientific study of the site. Hungerhill today enjoys a newly-engaged and enthusiastic generation of gardeners, and volunteer assistance from locals and the various community-benefit organisations that reside here. Much has improved.
But none of this would be possible had the Windrush farmers allowed the gardens to become derelict, disused, forgotten, then bulldozed for housing. Sadly, 2022 saw Margaret’s plot holdership challenged, ultimately leading to her sorrowfully handing it over. Her health began to deteriorate soon after. Various groups, including those in today’s Caribbean gardening community, still organise to protect their sites, and issues of racial, social, and economic justice continue to swirl around this febrile common land. The battle for our green spaces, and their rich social history, goes on.
We who remain need to recapture the Windrush spirit, both for the allotments and our wider relationship with nature and food sovereignty. We have begun to revalue and upgrade land to redress the balance of ecology and agriculture, providing space, air and habitats for wildlife - from flies, ants and bees to all the mammals who are being reintroduced to wetlands and woodlands countrywide.
The art of coexistence, readiness to learn, and to reciprocate knowledge is fundamental to a healthy society, and this exchange of survival techniques and wisdom is typified by the Windrush Generation, regardless of which side of the Atlantic we are originally from.
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