Between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people left their homes in the West Indies for Britain.
They helped build the face of modern of the country as we know it, helping rebuild our post-war economy and diversifying our communities.
In Coventry, as race riots erupted across the country in 1981, the community would finally find its own space after funding was given to create a centre.
The Coventry Caribbean Centre, then the Coventry West Indian Centre, was born.
The centre brought together skilled community negotiators, fierce trade unionists and those who wanted to pave way for change in Coventry – as well as providing a safe space when racism was prevalent.
Opened in 1983, although the association behind the centre has existed in the city since the early 1960, it still stands on Spon Street although has seen heavy renovation work.
Look: Coventry’s Caribbean community over the years
The club opened to acclaim and fanfare in Coventry, and remains one of the last standing West Indian clubs in the country.
CoventryLive tracked down some of the people who were there at the start, to understand the impact of their fight to secure a club in the city and the remarkable legacy they have left behind.
They spoke of the importance of the club as a space for the community to problem-solve and celebrate, as well as the association being a negotiating arm between government funders and Coventry City Council and their memories of the time.
The people we interviewed explained that the West Indian community is now more commonly referred to as Caribbean, as the term West Indian derives from the colonies. For the purposes of this article we have referred to them as West Indian when describing the past.
The West Indies consists of more than 20 islands in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, and being part of the commonwealth, those who lived there were all British citizens, meaning they had a right to enter, settle and work in Britain.
Some West Indians who came had been drafted in to help the country’s struggling transport, postal and health systems, some came for a better life, and others were returning soldiers who had fought for Britain during the Second World War.
Until Coventry West Indian Club opened in the summer of 1983, they occupied ad hoc spaces across the city, meeting in halls and working men’s clubs until they could call a space their own.
“I was there on the the day the West Indian centre opened as I had just returned from Jamaica,” George Graham tells us over the phone from his home in Coventry.
Nearly 80, “but very fit and healthy”, a cheerful Mr Graham described the ups and downs the community had gone through to a secure a centre, and why he decided to get involved.
“I was asked by the then chairman, Eric Linton, if I would like to join the committee, at the time 99% of the committee members were all from Jamaica, and he reckoned it didn’t represent the ethnic minorities in the city because Coventry was made of people from Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad, St Vincent.”
Mr Graham, who is Guyanese, was brought into the committee to diversify what they could offer, and the centre enjoyed huge success in the 1980s and 1990s.
Coventry West Indian Club was divided into a social centre and community centre which had their own committees, it was a well oiled machine.
Mr Graham recalled the key role founding member Jacob Hilton played, along with Eric Linton and others in running the club which “was the backbone of the West Indian community”.
You can see Hilton and Linton pictured below in an image from the Coventry Telegraph archives.
The thriving committee of the club changed over the years, and included people like Winston Pinnock, Gloria Donaldson, Mr Graham himself, and Hugh Hay, another community organiser who sadly passed away earlier this year.
The centre brought together skilled community negotiators, fierce trade unionists and those who wanted to pave way for change in Coventry.
We caught up with Mr Hay’s daughter, Annette Hay, who lives and works in Coventry. She said: “In the 1960s there was a Coventry West Indian Association that was founded by Jacob Hilton, by the 1970s it became a more established association and they were engaged in lots of meetings and fundraising around trying to get services and resources for what they would call then, the West Indian community.
“They wanted a space they could call their own.”
Ms Hay mentioned that the community is now more commonly referred to as Caribbean, reflected in the Spon Street centre changing its name to the Coventry Caribbean Association.
Ms Hay recalled the Railway Pub, a now derelict building on Lockhurst Lane that was used as a community centre during the 1970s by Coventry’s Indian and West Indian community.
“In the 1970s one half [The Railway Pub] was owned by an Indian man, called Mr Nijjar but known as Deete, and the other half was used by the West Indians, and in the middle floor was a massive dance floor.
“In the West Indian side they’d be playing snooker and cards. I learnt to play snooker there, sometimes people would bring in their families, for many years many of the West Indian community would use that facility.”
Ms Hay said this was a time when racism when was much more explicit, and the club was a safe space. You can still see the Railway Pub building off the Lockhurst Lane bridge in Coventry.
Mr Graham confirmed this, recalling: “The Railway club was the meeting point of many West Indians from all walks of life, Barbados, St Vincent, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, this town was full of a cosmopolitan range of black people, where I met most of the black people I knew today including Hugh Hay.”
At the time of the race riots in 1981, Ms Hay’s father Hugh Hay went to the Home Office to make their case for ownership of a community club, and what made the case was the community had raised money on their own, and the Home Office were happy to add to that.
He added: “Vernon Clements, community organiser, thought it was high time to get our own club, and they approached the Home Office, along with Hugh Hay.”
Mr Graham remembered they did door-to-door collections across Coventry’s West Indian community to get a deposit together.
Ms Hay said: “My dad would always say there was a resistance, it has never been easy getting something for the community, what nailed it for them was the riots. History has shown us that whenever there are riots, that Government throw money as a quick fix to [the community], which is perhaps why the Home Office released that money to them.”
And so began the incredible growth of Coventry’s West Indian club: “It was absolutely somewhere to go, West Indians came from all walks of life from as far as Telford, Cardiff, just to see how we ran things.” Mr Graham said.
He added: “It was one of the busiest and best periods the centre had ever seen, we had coach loads of people coming each week from various city centres just to be entertained at night, there were Christmas parties for the children, we took them on trips, an old people’s club called Triangle leisure club run by Mrs Jackson and Mr Hall.
“It was never empty, it was a place that everyone looked forward to when it came to the weekend.”
Ms Hay added: “When [the club] first opened I was 17, my dad took me and my first memory was going in before it opened and it had the bar downstairs, an annexe and there was a Caribbean canteen, you would go upstairs on the first floor was the pool room, the dance floor, the top floor was the offices for training.”
And what was the atmosphere like? “You would have regular dances, it used to be open four nights a week, I ended up moving into Spon End and ended up going all the time, it would be open every day in the day time, twice a week they used to do very cheap lunches for the elderly, it was somewhere where they could go and get Caribbean food, play bingo, meet up with other Caribbean people when they might not otherwise.
“Cariba women’s group also did a lot of work with young people, young offenders.”
There was also an award-winning dominoes team which gained a national reputation.
For Mr Graham, ‘the club’ was a place he could call home, despite being far from his native Guyana. He came to Coventry in 1961, found lodgings in a hostel, and remembers having to walk to the public baths on Primrose Hill street in Hillfields.
It was a culture shock too: “Nobody told me it was this cold! I came in February 1961, solid winter, it was very very cold, between 1961 and 1962 was one of the worst winters we experienced in this country.”
He then worked until retirement as a welding engineer: “Because I was determined to succeed, things like the cold were just little setbacks that I could overcome easily, and after that I settled down met my wife Monica, got married and had four children, eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
“Along with the Windrush, we were invited to Britain because we were British subjects. Britain wanted rebuilding after the war, and who better to build it than your foreign and commonwealth sisters?
“We were invited to help run the railways, transport, everything. Britain should have provided housing for us, given us a meeting place in each city.”