In the wake of Windrush and at the dawn of Metropolitan
22 June 2018
Keith Shaw came to Britain shortly after the Empire Windrush, which brought the first wave of Caribbean migrants here 70 years ago. A Metropolitan resident for more than 50 years, he helped establish the housing association in the 1950s.
Keith was just 16 when he made the 8,000-mile, 14-day voyage from Jamaica to Britain aboard the SS Columbia.
It was 1951. Three years before, the Empire Windrush had made a similar trip, bringing 492 passengers from the Caribbean to Tilbury Docks in Essex. They came at Britain’s invitation to help rebuild the country after the devastation dealt by World War Two.
Keith – now one of Metropolitan’s longest-standing residents – came to join his mother, who had already settled in Brixton. A Caribbean community had grown up naturally around that part of South London, which had the nearest Labour Exchange (forerunners to job centres) to the Clapham South shelter where Windrush arrivals were temporarily housed.
Many of the immigrants moved into cramped and decrepit lodgings, lacking in basic amenities. So when Keith had a chance meeting with Molly Huggins, they found a common purpose.
Wife of the Governor of Jamaica, Molly Huggins was troubled by the poor state of the housing in which the country’s new arrivals lived. In the 1950s, she set up the Metropolitan Coloured People’s Housing Association – later to become Metropolitan – to provide quality, affordable accommodation for London’s Caribbean community.
“She encouraged the council, and her friends, to donate towards the cost of buying properties and converting them into flats,” explains Keith, who helped her fundraise for the charity’s first homes. “I also worked on the buildings myself. It was hard, physical work.”
He even renovated the flat in which he still lives today. When he moved in, it was waterlogged, with no floorboards nor plasterboard on the ceiling.
“I lived in the front room until the rest of the home was completed,” he remembers. “It took a while to finish because we didn’t have much money, but we all worked hard together to make it happen.
“I used to pay about £9 per week for my rent. Back then we had coal fires, paraffin lamps and we’d cook on the landing. The toilet was at the bottom of the garden and we had no fridge, so we’d put meat on the window ledge to keep it fresh.”
Keith, who went on to train as an electrician, marry and raise a family in his Metropolitan home, has witnessed much change in the area.
“Now it’s expensive and very popular,” he says. “At the weekend, it’s almost as busy as the West End.”
But he never forgets the early days and the part Metropolitan played.
“I have fond memories of Lady Molly,” he says. “It’s important to remember the past and what the organisation stood for. It is a privilege to have been there at the very beginning. People don’t realise how much hard work went into it.”