Race Matters

The Caribbean contribution to London's transport network

For the last in our series of re-produced articles to celebrate Black History Month, staff at the London Transport Museum bring us up to date with a look at London transport in the post-war era. In particular, the large West Indian contingent among semi-skilled transport workers is noted by authors Rachael Minott, Felicity Premru and Caroline Warhurst. This piece first appeared on Runnymede's online teaching resource Our Migration Story.

Image: Charles Gomm, Recruitment officer for London Transport, with some early applicants in Barbados, 1956. Courtesy of London Transport Museum, ref. 1998/83757)
The development of London has been shaped by transport. From the days of Thames watermen in the 17th century, through to modern times and the advent of mass public transport by road and rail, transport workers have been an essential part of London life. Without them the capital would come to a standstill. The workforce has always reflected London’s changing population, but over the years different factors have influenced recruitment.

Over the last 200 years the staffing needs of the transport network have changed and evolved. The early underground steam railways and horse buses of the 19th century gave way to a growing electrified network of trains, trams, trolleybuses and petrol-engine buses in the 20th century. By the 1920s and 1930s, skilled and semi-skilled work in transport was highly valued and, before the Second World War, London’s transport system was considered the best in the world. London Transport (the integrated authority that ran the network) offered good wages and conditions of service, a uniform, free travel and access to a wide range of sports and social clubs. So jobs in transport attracted plenty of applicants.

London Transport in the post-war years

From the late 1940s, however, London Transport experienced problems recruiting staff for semi-skilled front-line work. The expansion of the post-war British economy in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in new and better-paid job opportunities in light engineering, consumer goods and car manufacture. Rebuilding the bomb-damaged city also provided plenty of jobs in construction. In relatively stagnant sectors such as textiles, metal manufacture and public transport, wages fell. The long, anti-social hours and shift work in these industries also made the jobs less attractive. As a result, London Transport looked further afield for its workers.

London Transport began recruiting staff outside London in areas where unemployment was higher. This included the North-East of England and Scotland. During the early 1950s, the company extended the search to Ireland where it recruited both men and women to work on buses and trains. London Transport also provided temporary accommodation for new recruits.

Recruitment from the colonies 

In 1948 the Empire Windrush brought 492 Caribbean people to Britain, along with other travellers. These migrants arrived with British passports, as citizens, and were mainly from Jamaica. In the years that followed, increasing numbers of Caribbean people would make the same journey, following family and friends to seek work in Britain, including in transport. 

Concerned with rising unemployment in Barbados, the Barbadian government eventually approached London Transport to set up a more formal arrangement for recruitment. In 1956, London Transport became the first organisation to operate a scheme recruiting staff directly from the Caribbean. Between 1956 and 1970, thousands of new recruits came to London from Barbados to work for the network. For a short period in 1966, applicants came from Jamaica and Trinidad as well.

The recruitment scheme became a model for other large public-sector employers, such as British Rail and the National Health Service (NHS) (see: 'Sailing from St. Vincent: the story of Jannett V. Creese'), which also became major recruiters. A small number of bus drivers were also recruited from Malta in 1965. As residents of a former British colony, Maltese workers were targeted because they drove on the left-hand side of the road, as in the United Kingdom.

How did London Transport's recruitment scheme work?  

The London Transport Establishment (Human Resources) Officer, Charles Gomm, set up a recruitment office in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. Information about the London Transport scheme appeared in local newspapers and poster campaigns and was advertised on the radio. Recruitment began to happen on a regular basis and it became common knowledge among the island's small population. Applicants from Barbados recall being interviewed and answering a long list of questions, after which they were required to pass a written test and a medical before being taken on.

The majority of those hired were male, but women were also taken on to become bus conductors, station staff and canteen workers. London Transport’s policy was to only employ single people, not couples or families. In reality, a number of Barbadian recruits were already parents and many children were left behind to be looked after by grandparents and other family members.

Single mothers described difficulties in bringing their children to join them in Britain, for reasons including financial difficulties, long hours and red tape. As with other similar recruitment schemes run by the National Health Service and British Rail, the Barbados government lent recruits the fare to travel. This was then paid back over two years.

London Transport's direct recruitment schemes from the Caribbean continued until 1970, by which time the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968 - which were designed to limit immigration to Britain - had reduced the numbers of Caribbean people arriving. Nevertheless, more than 4,000 workers from the Caribbean were recruited onto the scheme.

Not all transport workers from the Caribbean came to Britain through organised recruitment schemes. Some also made their way independently, and applied directly to London Transport for operational jobs on the buses and trains. They also filled other roles, such as track maintenance and construction work.

Pay and working conditions for Caribbean recruits

Basic pay for station staff was £7 /10s (seven pounds and ten shillings) for a 44-hour working week. The hours staff worked, and the payments they received, were strictly regulated and agreed with the trades unions. Jobs on the buses offered similar, but slightly lower, wages. All staff received something less than the national average pay at the time, which was around £11 /10s.

On both the Underground and the buses, women were paid less than men for the first six months. As in London today, a large part of workers’ wages had to be set aside for rent and other bills. This didn’t leave much for leisure or savings. 

Labouring on the Underground and buses involved shift work, which meant staff might work up to 12 days out of 14. A morning shift could start as early at 5am, and an afternoon shift could finish as late as 1am. Some duties entailed staff working during both the morning and evening peak periods, which meant it could be 12 hours between the start and end of their day.

For the full migration story, and links to further resources on this topic please see Our Migration Story
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