Robert Browne

Born: 20th October 1938

Guyana, South America

Date of interview: 16th July 2006

Map showing where Robert Browne came from

When did you come to England?

February 1958.

What was the journey like?

Very good, very exciting. I came in a boat SS Angeles. Took about eighteen days to get here. I had a good time on the boat. Stopped at a lot of countries. Different places.

So what made you decide to take that journey from Guyana?

I just thought well, I'll get a better life anyway. At least compared with what I was having out there and ... well I was very young at the time anyway 'cos I was only just gone eighteen and I just thought, well I could do better. Came over here for five years. Well five years has turned out to be nearer fifty.

So tell me about your family. What did your parents think about you leaving home so young?

Oh, the only person there who was a bit worried was my mother really, but my father, he wasn't worried about it. He said 'He can look after himself' and I'll be alright, cos I left home two years previous to that to work away anyway.

Where was that?

Right in Guyana. A place called Mibikuri and I made good money there.

What were you doing then?

Plumbing. In the interior we were running pipelines and it was a British company out there and I made good money so when I came back home I said well, I didn't sit down there and just waste it I said I'll come over here and see what life could offer out there. Must be better.

Were you the only child?

Oh no, no. There were eight children. I was second to last. There was one sister who follows me.

So the others are there at home?

They're all dead now.

Oh just you?

Just me and the sister who was behind me, Mavis, only the two of us surviving. But my parents and all the others they're all dead.

So what was school like? You said you did plumbing, you went to work in plumbing, so did you do plumbing as a trade at school?

That was here. I came over here. I was working as a plumber here, 'cos I was doing it back home and then when I came over here I still went along to the Reading College for another four years. I used to go there in the evenings. To get more used to their system here.

So what made you decide you want to be a plumber. What part of when you were a child did you decided that this is what you wanted to do?

Well, in a way because when I was at school I can remember that there was a headmaster, we had a nickname for him. His nickname was Monkey Jimmy and I never liked people giving too many orders and telling me what to do and he thinks well, there were the bench, we wanted to put a bench there. Getting all the bigger fellas to hold you down, pull the trousers off and started driving lashes at you. But he made a mistake with me.

Lashes, you mean to give you the strap, the belt?

Yeah and hold you down on the table. But he made a mistake with me because when they approached me, I just jumped over their head from off the stage and I went straight home and my old man, he was passing the school yard going home and all these children were waving to him to stop and started telling him 'Mr Browne, you son run out of school and he's gone home.' When he came home he asked me 'What are you going to do now?' I said 'Well I ain't going back to school anyway.'

How old were you then?

I was only fourteen. Course my father he was doing plumbing then. He was a contractor on the estate. So I said, I'll come in and work with you, so that's how I started out in plumbing.

Apart from that, did you enjoy school up to that point in time?

Oh ... well on and off I would say. There's only one particular thing I liked at school and this is arithmetic. I wasn't brilliant in school in anything, other thing anyway.

So, when you came to England after that long journey what was it like leaving the hot South American country? What was the experience like for you?

What here? Well there were good times and bad times but the first thing I learnt when I get off the boat at Plymouth I was able to see right away that I had to go back to school to start training to be a plumber in England because the standard of work I see they were doing, I wouldn't be able to attempt it, straight away. So what I did was to get to a company and told them what I can do. That was cast iron and galvanised pipes, so I was doing the cast iron and galvanised and not to worry too much about the lead. So that's when I had to go into the college. Don't know about joints the way they do it. Gradually catch on to it. Different types of flashing. Step flashing, cold flashing and all that. Found it very exciting at college.

So when you came, what time of year did you arrive in England?

Oh in the winter. First morning I got up. Saturday morning there was snow out there and I was living then at 16 Lowndes Street, Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell Green and this friend of mine who was from Guyana as well, sent me over Marshall, and he used to work in the same place in the interior where we were working. He came over six months before. Then there was no heating in that room. I nearly died from pneumonia 'cos sleeping in that cold room. Course he never used to sleep there, he was a welder. The war had just no long finished and did pretty well. They were building a lot of aeroplanes so he was welding aeroplane parts. He left his job and just used to hang about in the Mambo Club in Brixton when the night come. So I used to be there on me own.

Course, myself and Ovid had soon fell out anyway 'cos when I came over here with a bank draft for £38 which was a lot of money at that time, and Ovid was supposed to take me to the Barclays Bank so I can open an account. He stayed outside and I went in the bank and when I came back out Ovid asked me where was the money? Oh I said, what money, I said I haven't got any money. I left the money there, I just got a bank book. He called me an idiot, 'cos I didn't draw the money and give him so he could go down the Mambo Club and start drinking. I got to look after what little I got till I got a job and get on my feet. He didn't like it, so I say 'Oh then I'll find somewhere to live,' so then I went and got a room with a Jamaican lady. He was a scaffolder. Mrs Jones. They were very nice people, treated me very well. No problems with them at all. Been there for quite a few, quite a while.

So when did you come to Reading? What year?

I came to Reading in 1960. I came to Reading in 1960, that's when I started living. But I visited Reading the Good Friday, no it was the Saturday, 1960 and there was a lot of people round Jackson's Corner, by the thousands. That's when I found they march from Aldermaston. They were going to London, so they needed to stop at Reading that night.

The thing was I was walking past and estate agent and this chap called me and asked me if I wanted to buy a house and I said I've got no money to buy a house. He said I never tell you anything about money. He said I was just tell you do you want to buy a house? I said no. I said I'm just a stranger, just come for a day to visit this place and he said take this leaflet about this house, go on since you're only walking around. Go along to Caversham, over the river.

Was this an Englishman?

A white man yeah. Mr Bryan and the house was being sold for £1,280. Nice two-bedroom house on three floors. Two living rooms. Living room downstairs and the kitchen in the basement. So went back to this agent and said yeah, nice place. He said 'Where you live?' 'I said in London. He said I want to write down your address. Write it down on a bit of paper.' They he started writing and writing like he was writing a letter. All the time he had me standing out there. When he finished writing he put this letter in an envelope and he said 'The way to go down the corner of station road there, go out from here, turn right into Friar Street. The first corner you come to you can see the Cooperative Building Society. You go in there and ask for a man by the name of Mr King. He said, he's a very tall man and give him this letter. Don't give it to anyone else. So you can't make a mistake 'cos he's a very tall man.

I went in there and I asked for Mr King. I said, there's a bloke from the estate agents tell me to give you this. He read the letter and he start asking me if I had a job. I said yeah. By that time I was working in a school, a new school they was building. I was plumbing there. He said alright, you can go on in, you're going to hear from me. I didn't expect to hear from him but that was, as I said that was a Saturday. Went back to London. On the Wednesday morning I was going out to work and the postman said 'Is there a Browne living in this place?' I said that was me. 'I got a letter for you.' And when I opened the letter, was this Mr King from the Cooperative Building Society. So I got a mortgage. He gave me a mortgage. It was eighty pounds deposit for the house. Yeah. I came the next week and gave him the eighty pounds and took about six or eight weeks and I had the house. So I used to leave it locked up there. I only used to come down in the weekend and stay there. I used to go back and eventually by the June month I said 'Oh, I seen enough, I ain't going back. You stop here and find a job here.' That's when I got to stay in Reading. So I been in that house twenty-five years and then I moved.

So you moved from there to ...

To Lower Earley.

So didn't you have any friends in Reading at all?

Oh I soon get some friends alright. I find one or two other Guyanese people who was living around here and one chap was Patrick Isaacs. He was living in Brunswick Hill or Brunswick Street and we became good friends. I know of a few other. There was another girl by the name of Beryl McLean. There was a few I get to know them.

Were there many black people in Reading at the time?

There were a few, mostly Barbadians in Reading, but I soon get to know a lot of them because there wasn't many in fact I was the only black fella around Reading who used to do plumbing. There was no other black plumbers around Reading.

Did you have difficulty getting jobs?

No. Jobs was pretty easy to get. Once there was no problem at all getting jobs because in them days most people belonged to a Trade Union, even if you lost a job today, you go to the Union Saturday morning you'd get another job, or the Labour Exchange. I never have much use for them anyway. I got only one job in my life from the Labour Exchange. I managed pretty well without, without all these people.

So you have moved to Reading since 1960? And we're now 2006 so you have seen a lot of changes. Can you explain some of those?

Changes I would say, for instance, Queens Road that only used to be one road, the car park didn't exist. Where you go the tax office now, Sapphire Plaza, there was only a little hump backed bridge, goes over there and straight in front of that, going way back to where there's a Homebase that was all Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory. You come along there in the morning you would see West Indian women by their thousands going in there. That was one of the biggest employment places in Reading.

What year was that roughly?

From 1958, 1960 when I moved to Reading this was going on. More and more black people came to Reading. That's where all those women, the majority of women, that's where they worked. Huntley & Palmers.

You didn't know the Huntley & Palmers factory then?

Yes I have, yes I know it. 'Cos gradually they begin to run it down. But Sapphire Plaza, where the tax office is now, all of that place didn't exist. Even the underpass, the distribution road around the town, by West Street and all that. That didn't exist there. The big tall building in front of Reading railway station that used to, when that was built I was there as well. All that car park for Foster Wheeler occupied that building then. The car park and all of that was built by Bovis. Of course at that time I used to have a few plumbers used to work with me then.

Yes. I've seen quite a few changes in Reading. In Chatham Street, where all that car park, where they start building up again. You go all along the Kings Road, Reading University, Reading Technical College - it wasn't that large at the time. There used to be a lot of large houses on either side of Kings Road there, past the college. Big houses there used to be up there. The shops were a bit different then. Langstons. Langstons used to be a shop, used to be in the corner of West Street. It used to sell lots of working clothes for me, donkey jackets and that sort of a thing. Course, even Sainsburys place and that all of that didn't exist there at the time because that region of town, that used to be Drews. Drews, the builder's merchants used to be there. A big old house used to be there.

What did Drews sell?

Drews, there on Caversham Road now. They're an ironmongers. They sell copper tube now, fittings, any sort of thing like that. Drews Ironmongers and where that shopping precinct is, The Butts, that didn't exist. All them places they've been built since I've been here in Reading. I've seen them all go up.

So it's like a new town when you compare it to what it was then?

Oh yeah. Completely new place. The only, one of the best survivors I know now is Jackson's. Even, and a lot black people who bought houses first of all used to get their furniture from a man named Mr Gibbs. He used to be right near by Chatham Street. He had a furniture place there. Of course in houses in them days all that you could afford was that vinyl on your floor. You were lucky if you had a narrow strip of carpet or a piece of rug in your room because most people lived in one room then. That room was your bedroom, your dining room, and everything. Where you entertain people and
everything, in one room, 'cos that's all you could afford in them days.

What was the rent in those days. You could rent a room for?

Oh you could rent a room for about, in old money, for about ten shillings a week. Yeah, ten shillings a week you rent a room. But Mr Gibbs, he supplied a lot of coloured people. As you buy a house, everybody used to go to him. To get their furniture.

So what was property selling for then in those times?

As I said, I paid £1280, but you could've buy, most expensive is probably, £2,000, two and a half thousand you could've had a good place ...

And now so there's hardly any place, as you were saying, besides Jackson's, which remains the same?

Jackson is some very exciting people I deal with too. If I tell you. The store is a bit different inside now. They don't sell the sort of things they used to sell, years ago, 'cos Jackson's used to sell furniture at one time. Yeah. They used to sell very good furniture. Nice, good carpet, rugs and that sort of a thing. Jackson's used to make very, very good suits.

One Saturday after I was living in Reading I was going past there on a bicycle. The man said to me stand up off that bicycle. I was very lucky in Reading, that's why I remained here and this bloke said to me, he said 'Come.' He was standing right outside Jackson's. I said yes sir, 'cos people from the West Indies got a different attitude to elderly people. 'Yes sir, I said, what's the trouble?' He said, 'Man you look like you can do with a suit.' I said, 'Oh no I don't want no suit, I got no money for no suit.' Chap's said, 'Come with me.' Took me in upstairs, up top of Jackson's. When I went up there they had a room about twice the size of this, with different racks upon rack so suit lengths. They used to the tailoring up there. This chap, he started measuring and he said, 'Go on I'll be in touch with you.'

Two weeks later I got a card pushed through the door and I went down to what is it now about. This guy made me a three-piece suit. Wrapped it up in a bag and he said well you've come and you can pay us fifty pence a week or a pound a week. You got no card, nor nothing. They used to trust people then. The same thing happened that brought Mr Gibbs down with some black people. Just go. I used to go down there and just pay him fifty pence a week or if I got a pound, I give him a pound and that same old man, that man has made me eight suits and I've still got them on now. Because they're good quality cloth.

What were wages in those days for a plumber?

By that time. Oh, by that time you were probably on about twelve or fifteen pounds a week.

And for the people working a Huntley & Palmers? What sort of money?

Huntley & Palmers? Oh the women never got much, much wages, they never got much. They were only making biscuits or packing biscuits and that sort of
a thing.

Must have been a good wage for a plumber then?

Oh yeah. That was good wages then. For a plumber, about £12 - £15. Lots of jobs then used to be you working on a price. So.

You were working on your own then, in your own business?

No. You work for a company. But the company used to say, well OK you get say, what we call first fixing, that's putting the pipes in the flooring, you might probably get so many pounds doing that, the first fixing and then you get so much for the second fixing and you get so much for the finals.

And you were happy with what you got?

Oh yeah. And I used to do a lot of weekend work, do anything. We used to do Ascot heaters for people. People I know, yeah.

So were you still biking then or did you learn to drive by then?

Driving. I started driving in ... Mmm in '61. No, '62 I started driving. That was a funny thing as well because I used to go to Thanet School of Motoring, they used to be called. At the back of Heelas's, right on the corner there, there used to be a little driving school and at that time the lessons used to be about twelve shillings for a driving lesson.

I was going to driving lessons one day and right there, there used to be an estate agent and one day this bloke, he called me just the same way and he said 'You wanna buy a house?' I said, I only just bought a house, the other day, over in Caversham, 'cos that was early '62 and I only moved to Reading in '60. So this bloke said, 'Look man, you work on the buildings and from your clothes I see you wear on.' I said, yeah. He said, 'Well look, got this old house down at Cemetery Junction. Take this key, when you come back and go and have a look at it.'

When I come back from my driving lesson I went down to this place. When I stand on the outside, I looked at this house. I thought, my Christ, what does he think I'm going to do with that then? I went in inside. There was no electricity. All the windows were broken and rubbish in this place. So I went back and I said to this bloke, 'Oh you've got to be joking, ain't you.' He said 'No, not joking.' Well I say 'You work on the buildings, you got friends. Get them down there to fix it up, just like that. Yes. Get them to fix it up.' This was then in 1962. I said, 'Well how much is this house then?' The guy said '£800.' Yeah, £800. I said 'Well, even then that's a lot of money in them times and he said well you're gonna hear from me then. You will hear about it.' I was very lucky in Reading. Couple of weeks later I got a letter from Maidenhead Building Society in Kings Street saying yes I can have the house. £8 deposit. The Maidenhead Building Society repossessed the house. When I went and saw the people they say they are only interested in the money that is outstanding. That is £800. That's what we want for the house. We want our £800 and they said 'Well, we give you a mortgage for £800.' So I took it.

By that time I knew Mr Salmon. I told you about him the other day, he's dead now. I went to Mr Salmon and I said 'Well this place has got no electricity.' The electricity board wanted £35 to wire it and Mr Salmon said to me, he said, 'Browney that's a lot of money.' He said, 'Now look. I'll go down there and wirethe thing for you' and he went down there and wired the house. Didn't give him a penny. He said '£25' when he's finished. When he finished that's what he charged me. He said 'Well you can come and pay me fifty pence a week or a pound a week until you pay off that money or you get some people in there and start getting some rent.' Yeah.

Three times you've had people just pick you out.

Three times. Just like that. Just like that some guardian angel. That's what I always believe. There's somebody looking over me. Don't matter what. I had some wrong things done to me but I always seem to come back and I come back well, I get out of it. Oh yeah.

So you've got many properties now in Reading?

No I didn't want no more. Especially today they're too much trouble. I didn't want any more houses anyway. Looking after property is a full-time job really.

So to put it in a nutshell now. The changes that have come, you've observed into Reading, would you say that is positive or negative?

It is. It's a change for the better. Reading has changed for the better, there's no two ways about it.

What I don't understand, you just chose Reading out of the blue? To visit Reading when you came here?

Yeah. I can remember I came here a Saturday and a Friday, which was Good Friday, I want the other way. I went to Gravesend and that was a real Gravesend then because it was a, it was nothing around there! So then I said, I heard people talking about this 'Ban the Bomb' march that stop at Reading, so I said right! I gonna see these people, so when I came here that Saturday morning, it's cold and I see all these thousands and thousands of people sleeping at the side of the road. These people are cruel to themselves. Oh yeah.

So how did you deal with cold, coming from such a hot country and what month was it, you said it was snowing?

February, February. Very next morning I get up I see snow out there. I didn't know what it was and when I looked through the glass through the condensation, I see this thing out there. Of course, Ovid was there, and apparently there was a girl, Ovid's cousin and she had rented these two rooms from this young man. So she had Ovid in one and she and her husband were staying in the other one. So I went in and I asked her. What is this stuff you have out there, is that some sort of decoration for Easter. She say you must be joking, you go out there you're gonna find out. That's when I come to realise it was snow. I never seen snow in me life before.

The first couple of jobs that I had here I was going to work with me pyjamas on and two pairs of trousers and I can't take off them clothes. I went on a job in Cheapside in London there was a sixteen storey block of flats they were building and they were putting me up on the eighth floor, I'm surprised I didn't freeze to death. Oh yeah. I nearly freeze to death.

You had a very varied experience.

You're telling me. Then I had to start finding myself down to Brixton where they used to sell surplus army clothes and those clothes are good for wintertime. I used to wear those, oh yeah. All those good clothes I bought from home I was able to keep them.

So Reading has done you well?

Oh yeah. Reading hasn't done me too bad at all. I got no regrets. All the time I've been in Reading I was alright. I haven't got rich, but at the same time, I'm not a beggar. I don't have to beg for anything. I survive. I survived pretty well.

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