Photograph of Shirley Graham-Paul

Shirley Graham-Paul

Born: Not given

Kingston, Jamaica

Date of interview: 6th June 2006

Map showing where Shirley Graham-Paul came from

My full name is Shirley Graham-Paul.

Can you tell me when and where you were born?

I was born in Kingston Jamaica in October [year not stated]

And can you take me back now to your earliest childhood memories.

My earliest childhood memories are beautiful, brought up as an only child. My father was a sea man so he was at sea and come home, you know, in his leaves, so it was poor mother who had to cope with me, and I had lots of cousins so, then I had other children to play with as well but it was beautiful absolute bliss.

What age where you when you started at school Shirley?

... In the junior in the baby school I call it, we call it kindergarten, I could have been about four-ish, three four-ish and that's when you paid privately ... and then when I was five I went to ... no it was seven you went to the older school, the big school we call it and ... then ... the private education carried on. When I was eleven I was transferred to the senior school.

The educational system was really good and the teachers weren't like teachers today, they were very strict so you had to do as you're told. Also ... the competition between children, now they don't want you to compete, but in our time ... we competed with each other. and there were three of us, no two of us, a boy and myself, I remember vividly, we were counted as the best writers. So every Friday all the notice from the school would be given to us and we would write up and put it on the notice board ... And as an incentive of learning or ... you know being strong in your education ... at the weekend we offered it the best of my class, we got a prize. So it could be anything. It could be a book, it could be rulers, pens ... whatever, but it's an incentive to encourage each of us to do well.

Was it common for people to have ... continue having lessons, these private lessons you talked about after school?

It wasn't but I was fortunate. You know, my mother made sure and of course daddy ... was away but he looks after us.

Where did you live?

In Kingston, Jamaica.

What kind, what sort of place was it?

It's the basic. Just basic home. You know, but it was good ... And Mama had a helper who'd come in and do the ironing ... and she would do the cooking cause she enjoys cooking ... but all the washing and ironing would be done by this lady.

And how often did you see your father? You said he was away.

If he was away for ... three months then he would have shore leave and then he'd be home don't ask me how long cause I was too glad to see my father ... and I was spoiled rotten I can tell you, I was absolutely spoiled. I still have things that my father used to bring when he when he's coming back off the ship. He had these men at the ... at the pier that have a cart and daddy would shop for just about everything. This cart, including even material for making my school uniform came over. ... Handbags, my swimming costume ... everything. My mother, she had the same and then this chap would know exactly where we live and he'd deliver it so about the time daddy get home we would have it and I'm excited cause I can't wait to see daddy. And he was six foot three tall, well-built and this little girl adored my father cause he was a wonderful man.

So did he talk about where he travelled as a sea man?

No ... strangely enough. He was a very quiet person. And I think I've inherited that from him 'cause people say 'You're so easy going and so quiet.' He'd be whistling away, you'd hear him coming up whistling away or singing. And ... loves his newspaper, so he's sitting in the rocking chair reading away. And then my little job, which I loved when daddy was home was to go and get the ice, cause we didn't have fridge and freezers at that time. So you'd go to get the ice and bring it home and then my mum would make my father's drinks. So I enjoyed that.

Where did you have to go for the ice?

Just across the road. There was a shop that sells things across the road so you just go and get it.

Did you buy it then?

You had to.

What did you carry it in?

In a bag. You just get it in a bag and you bring it back.

You talked about going to school, coming back in the evening doing more studying. What did you do in your sort of leisure time?

The studying after school ... it was, it sometimes is there in the school so you have, say an hour what we call private lesson, one hour private lesson and that was it. So school would finish at three thirty then you have an hour to four thirty and you come home. So when you get home ... you know, the things also as ... what you wore to school had to come off and be hung up and then you have your plain clothes or your ordinary house clothes ... and then you'd meet with your friends. ... But then if there is homework ... mum would make sure you do that before you go playing [laughing] you see. So we had to do that as well.

And there were different [pause] types of ... clothing. Even now, I go to church and they say 'You are always so smart.' It's a custom; that clothes you wear to school it's totally different from the ones you come home and play in. And that's totally different from the ones you wear to church ... And that's how it was. You know, the same with Christmas. At Christmas you have, because it's sunny and it's bright, and in my time you had what we call Christmas market. So ... you would have a pretty Christmas dress and new shoes at Christmas market, which you would have worn to church anyway, and go down. And then ... on Boxing Day you'd have another dress but you have the same shoes. And then New Year's you get a nice new shoes and new dress again. So everybody looked forward to be dressing up. And that was really nice. I looked forward to that.

You were at Secondary school and you were studying there. What happened next? How long were you there and what did you do there?

We did what you called a ... what you called GC, GSE or GCC now ... was what we called Junior Cambridge and Senior Cambridge. Because ... they were
marked from England, Cambridge University so ... you had Junior C and that's what we did.

When did you leave the ... Senior School?

I left school, so then I started doing [pause] private work as well as shorthand and typing, we call it stenography at the time. And then because my friends were coming over to England and they said to my mum ... by then my father had passed on. [pause]

You were just telling me Shirley that your father passed away and that your friends were ... talking about coming to England. Why were they talking about that then?

I think it was to further our education. Because when you get to that age then it's very expensive for education and I didn't have a father. ... And mum never worked you see ... so this is why I did that. My aunty she came over as well ... and yes, after he'd died, because he was with the shipping company for so many years, mum had the widow's pension and was compensated very well.

What age was this? How would you be about, then?

I remember now ... about [pause] seventeen. Seventeen, eighteen.

So ... did you say you had an aunty here?

Yes, but she lived in London, in Stoke Newington.

And did your mum ... did you discuss coming over together or ... ?

Oh yes ... that would have been discussed with the two aunties and my mother. It wouldn't be me just making a decision.

So tell me what happened next?

So yes, the decision was taken and I came over. So I came to Slough.

Were you travelling alone?

Yes. I came by plane. People were coming by boat and we'd hear so many stories of what transpired on the boat and my mum said 'No, you're going by plane' and that was a long haul. Because those days the flight stopped in Newfoundland before we got to England, I think it could have been about nineteen hours flight or something like that ... with the stop.

So where did the plane take off from?

From Kingston. It was then the Palisadoes Airport. It was not Norman Manley as is called now. It was the Palisadoes Airport. And ... I remember not wanting to look out ... because ... and then classed as stoic, I just didn't want to see anyone to start crying ... so I looked out and they could see me and they waved but I was sort of ... holding back.

How did you prepare for the journey. What sort of luggage did you have with you?

... just the things that I would need. I didn't need a lot cause I could sew so I made my suit. I remember that. I went into town and got beautiful material and made a lovely suit. And ... again got a lovely pair of shoes and those days you had to wear your gloves.' 'Cause mum would say 'You're not fully dressed if you haven't the stockings, and your gloves and your hat' you see. So I had my hat. A friend, who is a milliner, she made the hat for me and I had this navy blue suit ... and the gloves were light blue and the shoes was navy blue and the hat was navy blue. I remember that [laughing]' cause it had to be right and it had to match.

When you arrived in England where did you live?


And what happened then?

It was rented accommodation. 'Cause in those there was still racism going on. If you looked black it wasn't easy to get somewhere to live. And it mainly the Asians who'd rent you somewhere ... So ... that's how we had to make do. It was a difference from what I left at home. Like a culture shock? ... what you left at home to be coming here ... and being that way. And ... it was all different islands lived in the place. But we all got on very well. So it wasn't a problem.

You're just talking about some differences there ... culture shock differences ... what sort of thing do you mean?

What I meant is ... is the way people are sort of ... they look at you and because you are of ... you know, different colour ... then it's strange for them. I remember I was being, I was being naughty, I remember going ... to the shops cause this friend, very dear friend she became, she was showing me the ropes. Her name is Linda. Her son is now a big opera singer here. And ... she said 'Come on, I'm showing you the town, showing you where to shop' and so on. So we went to the high street and ... poor dear me in my innocence, went in the shop, it's like a delicatessen, but at the same time it had another bit of the shop, so I wanted cheese and I wanted different things ... And I am in the queue and this woman kept serving everyone else and leaving me right there. And then when everyone else was served, then she came and she looked at me and she said 'Yes' ... so I said 'OK, I too can play this game'. So I ... pointed at some bacon down the end, I pretended I didn't understand English so I was dumb as well ... [laughing] and pointed at some bacon, nice choice bacon and she sliced it and I pointed at the cheese I wanted and she cut that and I pointed at various different things ... and she brought them and she, you know, went through the till, and then she's told me how much it was you know, and I said to her 'Fine, now you can put them back because I don't want them' and I walked out the shop. [laughing] That was my way of dealing with her racism. And I walked out. And I felt good about it. [laughing] Because that was ... you know, that was really telling me that she really didn't want me in the shop.

Then I remembered, ... no, we came to Reading then Cyril and I came to Reading and ... I remember the days of looking out the window, because the lights ... they were gas lit so these men in the suits, even those ones who cleaned the street wore suits ... and they would come at night and evenings and light this big pole and in the mornings again about six o'clock you watched them and they'd come and put it out as well. And I'm thinking ... 'This is interesting?'

Can I just take you back...So Cyril was your husband?

Yes. Children's father.

Anyway, got here and ... started to go to Reading Technical College ... and ... I wanted a part-time job, cause I had my youngest baby then. I didn't want to leave her so ... when he's home and I could go ... and do a part time job, when he's home I can go to college in the evenings. So I went to Boots. Boots had advertised for [pause] [coughing] an assistant ... and I went and asked for the manager and this very smart man came to the door and 'Yes'. And he wouldn't even ask me in. So I said 'You've advertised in the paper for this assistant ... and I'd like to apply. He said 'Actually, the job is taken'. I looked in the paper again and it was in the following week. So I went back and I said 'You're still advertising for the job' and he said 'Oh I'm sorry, they didn't take it out but it is taken.' Then I thought great, no problem. 'Cause the way I was brought up and that's me, my father was a man of principle, you develop a lot of the upbringing.

And then another friend, she were going to college and she was here and I said 'You know something, I would like to do nursing, I want to go in the nursing profession.' She said 'Are you sure' and I said 'Yes, ... they need nurses, they won't say no.' So I applied to do a nurse training and yes, I went for my test and what have you and passed. So ... when I was in what we call PTS then, you know, Pupil Training School. And one day I was going into Reading and I went and then I asked to see this manager again at Boots and I had my uniform on ... and I said to him 'Thank you for not letting me have that job because I'm now being trained as a nurse.' He never said a word. [laughing] Yes, just let me go back and show him. He did me a favour ... I thanked him.

Where were you doing your training?

It was a mixture of Wokingham, Taplow, Peppard ... and the Berks 'cause you seconded to different places at different times.

And was this a full time training?

Yes, yes. But then it was shared ... it wasn't agreed between my husband and myself and by then my mother was here. She came over a year after. So she was here to take care of the children. And ... when I'm off, we are devoted us, one thing, we are devoted to our children, my husband and myself.

How many children?

Three girls. Three girls. So ... that was good. And thankfully, ... I studied and passed my exams so then I went on further and I was qualified. I wanted to be a midwife because that really was my love. And I applied and yes, ... in those days it was part one and part two midwifery. So I did my part one midwifery in the Canadian Red Cross ... in Taplow ... lovely and ... oh what dedication in those teachers and tutors and nurses and we were just one big happy family. Yes, so ...

How long did that training take altogether?

Eighteen months. Yes, eighteen months. And of course I wouldn't stop ... so I decided to do what we call, it was then called, 'special care babies' course. But working on the ward, I found that very frustrating because we were so busy and you couldn't give the patients the time that they needed. I decided to come and work in the community, where it was my time ... even if I'm late, I was not leaving a patient unhappy. And that's what I wanted to do. So I worked in the community as a community midwife. That lasted ... twenty nine years. Because I loved it. I was being paid for my hobby. I just love children. So ... I then did my short teaching and clinical practice course so that I could have students as well in the community.

Have you seen many changes in midwifery over the years?

There are a lot of changes ... totally different to when I was midwife. But then it's today's world. Modern science and technology have taken over. And therefore, you know, we have to accept the changes because we're never going to go back to those days ... so it's just learning how to adapt them and work with them. And for the patient's benefit as well. [pause] So, I am quite open to science and technology and I'm not one of those who say 'no' to anything. [pause]

How old where you when you finished your community midwife?

I was examining in the surgery and one patient couldn't get off the bed, up to sit up so I helped her. And of course her weight pulled on my shoulder ... and I injured my shoulder. Now, I didn't ... those days was where you don't want to let your colleagues down because you know if you go off they'll be short. And I carried on working until it started to hurt a lot.

In the meantime, as I said to you, one of these that was for ever doing something community work, I was ... being trained ... I was doing the neo-natal bereavement counselling for mums who'd lost their babies. I was also studying with Lifeline pre and pregnancy abortion clinic, counselling ... I've finished these off. During that too ... I've trained in those I've decided ... my marriage is going to part anyway, and I thought ... let me do something different. So I was ... doing evenings ... evening study at Wokingham ... Counselling Service. One and only black counsellor in training. And I did counselling for three years and got my certificate.

Now ... it's like ... constantly pursuing my own ... educational challenges. And while I was working at the hospital also there were ... quite few sickle cell thalassaemia patients. I never stopped doing community work. So I was then involved in the national organisation for sickle sell anaemia research. So once I'd come to a meeting I said to them 'There is a need in Reading ... and there's one consultant haematologist seeing these patients. They might not be as many as Birmingham or London or what have you, but she's on her own and I feel that we should have a group supporting.' And they said 'Shirley, if you think there's a need we'll support you. Get it going, set it up and we'll come down' and so I did. And that's where we started. Reading had their own organisation for sickle cell anaemia. And that carried on until we had our first counsellor. I was trained and she was trained and another lassy was trained as counsellors.

What year was it when you started that?

'Eighty, I have the form ... I have a thing in there but I haven't got it off hand. It's still going on cause Trevor is now, he's one of the longest founder member and he's still carrying it on. I'll remember the date and get it and tell you anyway. So that is still going on. The programme was very good. We had our first conference at the Civic Centre.

There was another young lad who ... the whole family had the issue ... and I, because of confidentiality, I never ever mentioned anybody's name. I would go and see them in private and so on. And this poor dear wanted to be a mechanic and [pause] can't do that because he's ill. So I knew of two guys who owned a petrol station and car repairs and I went to ... and I said 'You know something. I am going to ask you a big favour. This young man ... it's not something that you can do ... but because he wants to live out this fantasy, do you mind employing him and ... ' one of them had a wicked sense of humour and he said 'Shirley, you're always asking me for so much'. So I said, 'Well ...' And he said 'ok, bring him along.' And I took him over there. And he was doing little bits ... and of course it got to the stage where he couldn't do ... you know, so they called me and they said 'You know something he won't be able to.' And I said 'Fair enough. At least he's had a taste of this fantasy and you've been good to help him to live that through.' Unfortunately, sicklers at that time didn't live very long. So he passed on. And ... We had from the organisation a fund [pause] to sort of set up a trust. But because I'd moved on from that I honestly don't know. And his father who was a sickler only died two years ago as well.

Tell me about your involvement in other projects in Reading?

You know the black mural, the mural along the wall. When you drive past and you see the nurse holding Mary Seacole? ... that's me. [laughing]

Tell us where the mural is exactly?

It's [pause] as you're coming over the IDR, on the right hand side, where all the black historians are ... Marcus Garvey, ... Queen Nefertiti, Mary Seacole and a lot of history's on that wall. At the moment they're wanting it down because you know, the place is closed. I've got the video of the launch of that mural, I still got it at home if you want to see it.' And it was the days when Tony Durant was then the MP ... a hard working man. So he's on the video as well. So she was very pleased ... So that's ... I had ... been working hard on Mary Seacole as well.

Tell us about that.

Mary Seacole is [pause] she's a lady of colour. She was mixed race. Her father was Scottish, her mother was Jamaican and ... her mother was also a ... nurse looking after the soldiers. And she ... wanted ... she helped her mother so she wanted to do this in the Crimean War. And I've got the book actually and I'll give you the book so you could well, let you have a read so you see the history of it. Yes, she ... funded herself and went off to the Crimean War. She was in the front line nursing all these soldiers and ... mixing up her potions from what her mother taught her and helping the soldiers. And then being ... the person, the business person her mother was, she set up her own little things of buying things and selling the soldiers to make them comfortable and what have you. And ... in that time ... she ... doing everything she got broke. No money. So she came back to England and tried to get some more money and when she went back ... by then Florence Nightingale was the known the person, but she was in the ... background you see. Mary Seacole was in the front line. And she applied to ... be trained with Florence Nightingale which wouldn't even give her an audience. And ... they refused because she was of colour, but that didn't stop her.

Can you imagine in those days somebody being so strong? So ... she came back again and it's a very long story. But ... she died here ... and actually they did a bust commissioned by one of the royal family's cousin. And that's in the book as well. She ... Well two ladies were doing their PhD in black history and they started researching Mary Seacole and they found her grave in Kensal Rise Cemetery. So ... they did a book similar to her own book Many Lands of Mary Seacole. We used go every year to the service and once we've found the grave. Now this grave was really ... was ... not cared for. And ... Connie Mark, myself and Val Laurence and we looked at each other and we said 'You know something? Something's got to be done here. Now that we know we've got to do. Bring her name forward'. So that's how we started. We started off as the Friends of Mary Seacole. Then this year, at the service it was our twenty fifth anniversary of forming, we've changed the name now to Mary Seacole Memorial Association.

Well, that's going on still. Having done all that ... Shirley couldn't stop. So Shirley ... decided [pause] she's going to [pause] she's going to do ... some other type of counselling. Cause I feel that's one of my gifts. So I was the first black counsellor in Reading again for doing ... Relate training. Marital counselling and couple counselling and so on.

This was voluntary work that you took up, was it Shirley?

Yes, you had to be trained for four years. And then you'd give them back the time because they pay for your training. So after you've done the time then you've got to give them back their time and then you start being paid. So I started doing that voluntarily but, our folks abuse the situation, it's free so they come for a little while and they feel good and they don't even tell you they're not coming back. So you're sitting there ... wasting an hour and I thought no, I don't know if this is what I'm meant to be doing. So I left that.

You were telling me recently you were involved in the carnival. How did you get involved in that? In the West Reading Carnival.

Yes, ... this new committee that has been formed, I was also one of the trustees for the Barbados and Friends Association. I thought ... now they ... after we had the Mary Seacole the big year last year, ... a lot of the members from that, the committee members are with the carnival committee so I was invited to join them. So we had a Mary Seacole float for the carnival ... it was just a beautiful carnival this year. It's first we've had so many floats for a long time. Although it was raining and the weather was up down, up down, you had sleet, you had snow ... sleet and you name it ... rain. People were enjoying themselves and ... yes it was very good. So we had our ... sort of what we call ... postmortem meeting on Friday and the majority of the feedback was so good ... so we're heading for a better one next year. We're also now in the planning stages of another Mary Seacole event ... for Black History Month again, which is just ... we've just had one meeting with one of the people that are going to help us.

This is a local event. The Black History Month, in October?

Yes, and we're hoping to do that every year now ... to ... make Mary Seacole awareness known. And also other black history, historians in other words. [pause] I've got, as I said I've got the video of the mural, I've got the Mary Seacole Black History Month Video that we had, last year. I've got a photograph and the mural and the video of the children last year at the Battle Library and the Oxford Road primary school. Those children ... the teachers are fantastic. They were so well informed that they were just answering those questions from the poet, we had a poet there from Slough. And he did all this teaching and poetry and different things. And those children was so ... well informed. And as you know, I don't know if you know it, but that school has a lot of mix multinational children. It was really, really interesting.

You said that you actually appear on the mural painted on the central club wall. Did you have to pose for that painting? How did that happen?

Yes, the young man who did that work, he was then ... lecturing, I think he's in Leicester or Birmingham. He's on the video so I'll remember his name when I see the video. And ... yes, he ... we wanted just Mary Seacole's picture on it, but it wasn't big enough and he said to me 'Because you're a nurse, why don't you come down, hold the picture and then we'll take a photograph and then put it on.'

In between that, again, I was a member of the Board of Visitors at Huntercombe Young Offenders Institution that's in Nettlebed, as I said before, children are my focus. Teenagers are my focus. And we are so fortunate that you say 'There but for the grace of God, our children are fine'. A lot of the children that are youngsters that are in those institutions, they just need parenting. Or they've got in the wrong company. So ... most times my rule was being like a mother. It doesn't matter what race, what colour, what social class.

You've been involved in lots of different community work and you work in the community as a professional midwife. Over the years where do you get your energy and drive from?

Only the good Lord knows. I don't. Having just finished this one and finished the Carnival and ... now embarking on the Black History Month, October to come. But my time of leisure is ... plants, gardening, going for boat rides, I just get on the boat down the river ... and it's peaceful and is calm. I will go up to Goring and I just sit there, on my own. I'll go for a nice long walk. That's my time. I do meditate a lot. I do get involved in my church a lot. That keeps me going ... definitely. I do a listening group in the church as well for people who have needs. I do that too. But they're ways of having time for myself. I call it 'me time.' So I haven't got to be steeped in it all the time.

How long have you lived in this country?

[pause] about [pause] nearly fifty years.

And do you ever go back? Do you go to visit Jamaica?

Yes. But I haven't got any relatives there. They're either here or in the States. But ... two years ago ... I didn't tell you that one either, I'm involved in a Jamaica Diaspora, you know the links with England and Jamaica. So two years ago, I went to that conference there ... There's another conference coming up in the next ... two weeks ... which some have formed the Diaspora group as well here in Reading. So that is up and running now as well.

Did you ever feel you would go back to live in Jamaica or did you always feel that you made your home here?

I have no ties there. To say, my children are here, my grandchildren are here ... so this is home. I have no reason ... to say well, you know, it means making new friends, it means having new people around. Where here ... and there's me and I'm accepted as me. [pause] so this where I feel, you know, I ... I belong. But it doesn't stop me knowing I was born there. It doesn't stop me going back ... and ... not only going back there but I see myself as a Caribbean person too. Cause I visit the other islands. I get involved in things with the other islands. Because ... the world might look large but it is very small. If we take time out to love each other and to care for each other ... it's a small world.

Add your own comment